tremendous building of class consciousness
with John Mullen, a teacher who has been taking part in the recent
action in France and is an activist in the Nouveau Parti
Paru dans Counterfire, novembre 2010
think it is so important to participate in this strike?
This is the
latest big attack on ordinary people’s living standards so whereas they
billions of Euros to bail out the banks all of a sudden they are
that we have to work 2 years longer because there’s not enough money to
pensions – and we don’t believe them! And
the vast majority of the French people don’t believe them: we’ve got
supporting the movement and numbers among working-class people and
people are much higher than that, it’s incredibly popular.
As you say,
over 70% of people were against the so-called ‘reform’. Would you
say the movement has pulled new
people into activity?
It’s been the
biggest movement for the last 15 years; there were 7 or 8 days of
September, on the last one there were 260 demonstrations across France
every time there have been hundreds and hundreds. Some
towns that haven’t seen a demonstration
for 20 years were having demonstrations.
In a small town I know well of 40,000 people there were 8,000
The number of
strikers was well into the millions, people argue were there 2 million,
there 3 million on a given day of action?
It’s hard to tell exactly, but extremely high numbers. And between the days of action, and perhaps
this is the most impressive, tens of thousands of people taking
strike action normally decided day-by-day, each day a mass meeting
continue the strike for another 24 hours, we’re talking oil workers,
workers, museum workers, library workers, dockers, Securicor – the
delivery people, firefighters, council staff, engineering factories.
there’ve been hundreds of more or less spontaneous rank-and-file
the blocking of the oil refineries.
Students in Pau, in the South blocked the motorway and let
through the tolls free, occupying the motorway toll booths. So hundreds and hundreds of local actions,
some of them very inspiring. The school
canteen workers in Marseilles were one of the first groups to declare
continuous strikes and fairly soon they were working with the dockers
workers in unheard-of alliances. A group
of philosophy teachers in Lille organised collections for the oil
It’s been a
tremendous period of rebuilding class consciousness and class
organisation. The street cleaners were
very much on strike
as well. So you have the regular days of
action with millions of strikers and then certainly tens of thousands
between times – both public sector and private sector: that’s very
because the government has been very keen to divide us on those lines. And very much coming from the rank-and-file,
it’s pretty clear that the trade union leaders were not happy to see
continuous strikes taking off.
a lot of young people. Why do you think
A lot of people
are very angry with Sarkozy for a lot of good reasons and it was clear
this was the battle of the moment and so the University and the high
students got very much involved. They
are quite right to do so. If their
parents, who are 45 now, retire with very low pensions it’s their
will be helping them out. And also, as
they point out, if people are working longer, there’ll not be so many
young people – and unemployment is very high already, especially
people. The government squealed that
15-year-olds were too young to demonstrate, this is a government whose
Minister last year suggested lowering to 12-years-old
the age at which you can imprison young people for crimes!
leaders are scaling back the action. Do
you think that’s right?
No, we could
have won. The trade union leaders wanted
big days of action because Sarkozy is not willing to negotiate with
for the first time in a long time all the trade union federations,
the so-called moderate ones, supported the days of action and mobilised
days of action. Because Sarkozy didn’t
want to negotiate with them, so they wanted action.
However, they didn’t want continuous strikes
or a political challenge to the government because if the movement got
dynamic then their role as professional negotiators would not be
done now that the law has been passed in the Upper House?
It’s very hard
to say. It’s not impossible that the
movement will take off again, but it’s looking harder.
The oil workers, who were on strike for
several weeks, have gone back to work but not demoralised, and they’re
move again if the movement rises again: that’s what they said. I think that the main thing is that we have
won a tremendous rise in class consciousness and class organisation –
been for nothing at all. There will be
more explosions. Now, will Sarkozy
decide to halt further attacks for a few months because he’s been
or will he decide that now’s the only time he can really get them
go right ahead with the next attack? I
don’t have a crystal ball. Certainly he
and his mates were very scared.
looking for his ‘Thatcher moment’. The
problem that the French ruling class have is that conditions for
not been slashed in the way they have been in other European countries. So making profits at the same level as
capitalists in other countries is difficult because they’re having to
much, for their liking, to the workers.
Sarkozy is the most recent card played by the ruling class; the
cards did not go down well! Villepin was
thoroughly defeated by the movement in 2006 against the First
and that law was defeated after it had been voted in both Houses.
need a permanent and national co-ordinating force, which can organise
action independently of the trade union leaders when necessary. We also need to rebuild our unions. They need to be much bigger.
At the moment 8% of French workers are in
trade unions, although many millions more are in collective bargaining
organised by the unions. Without the
unions there wouldn’t have been a movement, but if we rely on the union
we won’t win.
atmosphere like at your college?
It was slow to
get moving because there’s very little tradition and it’s a
University where many students have to work to pay for their studies. But I was very pleased to see that when I
sent an email around to my colleagues for the day of action 2 weeks
immediately got 11 people saying “yes, we’ll go on strike” – that’s 11
30 or so. And we were on strike again
this week. This week [week beginning 25th
October] on the day of action almost all the teachers were either on
moved their classes so that their students at least could go
demonstrate. My colleague came back to his
office to find
a little note from his students saying “we won’t be coming to your
all going to the demo”. But my college
was not the vanguard of the movement.
think this movement has changed the people that have been involved?
Oh very much
so. For the young people it’s brought up
a new generation of activists. There are
83 Universities in France and probably 15 of the biggest were very much
involved in the movement with mass strikes and occupations and
going out to help blockade the oil refineries along with the oil
meetings 3 times a week, exciting debate and great creativity. Certainly struggle transforms people. And people learn things. Oil
workers and school canteen workers
probably didn’t know that they had so much in common.
One of my colleagues suggested the other day
that we organise a collection for the street cleaners who’ve been on
University lecturers don’t usually think like that: This is a good sign. And this is somebody not particularly
student movement, which hasn’t yet got to all the Universities in
although it might rise again in the next week – had the first meeting
National University Co-ordinating Committee all weekend, and stayed up
night discussing what to do next. This
is young people’s democracy in action and people certainly learn a lot
the class struggle. At the moment
arguments about the importance of the working-class fighting against
class are very easy to put over in student circles.
Tolbiac University in Paris a lot of the students felt that the way
got rid of the democratic ways to criticise the Bill made it
they also mentioned the racism of the Sarkozy government. Do you
think that’s something that has
fuelled some of the anger in the protests as well: a feeling that
government and its politics are utterly politically corrupt?
Yes. Also there
were very shocking corruption
scandals over the summer with the Minister responsible for the attack
pensions finding his wife a job with one of the richest women in France
tax problems suddenly disappeared at the same time.
Very, very shocking. The racism,
certainly Sarkozy has been
working hard to build up the scapegoating of gypsies, of Muslims and of
undocumented workers. There has been
quite a lot of reaction in defence of gypsies and of undocumented
almost none in reaction to the attacks on Muslims because the left,
is hopeless on the question of Islamophobia.
A demonstration against the ban on wearing the full veil on the
after working very hard, only got 50 people.
We just did it because you have to do something even if there
50 of you.