Contours of the French revolt – an interview with John Mullen
Socialist Alternative (Australia)
The contours of the French Strike
The aftermath of the global financial crisis has led to a wave of attacks on working-class living standards in Europe and North America and a massive redistribution of wealth in favour of the rich.
France has been a locus of resistance to the austerity sweeping Europe as millions of workers and thousands of students have mobilised against attacks on pension rights.
President Sarkozy’s proposal to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 and the age when retirees can get full benefits from 65 to 67 has been passed by the country’s Assembly and Senate, but still faces resistance on the streets and in workplaces.
Alternative’s Liam Ward spoke to John Mullen, an activist in the New
Anti-capitalist Party in France, about the struggles across the country.
What is the background and context to the attacks on pensions?
Sarkozy is the latest card of the French ruling class and has been trying really hard to roll back working conditions across the board. The big moments have been the huge tax cuts for the rich a couple of years back, a rise in racist legislation and an attempt to build a scapegoating atmosphere against gypsies, against Muslims, against undocumented workers; there have been more expulsions than ever.
This latest attack is an attempt to make everybody work two years longer in order to get their state pension. State pensions in France have been relatively well defended by the workers’ movement. Sarkozy decided now was the time to really push it through; it is the flagship reform for him. He was hoping to get the union movement down and inflict a huge defeat which would demoralize the whole movement – which the French workers’ movement has not yet had. Unfortunately for him he got more than he bargained for in response.
Can you take us through how the struggle developed?
The national union confederations called for a series of days of action. What was new was that all of the union confederations, including the most moderate, were wanting a fight because Sarkozy was refusing to even talk to them, to even give minor concessions to win over the most right-wing unions.
This unity meant massive days of action. There were a couple before the summer and there have been seven since the beginning of September. Every time there have been millions of people on the streets. On the last Thursday in October there were demonstrations in 266 towns. One town of 30,000 people had eight and a half thousand on the demonstration; absolutely massive demonstrations.
Then whole sections of workers in the last four weeks have been moving into renewable strikes between the days of action – there have been cash delivery drivers in this kind of action, street cleaners, dockers, library workers, museum workers, firefighters, nuclear power station workers, bus drivers, airport workers, engineering factory workers, theatre workers and insurance workers. In addition to that there were all twelve oil refineries in the country which were on strike.
This movement is incredibly popular. Seventy per cent of the whole population support it – eighty-odd per cent of manual workers and very high numbers of young people. I have never seen mass strikes so popular. The journalists were really working hard to find somebody who was blocked in a railway station to denounce the strikes, but they had great difficulty with that. There were a lot of spontaneous actions : blocking motorways, blockading the oil refineries, blocking main roads and so on. There was more and more of that going on, again with wide support from the population.
The lorry drivers were interesting - they are not directly concerned, they have a separate agreement on pensions, but they said, “Well all of the support staff of our transport companies, they’re all women and they’re not covered by our special agreement; we’re going to get involved in this struggle in solidarity with them.”
At the same time there are varied levels of confidence. Just up the road from me there are two schools : one on strike the other not. In many places people would come out on the days of action but in between times don’t feel the confidence, don’t feel that they can take action.
Can you outline the role that students have played?
Everybody was very excited when the students began moving, because of 2006, when the First Employment Contract plan of the government to give bad working conditions to all young adults was defeated. Even after it had been voted by both houses of parliament it was destroyed by a massive movement led by the students, so that was an historic victory that got rid of the Prime Minister at the time.
They moved a little more slowly this time but by November, a dozen of the most radical universities were on strike, many of them blockaded. This had to be carefully organised: you don’t blockade your university when there are only 50 of you – you wait until you have a mass meeting so the vote represents something. When you have blockaded, that can encourage staff to come out on strike because they have the time to have a mass meeting and also include students. They are not missing classes because there aren’t any classes. In this context, a whole new generation of activists is being formed.
We have got up to 20 universities blockaded, which is a quarter of the number of universities in France – but they are among the biggest universities. Not all universities got to that point. At my university we never got beyond getting half my colleagues on strike. We were quite pleased with that but we weren’t at the vanguard of the movement. It’s very different from one university to another.
And it wasn’t just university students?
High school students started first this time. High school students are not stupid. The general unemployment rate in the country is nine and a half per cent – and this is the official rate, which is an underestimate. For young people under 25 it’s 23 per cent. The young high school students, 15, 16, 17 years old, thought “If our parents have to work for two years more that’s two more years there won’t be a job for us.”
The government ministers came out saying, “Fifteen years old is much too young to demonstrate, they don’t know what they are doing.” This is a government that puts people into prison at 13 if they are found guilty of a crime; their minister proposed last year that it be lowered to 12. They will put people in prison at 12 but they are “too young to demonstrate”. That really riled the high school students and at one point you had a thousand high schools involved in the action.
They learned so much. They set up some amazing alliances: in Rennes, together with lorry drivers they blocked the bus depot. The riot police then came along and gassed them. Then the bus drivers went on strike as they all got gassed as well!
This started on the initiative of the trade union confederations, but what is the relationship between the rank and file and the leadership?
Without the trade union leaderships there wouldn’t be a movement, but if we follow the trade union leaderships we will lose. You have got this situation where the union leaders were not controlling the movement: all these blockaded motorways and oil refineries and renewable strikes. The vast majority of the trade union leaders did not support or try to do anything to generalise the strike. We have a rank and file relatively independent from the union leaders, but no alternative national leadership.
We don’t have an organisation that has sufficient legitimacy to be able to go over the heads of the union bureaucracy and say “We are going to have a general strike, a general renewable strike even though the union leaders don’t want it.” So the national union leaders are still a great limiting factor and they get worse as the struggle goes on.
Also there have been rank and file mobilising committees by town. In my town every midday, the mobilising committee of striking workers from different sectors (mostly the public sector but also some private sector) would meet and they would go out and leaflet, talk to the cashiers at the supermarket then leaflet in front of the big banks and really try to get it out within the town.
You had the embryo of an alternative organisation, but it is embryonic, present in certain towns and not in others. I phoned a teacher friend recently and she was having coffee with the oil workers, which is just not what she would do on a normal day, so there’s a tremendous building of class relations and class consciousness. Really the biggest move forward in 20 years in that area.
The crisis that has bought on this struggle is global. Is there an awareness of the common interests of workers across Europe?
There have been demonstrations of solidarity outside the French embassy in Greece and in Belgium; and I think the best story is from Belgium. Lorries and tankers from France were coming across the border to break the strike by buying diesel and other oil products from Belgium. The Belgian workers organised to blockade oil depots and some of the petrol depots in solidarity with the French workers, which was tremendous. There is an organisation called the French-Belgium solidarity which has called on trade unionists to boycott the products of French companies where the strike is going on.
Are there positive stories you want to share with socialists and trade unionists here in Australia?
The heroes and heroines of this strike are the people like the school canteen workers in Marseilles. They were among the very first to declare a renewable strike; and then went around talking to other workers, explaining about their working conditions. Quite often they have to work from 6 to 9 in the morning, then from 12 to 3 and then from 5 to 7 – totally split-up shifts; very, very hard work for very low wages. So I think the heroes and the heroines are very ordinary people who weren’t necessarily even in their union last year. I think that is very important.
A story that inspired me particularly involved philosophy teachers. The committee of philosophy teachers of Lille organised collections to support the oil workers, and I thought that is a great symbol of what is possible when workers get an idea of their common interest. Something that happened to me the other day as well: one of my colleagues (not particularly left-wing) said, “Oh well, we should have a collection to give money to the street cleaners who are on strike.” A lot of university lecturers don’t even realise there are street cleaners, you know. There is a great feeling that the working class is at the centre of things, people are taking notice of it. That was really very, very inspiring.
What is your impression of the situation at the moment, and where the movement is headed?
It’s very, very exciting; there were very excited people at the demonstration the other day, thousands of people running along the Boulevard chanting “general strike.” I haven’t seen this for 20 years.
The law has gone through the two houses of parliament and there is a period of only weeks before it gets validated by all the institutions. So the union leaders are saying the struggle must continue for the moment, but at the same time many of the union leaders are definitely looking to winding it down and moving on to something else. One of the most moderate union leaders has proposed to the bosses’ organisation to negotiate about working conditions for older workers. Saying that now means “Let’s abandon the struggle.”
It’s hard to say how it all will play out, but it has to be said it is quite possible that Sarkozy will not move back on the pensions. It may well be that the pension will go through but we have a new kind of workers’ movement with more explosions soon. Will Sarkozy back off for a while because he was terrified? Or will he say “It’s now or never and let’s move onto the next attack straight away”? I can’t say.
In terms of how revolutionaries intervene in this, the activists from the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) have been very good I think. Everywhere they were pushing for a democratic decision to renew the strike or go as far as possible.
But there is really a need to build a national political response, and I think the NPA has not been so good on that. There haven’t been meetings in every town on topics like “The lessons of 1968”, “Can there be another ’68?”, or “Why won’t the union leaders go further?”
need meetings giving a political response and political explanations,
so that whether the movement wins or loses people know why, what to do
next, and why at the end of the day it’s a workers revolution that is
going to be necessary. That is something that is rather weak at the
moment, but we are working on it.