France: Movement debates next steps in resistance to government attacks

By Chris Latham

November 14, 2010 -- Green Left Weekly -- President Nicolas Sarkozy enacted a new law on November 10 that increases the retirement age of French workers. The move came just days after more than a million workers and students mobilised across France against the law.

The November 6 protests were the eighth national strike and protests since September 7 against the bill — although it was the easily the smallest of the mobilisations.

The protest highlighted the depth of ongoing popular anger over the changes, which were pushed through parliament on October 27. However, the decline in the size of the protests reflects growing divisions in the movement over its direction now the law has been passed.

Sarkozy enacted the law just hours after it had been approved by the Constitutional Council. There had been hopes among some union leaders and left groups that the council would reject the bill.

Inter-union coordinating committee, which united eight national union federations and which called the mobilisation, about 1.2 million people attended protests in 243 cities and towns on November 6. This was down 40% on the size of the last day of action on October 28 and a decline of 65% on the largest protests of 3.5 million on October 12 and 19.

Numbers were down across France, but the largest declines occurred in big cities such as Paris (where 90,000 took part, compared with 170,000 on October 28).

The government and its supporters have sought to convince people that the drop in protester numbers (the interior ministry claimed only 375,000 took part) showed that the movement was essentially over.

Sarkozy's support drops

However, this appears to be wishful thinking on the part of the government. Sarkozy’s support in the polls has fallen below 30%, the lowest level ever for a French president. Popular sentiment against the pension changes remains high, with 70% of people, including 74% of young people, opposed to the law.

It is also unclear whether the government will be in a position to push through further attacks on working people’s living standards before the 2012 elections. However, it is likely to try smaller attacks against marginalised sections of the population.

These will be aimed at paving the way for broader attacks and also at winning support from more conservative sections of society.

There has undoubtedly been a sharp decline in the size of the anti-pension law protests. But New Anti-Capitalist Party executive committee member Sandra Demarcq said in Tous Est a Nous! on November 3 that the struggle has brought a large new layer of militants into the struggle — who she said would not easily be discouraged.

This is reflected in the fact that the size of the November 6 mobilisation was still larger than the three national mobilisations against the reform in March and May.

There are other explanations for the declining size of protests other than public acceptance of the law. A key factor was the decision by the inter-union committee on October 21 to slow the pace of mobilisations and withdraw support for the indefinite affecting a wide range of industries. This decision was made one day before the Senate passed the law.

These decisions clearly helped sap the movement’s confidence. Then, in the lead-up to the November 6 strike, the committee met on November 4 and failed to issue a clear call for a new mobilisation after November 6.

Instead, the committee said there would be more, unspecified, action in the week beginning November 22.

Direction debated

The lack of clear direction from national union leaderships has undermined the movement, but it hasn’t undermined the combativeness of French workers. Localised struggles have continued over wages and conditions. A four-day strike by pilots and other airline staff began on November 5 over plans to tax allowances and benefits.

The indecision of the committee has lead to growing public disagreements among its members over the campaign’s direction. On November 6, Liberation reported the views of a range of union leaders.

Francois Chereque, secretary general of the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT), argued that it was a “dream” to believe Sarkozy could be forced to back down, and that the movement would slowly move away from a focus on pensions and onto other demands.

The leadership of National Union of Autonomous Unions (UNSA) warned other unions against “forms of action that do not correspond to the situation” and that it said might cause a collapse of investment.

Jean-Claude Mailly, general secretary of Workers’ Force (FO), said the movement’s decline was a sign that the conduct of the movement was a mess.

Bernard Thibault, general secretary of the General Confederation of Labour (CGT), told the November 6 l’Humanite “that if it proved impossible to continue the battle over pensions with a unified effort of all unions, the CGT would continue the fight with those who want continue” — including alone if needed.

Thibault’s main focus is positioning the movement to conduct negotiations over the implementation of pension changes when they come into effect on July 1, 2011.

The inter-union committee met on November 8 and called a new day of multi-facetted actions for November 23. This call was not signed by either French Confederation of Christian Workers (CFTC) or the French Confederation of Management – General Confederation of Executives (CFE-CGC).

FO released a statement that day criticising other unions for not supporting its argument at the November 4 meeting for a 24-hour strike in the public and private sectors aimed at expanding the movement. FO said it would not take part in the committee meeting, but reaffirmed its commitment to build the movement’s forces through a process of resistance.

The CFTC issued a statement on November 9 that said, with the law close to being enacted, the time for demonstrations was over. The CFTC said it would instead look to engage with government over its concerns with the law in 2013, which has been specified in the law as a new period for reviewing the pension system.

In contrast, the militant union federation Solidaires issued a statement on November 10. Solidaires argued that the early days of action against the pension bill in March, May and June were too far apart. Yet despite this, they had a growing resonance.

However, it said, it was only in the indefinite strikes, which Solidaires had argued for from the outset, that had the opportunity to knock the employers by blocking the economy.

Indefinite strikes were initiated by workers in refineries, rail, road transport, officials from the state and the hospital, local authorities, waste, energy, and many other sectors.

These workers held out for several weeks hoping for the strike wave would spread. However, only Solidaires and the United Union Federation (FSU) supported extending these strikes to other sectors and the strikes had to be suspended.

The Solidaires statement expressed its support for continuing collective action at the local level and for workers to “seize November 23 as a day to make their voices heard again”.

The moderate unions have shifted the terrain of struggle towards modifying the law and hoping it will be repealed if there was a change of government after the 2012 elections. However, the far-left parties have warned the movement of the dangers of relying on elections rather than the mobilisation of members.

Demarcq argued that the movement could “rebound in other forms, other struggles”. But she warned: “Many of us know that the solution to our problems is not the perspective of a plural left government in 2012, headed by the Parti socialiste [Socialist Party, the French equivalent of the Labor Party] … who, when it has a majority, implement de facto right-wing policies, such as in Greece or Spain.

“It is in our struggles to make those that caused the crisis to pay for it, sowe can forge the power capable of challenging capitalism.”

The public debate that has emerged robbed the movement of the appearance of unity. But it reveals the real disagreements that have made it impossible for the movement to build the momentum to the level needed to win.

The hope is that through an ongoing, open discussion, real unity in action can be achieved.

[This article first appeared in Green Left Weekly, Australia's leading newspaper. Chris Latham maintains, which carries commentary and translations on workers’ struggles in France and elsewhere.]