This autumn witnessed a great explosion of popular anger in France, triggered by the Sarkozy government’s obduracy in pressing on with an attack on workers’ pension rights.
In the space of just 29 days there were five national strikes, each mobilising between 2.7 and 3 million people. The CGT (General Confederation of Labour) reckoned that, in all, over 5 million people had been out on the street protesting.
Indefinite strikes hit the railways, metallurgy and chemical factories, the postal service, hospitals, schools and local authorities. At one point all 12 of France’s oil refineries were blockaded. The youth stood forward, with school students closing down the lycées (schools) and students joining forces with workers at the blockades.
It has been obvious from the start that these protests are about more than the pension reform alone. The state’s attempt to raise the minimum pensionable age from 60 to 62 and to push back the payment of the full state pension from 65 to 67 is indeed a crucial one, striking as it does at the living standards of the whole working class.
Yet those who pretend to limit the social question to this one issue underestimate the scope and intensity of the resistance that flared into life in September and October, the embers of which must sooner or later burst into future conflagrations. Whilst some reformists have tried to keep everyone narrowly focused on the legislative detail of this particular reform, hoping in the traditional way to put enough pressure on the government to secure a compromise deal that will basically let imperialism have its way without causing too much loss of face for the labour aristocracy, the mass activity of the French working class in this recent period carries with it the hope of much greater things.
With the temporary subsidence of this extraordinary wave of strikes, demonstrations and street battles in France, both sides in the sharpening class struggle across Europe are taking stock.
For its part, the corrupt and scandal-ridden Sarkozy government is praying hard that the combination of arm twisting by the National Assembly and police brutality on the street has now put the genie of proletarian revolt back in the bottle. With the offending law denying workers the full state pension until age 67 now passed through parliament, Sarkozy would like to believe that France can now return to business as usual, which is to say the business of making the working class pay for the crisis of overproduction now besetting all of capitalist Europe.
For the other side – which is to say, from the millions of working people threatened with austerity measures that, taken together, will spell a fundamental and permanent reduction in their standard of life – ‘business as usual’ seems ever less of an option. Whilst the first great burst of anger may have abated, beaten down by a combination of tear gas from the cops and treachery from the social democrats, for millions of workers there can be no return to the previous status quo.
Breadth of the revolt
The protests in France have encompassed every kind of expression, from the most orderly and disciplined trade-union demonstrations, strikes and blockades, through the creative tactics of the students, to the most angry riots and arson of the desperate and dispossessed. Events such as the attack on a courthouse in Nanterre and torching of a school in Le Mans have at their root a frustration and anger that is increasingly widely shared, though differently expressed.
Sooner than join in with the chorus of disapproval, which finds social democrats singing from the same songbook as their imperialist masters, communists should be fighting the harder to uproot the class-collaborating abdication of leadership that deprives those at the bottom of a coherent and positive outlet for their anger. As the disorganising ideas of social democracy get driven back, we can anticipate that the anger of dispossessed youth will be given the opportunity to find expression in disciplined and revolutionary ways.
The differing response from the unions
For the unions, they can reflect with different levels of satisfaction on their performance in these spectacular class-war skirmishes.
The largest, the CGT, whose political outlook is oriented to the French Communist Party (PCF), has great industrial muscle, especially in the energy sector (oil, gas and power workers) and amongst dock workers. This strategic advantage contributed a good deal to the struggle, giving the lie to the idea that organised labour in such traditional strongholds can no longer pack a punch, given sufficient political leadership.
In fact, after the oil port of Fos Lavera near Marseilles went out on indefinite strike on 27 September, strikes in the sector brought near paralysis to oil refining. Indefinite strikes in a dozen refineries, assisted by the blockade of depots by both workers and students, forced the government to start hitting France’s 60-day strategic reserves.
With panic growing on garage forecourts (nearly a third of service stations ran dry), the government was sufficiently rattled to threaten strikers with prosecution and to send in cops to break the blockades. This was easier said than done, as the workers shrugged off the legal threats and swiftly organised small-scale flying pickets that could function as blockade-guerrillas, melting from one contested location only to reform at another.
Ports affected by the blockades included Marseilles, where oil tankers queued in vain to unload their cargo whilst protesters blocked access tunnels with trucks and shut down the network of buses and trams that normally serve the port.
To its credit, even as Sarkozy was in the process of trampling the pensions bill through parliament at the end of October, and in a situation where most of the refineries were opening up again, the CGT was able to pressure all the unions in the national joint committee into supporting two further national demonstrations, struggling to keep up the momentum of resistance. In taking this stand, the CGT was bolstered by the increasing militancy of the protesting youth who increasingly occupied the front line in the battle.
The much smaller Solidaires union, in tune with the politics of the quasi-Trotskyite New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), also argued throughout for the need to extend and intensify the strike movement in order to defeat the government.
Another strong militant force has been secondary school pupils, who in France have their own unions. At the height of the protests, these student unions succeeded in blockading 850 lycées.
Other union leaderships were increasingly lukewarm however, with the second-largest union (CFDT) distancing itself from the struggle of the youth (advising demonstrators to ‘remain calm’) and the white-collar CFE-CGC mumbling about the need to ‘reorient the actions’ of the unions in the face of ‘excesses’.
Rather than aiming to inflict an outright defeat of the government on the pensions issue, relating this specific attack on working people to the wider question of the class attack on all fronts being mounted by a capitalist system in crisis, many unions set their sights no higher than a defensive skirmish on the precise terms of the pension reform, hoping to pressure the government into negotiating a fudge to save union faces.
Indeed, the CFE-CGC, along with the Confederation of Christian Workers (CFTC), had originally supported some aspects of the pension reform, and was only pushed into opposition by the pig-headedness of Sarkozy.
Much the same is true of the Socialist Party (PS), the main opposition party in parliament and a major source of social-democratic infection in France, whose initial reluctance to criticise the pension reform at all only shifted when the overwhelming unpopularity of the reform became apparent.
Fighting the state and social democracy
Countering the influence of social democracy in the workers’ movement, from the PS and elsewhere, will be crucial in the struggle to consolidate and extend the scope of resistance to the cuts, in France as in Britain.
French capitalism revealed its weakness, not its strength, when it resorted to outright state repression and propaganda lies to suppress the revolt, making it that much more difficult for the likes of the PS to preach the gospel of harmony between the classes.
The youth in particular suffered the brunt of the repression. By 20 October, 1,400 youth aged between 14 and 20 had been banged up. On 21 October, 1,000 protesters were kettled and tear-gassed in Lyon.
Lessons like these are not soon forgotten, and are not those that the state wants to teach. The tear gas and rubber bullets employed against school kids in Rennes who blockaded the bus depot provided a lesson in bourgeois democracy not scheduled within the curriculum. When the bus drivers responded by protecting the students from arrest and then voting for a 24-hour strike, another valuable lesson was learned about solidarity.