The May-June movement and its aftermath

By Murray Smith

Murray Smith is an international officer of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) and a leader of the International Socialist Movement (ISM), a Marxist current within it.


The government goes on the offensive

The teachers' strike

The 'interpros'

A contradictory outcome

`Chirac's rotten summer'

A government in disarray

In the months of May and June 2003, France experienced the biggest wave of strikes and demonstrations since the historic general strike of May 1968. On several occasions millions of workers struck and demonstrated against the government of Jean-Pierre Raffarin. Their demand was for the withdrawal of the Fillon Plan, a project for pension reform that would put an end to the right to retire at sixty with a decent pension. At the same time, teachers and other workers in education were fighting a project of decentralisation, a first step towards breaking up the state education system.

The Fillon Plan was the first major offensive of the right-wing government, which had come to power a year earlier. On April 21, 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the candidate of the far-right National Front, came second in the presidential election and went into the second round run-off against the incumbent president, Jacques Chirac. On May 5 millions voted not for Chirac but against Le Pen, giving Chirac, who had received only nineteen per cent in the first round, a whopping eighty-two per cent. In the wake of his election, on a low turnout the following month's parliamentary elections gave an unimpressive victory to the right-wing parties over a dazed and demoralised Socialist-Communist-Green bloc. Jean-Pierre Raffarin became prime minister. Thus the French right found itself, rather to its surprise, in control of the key levers of political power in France—the presidency and the upper and lower houses of Parliament—for the first time since 1995. Nevertheless, in the first instance Chirac and Raffarin moved cautiously, aware of the very particular circumstances of their election.

Perhaps in other circumstances they would have remained cautious. But circumstances didn't allow them to. Pressure was coming from both the European Union and the French employers' organisation, the MEDEF. Chirac and his then prime minister and presidential rival Socialist Lionel Jospin had undertaken at the EU summit in Barcelona in March 2002 to do two things: raise the retirement age and privatise the state electricity and gas company EDF-GDF. It was time to deliver. Meanwhile the MEDEF, through its aggressive and vocal president, Baron Ernest-Antoine Seillière, was calling for a full-scale attack on the public sector and the welfare state, in implementation of its program of "social refoundation", and criticising the government for dragging its feet.

For many years the French right has suffered from an inferiority complex. Over the last two decades, governments of right and left have succeeded in imposing important parts of the neo-liberal project. They have privatised, introduced flexible working, spread job insecurity and restructured industry, destroying in the process sectors that were bastions of the unions and the Communist Party. But every time they have been faced with mass protests they have backed down. And in this respect the right has been no more resolute than the left.

The government goes on the offensive

Consequently the hard core of the public services and the welfare state are still intact. It is this hard core that Chirac and Raffarin are now setting out to attack. That what we are faced with is a general offensive, is underlined by the fact that the government has adopted an unprecedented battery of repressive legislation and is deploying the full force of the law against those who oppose it. The imprisonment of peasant leader José Bové, which attracted worldwide attention, was only the tip of the iceberg. A whole series of trade union and other militants have been prosecuted for what would previously have been considered legitimate protest. New legislation directed against illegal immigrants also criminalises anyone who helps them.

In launching its plan for pension reform, the government no doubt anticipated massive protests. On the other hand, there was no danger of a political challenge. The Socialist Party had still not recovered from the hammering it had taken in the previous year's elections, and in any case was in fundamental agreement with the right about what needed to be done. The Communist Party was severely weakened and politically rudderless. And the ten per cent of the vote won by three revolutionary socialist candidates in 2002 had not been translated into a credible political alternative.

The unions would of course organise protests against the government's measures. But as subsequent events showed, if Raffarin had calculated that opposition from that quarter would stop short of an all-out fight to make the government back down, he would have been right.

So prudently but firmly, Raffarin moved forward with his different projects. Reaction was not slow in coming. EDF workers called a demonstration on October 3: 80,000 took part, including workers from other sectors like Air France and the railways. On October 17 came the first of a series of one-day teachers' strikes against budget cuts, staffing reductions and the decentralisation project. On November 26 a rail workers' demonstration was joined by many other public sector workers.

The first spectacular setback for Raffarin came in January. A prerequisite for privatisation of EDF is to change its pension system, which prevents the company from showing a profit. A referendum was organised and to almost everyone's surprise, and against the recommendation of the two main unions (the CGT and the CFDT), a majority of EDF employees rejected the proposal. This was widely seen not just as a rejection of the reform but as a protest against the planned privatisation. The government announced it would go ahead anyway, but its authority had been weakened.

The first massive national demonstration against the Fillon Plan occurred on Saturday, February 1. The basic elements of the plan were that workers would have to work and make pension contributions for longer in order to be able to retire with a full pension. The intention was to increase the number of years required for pension eligibility from 37.5 to forty in the public sector to match the private sector, and then to increase them to forty-two for everyone. Furthermore, the method of calculating the earnings-based pension has been changed so that pensioners will get less.

The increase to forty-two years means that hardly anyone will be able to retire at the present retirement age of sixty. In particular, anyone having pursued their studies for several years after leaving school (the majority of young people today) will have to work until well into their sixties. Secondly, forced early retirement is extremely widespread in private industry, usually from the age of fifty-five onwards. The average age at which people actually retire in France is 58.7. Consequently, workers who fell short of their forty-two years, either because they were given early retirement or because they wanted to retire at sixty, would have severely reduced pensions. And that is where the real sting in the tail comes in. The only way to be sure of a decent pension would be to pay into a pension fund, the development of which is a basic aim of the MEDEF. The result would be that those who could afford to would do so, and those who couldn't would spend their old age in abject poverty.

This two-speed society is fundamental to the neo-liberal project. What is being applied to pensions today will be applied to health tomorrow and education the day after. There will be a low quality minimum guarantee in the public sector, and if you want quality, it will be private health insurance, pension funds and school fees. As former Tory minister Virginia Bottomley once put it, "If you want a good life, you have to pay for it".

One of the most striking aspects of the May-June movement was the extent to which large numbers of people understood this. One of the catch phrases of the movement was "choice of society". People understood what kind of society was being prepared for them, and they didn't want it.

Raffarin's technique was to engage the union leaderships in months of futile discussions while the law was being prepared. They fell into the trap. A second big day of action was called for April 3, this time on a working day. Hundreds of thousands struck and demonstrated. In retrospect, it is now quite clear that the strategy of the union leaders was to punctuate their discussions with the government with these days of action and at the end present their members with the concessions they had been able to extract. There was no real will or strategy to force the government to back down.

Two things happened to complicate this schema. In the first place, Raffarin wasn't in the business of making concessions, and he would have dropped his plan only if he had been confronted with a full-scale general strike. The significance of that was not lost on Seillière, who said in an interview after the movement, "For the first time in decades the will to reform of a government carried the day against negative, corporatist, extremist reactions of refusal and blockage".

Secondly, the teachers' strike erupted. One of the reasons was that teachers would be among those most affected by the pension reform. But even more important was their opposition to the decentralisation project. Behind the innocuous-sounding term of "decentralisation" was the proposal to take 110,000 non-teaching staff out of the state education system and transfer them to local authorities, who would have no obligation to allocate them to schools, opening the door to privatisation of everything from cleaning to careers advice.

The teachers' strike

The eruption of the teachers' strike complicated the situation. In the first place, it was completely outside of the control of the big confederations (CGT, CFDT, FO [Force Ouvrière]) and indeed to a large extent of the main teaching union, the FSU. Secondly, the fact that one sector had come out on all-out strike acted as a focus for the most militant layers everywhere, those who would soon be pushing for a general strike.

The decentralisation plan went through parliament in March, before anyone realised what was happening. But teachers had already been mobilising for several months. The first strikes began in the Bordeaux area on March 17, and the dynamic was maintained throughout the Easter holidays, although since these holidays are staggered on a regional basis, between April 5 and May 5 schools were closed in some regions. Once everyone was back on May 5, the strike really took off. It was organised by general assemblies of striking teachers and other education workers and supported by the unions, especially the FSU. It took the form of a permanent strike by a large minority punctuated by regular (once or twice a week) days of action where a big majority came out. The government was probably not expecting a reaction on this scale, but it stood its ground.

Militancy among teachers had been building up for several years. Once a solid base of support for the Socialist Party, teachers were seriously disillusioned by the 1997-2002 Jospin government. In the spring of 1998 a teachers' strike in the militant Seine Saint-Denis department, massively supported by parents and pupils, forced the government to unblock resources it said it didn't have. Two years later a national mobilisation claimed the scalp of Jospin's minister of education, Claude Allègre, who had arrogantly proclaimed that he was going to "slim down the mammoth", as he called the education system.

A key feature of this strike was that the shock troops were young teachers between 20 and 30, in their majority women. They employed tactics such as occupations of public buildings, blocking roads and similar actions that were something of a break from the more traditional methods of teachers' trade unionism. All over the country, neighbourhood meetings were organised by striking teachers and parents' organisations that supported them. The debates that took place on pension reform and decentralisation and the coherence between the government's different projects helped to win the majority of public opinion (which held at over sixty per cent throughout the movement, and indeed afterwards) to opposition to the government's measures and support of the movement.

The teachers' strike served as a catalyst for the rest of the movement. When the main unions called the next day of action on May 13, it was absolutely massive, with several million on strike and two million marching in demonstrations. On May 14 and 15 rail (SNCF) and Paris public transport workers (RATP) stayed out. These were sectors that everyone looked to because of the leading role they had played in the 1995 strike movement that forced the government of Alain Juppé to back down. If they had stayed out, they would have been joined by other sectors. But the leadership of the main union, the CGT, pulled out all the stops to force the rail, bus and underground workers back to work, explaining that the next steps in its strategy were a big mass demonstration on Sunday, May 25, and a new one-day strike on June 3, letting it be understood that if the government didn't back down, that would be the time for an all-out general strike. Meanwhile, on May 15, the other main confederation, the CFDT, broke ranks, did a deal with the government and accepted the Fillon Plan in return for marginal amendments to it. But a large minority of the CFDT violently denounced their leaders and stayed in the movement.

The `interpros'

May 25 was massive, and a call from the unions could still have led to a general strike, which more and more workers were demanding. Some other sectors were joining the teachers in their ongoing strike. This was particularly the case with local government workers and some state employees. After every day of action, militant minorities in the SNCF and RATP stayed out, hoping to draw in other sectors.

A new feature of the movement began to develop: the appearance of what were known as "interpro" (short for "interprofessional") assemblies. Centred on the sectors that were permanently on strike, and often initiated by teachers, they also involved the other sectors, those who came out only for the big days of action. They involved both rank-and-file strike assemblies and representatives of unions. In many areas these "interpro" structures acted independently of the national union leaderships and actively pushed to extend the strike, and they sometimes succeeded. This was particularly the case in areas like Marseilles, Clermont-Ferrand (home of the Michelin tyre factories), St. Nazaire (shipbuilding) and Nantes. In these areas there were incipient regional general strikes.

Nevertheless, the leaders stubbornly refused to put their authority behind a strike call. Further massive one-day strikes took place on June 3 and 10. But the movement was at an impasse. CGT leader Bernard Thibault was booed at a mass rally in Marseilles on June 12 when he formally ruled out a call for a general strike. There was one final day of action on June 19, which was much less massive than previous ones. Nevertheless a final series of defiant demonstrations involved about 350,000, the hard core of the movement. Nothing had been gained except the cancellation on June 10 of 20,000 of the threatened job transfers in education. And the government hastily withdrew a plan for university reform when students began to mobilise.

From the point of view of its immediate results, the movement was clearly less successful than the last big strike movement in November-December 1995. Nevertheless, for a number of reasons, May-June 2003 was a more significant movement than 1995.

In the first place, it involved larger numbers and broader sections of workers. 1995 was essentially a strike by the public sector, with sympathy from the private sector but only symbolic participation. This time significant sectors of private industry came out, though not on all-out strike.

In France public sector workers have strong job security and little risk of being sacked for striking. That is not the case in the private sector. In 1968 the unions never called for a general strike, but they were outflanked by the rank and file, and the strike spread spontaneously. But 1968 came after twenty years of the postwar boom, with full employment and stronger unions. More than twenty years of high unemployment and short-term contracts have led to a situation of what has been called "social insecurity". Workers were not willing to take the risk of coming out on strike without solid union backing. This was true not only of the private sector but of sectors like the post office, where a quarter of the work force are now not public employees but work on contracts which give them no security of employment. Nevertheless, many of these workers did come out on the national days of action or when local unions called them out, and they solidarised with those who were on strike. That and the wide support of parents and many other workers employed in small non-union workplaces is why it is correct to talk about "the movement of May-June" rather than "the strike" or "strikes". The movement was much broader than the number of workers who were on strike at any one moment.

The second noteworthy aspect of the movement was its extremely political nature. This was the case on two levels. In the first place, when Raffarin tried to discredit the movement by calling it political, the reaction of many workers was: yes, of course it's political; here is a government trying to put through a political measure and we're opposing it, that's political. But it was also the case on a deeper level, in terms of the widespread understanding that what was involved was a "choice of society". In this respect, the fact that two reforms were going through at once helped to make the big picture clearer, especially when privatisation of electricity and gas and a reform of the health insurance system had already been announced.

This political character of the movement was denied by the union leaderships, with the exception of the small G10 Solidarity federation. In an interview on June 5, Christophe Le Duigou, number two of the CGT, explicitly stated, "We don't have the political aim of defeating the government", and insisted on the trade union dimension of the struggle. This was a thoroughly disastrous attitude faced with a government determined to force through its measures. François Fillon had every reason to pay tribute to the CGT at the end of the movement for its "reasonable attitude" and "responsible opposition". Many CGT members saw things somewhat differently.

A contradictory outcome

The result of the movement of May-June was a victory for the government and a defeat for the movement. But there are different degrees of victories and defeats, and there exist several criteria for judging them. First of all there is an objective one, the application of measures that are adopted. There is no doubt that the Fillon Plan and the decentralisation measures will have detrimental effects if they are applied. However there is also the subjective aspect. How is the defeat experienced? Is it felt as a crushing defeat that discourages future struggles, or does it on the contrary act as a spur to future battles?

The answer to those questions already seemed clear at the end of June. The militant core of the movement was not demoralised, disinclined to fight again. The feeling was that a battle had been lost but not the war, which was in fact the case. We can say that the outcome was contradictory. In the short term, of course, the government won. But its victory has to be qualified. To call it Pyrrhic would be overly optimistic, but it was certainly costly, and in obtaining it the government weakened itself. In the first place the movement mobilised a resistance that was always latent and that had showed itself on several occasions from October 2002 onwards. The scale of the movement shook the government, and it owed its victory to the policy of the union leaderships and the absence of serious political opposition. Secondly, the feeling that the government was illegitimate, that it did not have a mandate for what it was doing, came to the surface. Raffarin never managed to win the support of public opinion for his policies. Thirdly, the movement has mobilised and politicised a whole new generation of young workers.

'Chirac's rotten summer'

Subsequent events have amply confirmed both the continuing strength of resistance and the damage done to the government. Traditionally not much happens on the political and industrial front in France in July and August. But that was certainly not the case in 2003. Somewhat overshadowed by the broader movement, a measure adopted by the government made it much harder for actors, musicians and other workers in the theatrical profession and the audiovisual media, such as technicians, to get unemployment payments when not working. This immediately provoked a strike that quickly spread and led to the cancellation of many of the theatre and music festivals that take place in many towns over the summer, including two of the biggest and most prestigious of them, in Avignon and Aix-en-Provence. Significantly, teachers and other participants in the May-June movement actively supported the strike.

The press began talking about "Chirac's rotten summer". It got a bit more rotten on July 6, when voters in Corsica rejected an administrative reform in a referendum. The Corsican national question was one element in the vote, but Corsica was a bastion of the May-June movement, and many voters simply seized the occasion to vote against the government.

Then, at the beginning of August, France, like most of Europe, was hit by a massive heatwave, with constant temperatures of 40°C. As a result, 15,000 people, mostly old people, died. They died in their own homes, they died waiting for treatment in overcrowded hospitals, they died in retirement homes without air conditioning. In spite of the government's contemptible attempts to put the blame on families who supposedly neglected their aged parents, the real responsibility was clear to see. It lay in the state of the health service: not enough health visitors to check on the well-being of old people living at home; overcrowded and understaffed hospitals; retirement homes without adequate resources. The government's failure to react as the crisis developed made the situation worse, and as the extent of the human disaster gradually came to light, people reacted with anger and outrage. The whole episode graphically illustrated the effects of neo-liberal policies on the health service. It also further discredited a government shown to be incapable of reacting as the crisis unfolded.

From August 8 to 10, in the middle of the heatwave, more than 300,000 people took part in a massive gathering on the Larzac Plateau in southern France, organised by ATTAC France and the Confédération paysanne (the radical peasants' union, whose main spokesperson is José Bové). It had been planned as a fairly modest event, to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the successful struggle of the peasants of the plateau to prevent their farms being expropriated to extend a military base. It was also aimed at challenging the agenda of the World Trade Organisation meeting in Cancun in September. But the overall political context in France turned it into a massive event, a focal point for all those who had been in the May-June movement. The gathering was addressed by José Bové, recently released from prison after serving a sentence for destroying genetically modified crops.

A government in disarray

José Bové promised the government a "burning September", and many on the left hoped the movement would quickly take off again. That was certainly a little too optimistic. After a movement on the scale of May-June, a certain amount of time is necessary to draw the lessons and prepare for fresh battles. But what was clear in September was the disarray of the government. According to the timetable announced in spring 2003, Raffarin should by now be forging ahead with a neo-liberal reform of health insurance and moving to privatise EDF-GDF. The reform of health insurance has been postponed, for how long is not clear, though in the meantime the government is allowing the deficit to skyrocket to support its argument that a reform is necessary. As for privatisation of EDF-GDF, Raffarin has a problem which I will come back to.

Clearly afraid of provoking a new social movement, the government is dithering. It doesn't know whether to repeal the law on the 35-hour week or not. It has put off the transfer of personnel out of the national education system till January 2005. It cancelled a proposed cut in student housing allowances. Raffarin is being pressured to stay on the offensive by hard-liners in his own party and by the ever-present Seillière, who has declared: "A wind of reform is blowing, but not hard enough". But a wind of revolt is also blowing, and the government is caught between the two.

Raffarin is in free fall in the opinion polls. There is open speculation about him being replaced. And for the first time, the popularity of Chirac, who won popular approval earlier this year for not kowtowing to Washington over Iraq, is also falling. The government is under pressure from the EU to reduce its budget deficit and is facing two election campaigns in the first half of 2004regional in March, European in June. No wonder Raffarin warned his mps at the start of the new parliamentary session this autumn: "If there's a shipwreck, we will all go down together".

However, dithering and discredited or not, the government will be forced to make new frontal attacks. It is already making piecemeal ones, and continuing to strengthen its arsenal of repressive legislation. Right-wing intellectuals are trying to prepare the ground by launching a campaign on the theme of "France in decline".

As everyone anticipates future confrontations, the question is how to win next time. There will be many repercussions from the movement. Shock waves are being felt in the unions. There have been large-scale collective walkouts from the CFDT towards other unions. In the CGT, there has been much questioning by activists of the confederation's role in May-June. But on a mass level, the CGT is still seen as having supported the movement. The first important elections for shop stewards since May-June have just taken place in the health sector. The result was a sharp fall in support for the CFDT and corresponding gains for the CGT and SUD, which have both welcomed former CFDT members. The FSU, which already has some members outside education, is also benefiting from the crisis in the CFDT. One key element for the future will be to maintain and strengthen the inter-union links at local level that were such a positive feature in May-June.

The role that the CGT plays in the future will be of decisive importance. For the moment, there are contradictory signs. On the one hand, the confederation has been discreetly renewing contacts with the CFDT, to which it is linked via the European Trade Union Confederation, an organisation that has consistently accompanied the EU's neo-liberal policies. For the first time since 1970, the CGT has signed a national agreement with the government. It covers professional training and is part of the government's drive to further increase flexibility of working conditions. This was a much-needed boost for Raffarin and was welcomed by the government, the press and the CFDT as a confirmation of the "constructive" reformist orientation that the CGT has embarked on over the last several years. However more than thirty per cent of the CGT's national confederal council opposed signing, an indication of continuing opposition to the reformist line.

The strength of such opposition was shown at the Biarritz congress of the CGT Mines-Energy Federation, which covers gas and electricity workers. The outgoing general secretary, Denis Cohen, who had supported the government's reform of the pension system last January, was not even allowed to speak. A new leadership was elected, including some hard-line opponents of the outgoing leadership, organised in the "Biarritz 2003 Platform". The new general secretary, Frédéric Imbrecht, stated the federation's uncompromising opposition to privatisation of EDF-GDF. This was fully backed up by CGT general secretary Bernard Thibault in his speech to the congress. The perspective of a broad political campaign against privatisation was raised, including a challenge to the government to hold a referendum. Raffarin, who is under pressure to privatise EDF-GDF in the framework of the opening of the European energy market, was waiting for the outcome of the congress before moving. It cannot have reassured him. Now the CGT leadership will be under pressure to deliver on its promise of opposition to privatisation and its threat of a "major confrontation" on the question. If it does, and if a real campaign is waged, the government could be in serious trouble.

Whatever takes place on the social front, it will be necessary to address the question of building a political alternative to the traditional left. The May-June movement sharply underlined the urgency of such an alternative. Both the Socialist and Communist parties formally opposed the government's measures, the Socialist Party albeit quite hesitantly, aware that it would have done much the same in office. But neither of them played any role in the movement, their opposition being essentially limited to a belated and ineffectual campaign of parliamentary amendments.

Although revolutionary socialist organisations, especially the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire [LCR] and Lutte Ouvrière [LO], played an important role in the movement, none of them can claim on their own to represent an alternative, which will require a process of anti-capitalist regroupment. There are some encouraging moves in this direction. In Marseilles, "capital" of the May-June movement, activists are organising around an "Appeal for a new anti-capitalist force", which involves representatives of the LCR, a series of currents from a Communist Party background and trade union and community activists. On a national level, discussions between LO and the LCR for joint lists in the regional and European elections are at an advanced stage. If agreement is reached, it will give millions of electors the chance to give political expression to their rejection of the pro-capitalist neo-liberal policies of both the government and the opposition Socialist Party. And in spite of LO's hostility to the perspective of a new, broad anti-capitalist party, a strong vote for LO-LCR lists would make such a perspective both more urgent and more credible.