Sarkozy terrified by French workers’ movement to defend pensions

Class struggle is hitting France in a big way, as Tuesday 12th and Saturday 16th October saw the seventh and eighth day of action to defend retirement pensions. Demonstrators in their thousands ran down the Paris boulevards on Saturday chanting “All together, General strike!”  Two hundred and forty demonstrations were organized on each day across France along with mass strikes in transport, electricity, oil, airports, telecoms, education, and the civil service. The unions say there were three and a half million demonstrators Tuesday ; the government say a million and a quarter, but even one of the police staff associations said the government was fiddling the figures.

For the first time, students and school students joined the pensions struggle in large numbers, concerned both about their parents, and that later retirement for older workers means fewer jobs for the young. According to polls, eighty four per cent of 18 to 24 year olds think the strikers are right. “Sarkozy, you're screwed, the youth is on the street,” was the chant in Toulouse in the South West. Two days later the number of high schools involved in the strike had risen from 200 to 700. As young people moved into action, government ministers squealed that fifteen-year-olds were too young to demonstrate and strike, that they must be being manipulated. This from a government whose justice minister recently proposed to lower to twelve years old the age at which a young person can be imprisoned for committing a crime!

The movement is not just a series of one-day strikes controlled by union leaders. Since last Wednesday, daily striker meetings in the most active sectors vote each day on continuing the strike for 24 hours more.  Already, all of the twelve oil refineries in France have taken up these “renewable strikes”, half of the country’s trains are not running, and some libraries and school canteens are closed, while in other sectors hundreds of mass meetings are being held to decide on next steps. Lorry drivers have started blocking industrial zones in solidarity with the movement despite the fact that they themselves can retire at 55. One of the leaders of the drivers pointed out that drivers care about  what happens to the support and administrative workers in transport firms, who are mostly women, and don’t get early retirement like the drivers do. Dockers in Marseilles have walked out, too and another national day of strikes and demonstrations for everyone is planned for Tuesday 19th.

Union members make up under ten per cent of French workers, though many millions more vote for union representatives as staff reps on works committees, and in polls 53% of the population and 60% of manual workers say they trust unions. The result of low union density is that most workplaces are only partly unionized, so regular meetings where everyone can express themselves and vote on the strike are essential. Such meetings can also make it harder for union leaders to sell out strikes.

Public opinion is absolutely on our side - Fully 71% of the population opposes Sarkozy’s  “reform”, and that support for the movement rises to  87% among manual workers and routine office workers. A poll last week even reckoned that two thirds of the population thought the strike movement needed to get tougher on the government, while 53% of the population and 70% of manual workers wanted a general strike! This support needs to be transformed into active confidence to strike in those sectors not yet mobilized.

In France, 13 per cent of retired people are living in poverty according to a recent Eurostat survey, as against seventeen per cent in Germany, and thirty per cent in Britain, where neoliberal “reforms” have gone much further. French workers are determined not to catch up to other countries in the poverty stakes. But over the last twenty years, pensions have come gradually under attack. The official retirement age is still 60, but a few years back, despite being slowed by strikes,  the government managed to force through an increase in the number of quarterly stamps needed to get a full pension. In 1990, thirty seven and a half years’ worth were enough; by 2012 you will need forty one years’ worth. If you have less than this, they chop a bit off your pension for each year “missing”, unless you retire at 65, in that case you get a full pension. Sarkozy’s new law, just being voted through parliament, adds two years both to the official retirement age (making it 62) and to the age you need to retire at to get a guaranteed full pension (making it 67).

Sarkozy, weakened by disgusting corruption scandals involving his ministers (including  Eric Woerth the head of pension reform) over the summer,  is desperately looking for his “Thatcher moment”, a moment which has eluded recent right wing governments in France. In 1995 a month of strikes saw off a drastic attack on pensions. And most famously, in 2006, the First Employment Contract, voted though by a right wing government to impose inferior working conditions on young adults under 26 years old, was an unmitigated disaster for the government. After the law had been voted, a massive student movement backed up by the unions forced the Prime Minister into a humiliating climbdown. This happening again is Sarkozy’s nightmare. He has been quoted recently as saying in private “As long as the young people don’t get involved, I can handle the movement against my pension reform.” Traditionally, presidents allow their prime ministers to take the main responsibility for unpopular reforms, and sack them if the movement against gets too strong, but this time Sarkozy has put himself in the forefront, a move we hope to make him regret.

Union leaders and Left parties
You might think that with such levels of public support, union leaders would pull out all the stops for a General strike, but professional negotiators don’t think like that. The main trade union confederations have so far been united about the need for one day mass strikes, which has made impossible the standard government tactic of getting one confederation on their side through minor concessions and using that fact in propaganda to reduce public support for the strikers. But they are not pushing for renewable strikes, and are calling for negotiations, not for the simple binning of Sarkozy’s pension law. The union leaders’ banner at the head of Saturday’s demonstration read “Pensions, jobs and wages are important to society” when it should have read “General strike to beat Sarkozy”! So it’s up to the rank and file to  build up to a general strike, though some regional leaders are supporting the idea.

The rock bottom support for Sarkozy in the opinion polls, and the fact that there are only 18 months left till the next presidential elections, has led the Socialist Party to be more active (though far from central) in this movement. They have promised to reinstate retirement at 60 if they are elected in 2012. The Socialist Party today is like the Labour Party in Britain twenty years ago, deeply divided between a Blairite wing who would abandon even weak links with an active workers’ movement, and a left wing who see a mix of  parliamentary action and movements on the streets as the best way forward to more social justice.  The Blairite Dominique Strauss Kahn, one of the hopefuls for the Socialist Party presidential candidacy in 2012 is presently Director General of the International Monetary Fund, the financial gangsters who are pushing across the world for later retirement and public sector cuts!

The Left reformist “Left Party”, and  the Communist Party are actively building the movement, though many activists are being diverted into campaigning for a referendum on the issue of pensions. Since Sarkozy would only grant a referendum if he was terrified by the power of the movement, and if he scare him enough he will junk his reform anyway, the referendum idea is a waste of time. Anticapitalist groups such as the New Anticapitalist Party are completely committed to building for a general strike. Olivier Besancenot, spokesperson for the NAP said “We need a twenty first century version of  May 1968.”

So far Sarkozy has been forced to make minor concessions (concerning for example women who have taken time off work to raise children). He has also made concessions in other areas hoping to calm the anger of certain parts of the population - for example an announced plan to cut housing benefit for students was abandoned . And a few days ago, he announced plans to look again at a whole raft of tax cuts for the rich instituted only three years back.

But the main battle is still on. Now the attack has been voted through parliament, the stakes are high - the unions are not negotiating : the new law will stand or be broken. If it is broken, Sarkozy is unlike to survive as president beyond the next elections in 2012.

Divide and rule
All year, Sarkozy has been using classic divide and rule tactics and playing the racist card. Mass expulsions of gypsies and threats to remove French nationality from naturalized immigrants convicted of certain crimes have led to protest movements. Tragically, the passage of a law banning women wearing a “full” muslim veil from walking the streets was supported by most of the parliamentary Left, while the far left remained practically silent, afraid of islamophobic sentiments among its own supporters. These racist tactics have had some effect, and racist attacks are on the rise. A sharp defeat for Sarkozy on pensions could help build a fighting Left which could then roll back some of the Right’s racist ploys, and encourage united action on the radical Left...

The movement is still on the rise, and Friday police thugs attacked high school students in a series of towns across France. In Montreuil, where I live, a high school student is in hospital having an operation on his eye after police fired plastic bullets at students who were blockading their school. In other parts of France, police forced the blockade of oil supply depots Friday.

Only two years ago in 2008, Sarkozy could be heard to gloat “These days, when there is a strike in France, no-one notices. ” He has been made to notice now, and if a rising wave of strikes can kill his attack on pensions, it will be a major step forward in the defence of workers in France, and an encouragement for workers around the world. Already, Spain’s recent general strike and Greece’s mass strikes against austerity have shown that European workers are ready to fight.

John Mullen

This article was written in October 2010 for the Australian magazine Socialist Alternative

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