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French lessons on fighting austerity

The struggle of French workers is of huge significance given their reputation for militancy. Murray Smith outlines how events have developed in France.

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France is in the throes of a massive social and political conflict. To find a movement of such scope and radicality you have to go back to 1968. But that was another time, marked by rising living standards, virtually full employment and a powerful and confident working class. It is more useful to analyze the present movement as part of an ongoing resistance to neo-liberal policies. From that point of view the present movement is unprecedented in its scale and combativeness, though it draws on the experience of previous movements in 1995, 2003 and 2006 and indeed on the successful campaign against the European Constitutional Treaty in 2005.


The attack on pensions is common to the whole of Europe and is part of a generalized austerity programme and what are now frontal attacks on the Welfare State. This was summed up in quite a brutal fashion on September 29 by Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission: “When you have to pay the interest on the debt, you can’t pay for social policies”. An important part of this offensive is centred on pensions. The aim is to move away from a pension system based on inter-generational solidarity (each generation pays for the preceding generation). The proposal to raise the retirement age is only one aspect of the attack: the real aim is to progressively undermine the value of public pension systems so that only the poorest will depend on them, pushing everyone else towards subscribing to private pensions. In European terms the proposals of the French government do not seem the most radical; in most countries the retirement age has already been raised or is planned to be raised to around 67 years, with further prolongations in view. In France the proposal is to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62, and the age to retire with a full state pension from 65 to 67. But since most people do retire at 65, the proposal does in fact take a big step towards alignment with other EU countries. Pensions apart, the budget presented on 29 September, although it certainly does plan to reduce spending and cut public sector jobs, is not as vicious as those of some of France’s partners, most notably the new Con-Dem government in Britain. Unlike most of his European colleagues, French president Nicolas Sarkozy explicitly refuses to use the word austerity (in French, “rigueur”)

The reason for this (very relative) circumspection certainly has nothing to do with Sarkozy and his government being any less willing to make the working class and the poor pay for the crisis. It has everything to do with the scale of social and political resistance in France, at present centred specifically on the issue of pensions. Of course, resistance is (fortunately) not confined to France. We have seen many strikes and demonstrations elsewhere, including the 100,000- strong European demonstration in Brussels on September 29, coinciding with a general strike in Spain and demonstrations elsewhere in Europe, such as Italy. And of course in Greece we saw a series of one-day general strikes before the summer, and we will certainly see more this autumn, in Greece and elsewhere. But what is specific to France is not only the enormous scope of the mobilizations, though that is of course important. There are two other factors that come into play. First of all, although the strikes and demonstrations are organized by the unions, they are supported by the entire spectrum of the Left, including, after some hesitations and with some qualifications, the Socialist Party. Secondly, polls show that the movement is supported by around 70 per cent of the population. This follows, and indeed reinforces, the pattern seen in France since 1995.

Let us first of all recall the scale of the movement. We will take the figures for demonstrations given by the unions since, though perhaps slightly exaggerated, they are much closer to the truth than the often ridiculous figures announced by the police, acting on government orders. The movement against pension reform began in the spring, when Sarkozy announced that there would be a reform (in reality a counter-reform) of pensions, although the actual draft law was only published in July. There were already one-day strikes and demonstrations before the summer: 800,000 demonstrators across the country on March 23, a million on May 27, and 2 million on June 24. On September 7 a one-day strike brought 2.5 million demonstrators into the streets. This was surpassed on September 23 with nearly 3 million people taking to the streets.

Union Front

The union front that has organized these mobilizations involves all the unions, from the biggest to the smallest and from the most conservative to the most radical, and has so far held firm. This is in contrast to 2003, when the second biggest confederation, the CFDT, deserted the movement and made an agreement with the government early on, losing many members as a result. And in spite of the hesitations and compromises involved, trade union unity has been a positive factor in maintaining the mobilizations.

A vital aspect of the movement is the widespread, indeed virtually universal, support from the political wing of the workers’ movement. This includes the Socialist Party, the components of the Left Front (Communist Party, Left Party, Unitary Left), the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) the Greens and other minor formations. We should also count in the global justice movement ATTAC and the left-wing think-tank Fondation Copernic. There are of course differences within this arc of forces. An important role was played by an appeal in defence of the right to retire at 60 launched early on in the movement, on April 7, by ATTAC and the Fondation Copernic, which was signed by trade unionists, intellectuals and representatives of all of the organizations mentioned above, generally reflecting the position of their parties. The exception was the Socialist Party, whose central leaders did not sign the appeal, though many SP members, including leading members, did. This is because the SP has a position of defending the right to retire at 60, while nevertheless accepting 41.5 years of paying in to qualify, which for most people makes the right to retire at 60 rather symbolic. So the Socialist Party as such has not taken part in the big unitary meetings which have been held all over France, although in virtually all of those meetings there are SP members on the platform. These meetings, and many much smaller ones, are organized by the kind of collectives, involving unions, parties and various associations, which already played an important role in previous movements, most recently in 2005 and 2006, and which have conducted a steady campaign on the ground and put out much effective propaganda. This has been a key factor in winning and keeping the support of public opinion.

2003 Movement

The movement in 2003 was defeated after a series of one-day strikes combined with a months-long teachers’ strike. It ended at a moment when an ongoing strike movement was arguably possible, if the main union, the CGT, had supported it. Certainly there was a widespread feeling among those who had participated in the movement that defeat had been snatched from the jaws of victory. The same question is posed today and the response is not easy. It is certainly the case that governments can resist even very big one-day mobilizations if they know that the unions will not take the next step of calling an ongoing strike. And one clear element of the situation is that the French unions as they are today, with the leaderships they have, will not collectively call such a strike. This is above all true of the CFDT and some of the smaller unions, but it is also true of the CGT. Only Force Ouvriere (at least in words) and Solidaires-SUD, with much more conviction, have consistently called for this.

Up until now, the movement has been confronted with, indeed to some extent trapped in, an either/or choice. Either the unions would call an ongoing general strike (or would be outflanked by a strike movement from below) or the movement would end in an impasse as in 2003 and the government would win. Failing a call by the unions is a full-scale general strike from below possible? We should remember that the two biggest general strikes in French history, in 1936 and 1968, developed from below, snowballing to become general, without ever being called by (but subsequently supported by) the union confederations. It is difficult to see that scenario unfolding today, in a context where the working class has been pushed onto the defensive for a quarter of a century and has suffered defeats. Not impossible, but unlikely.

If we look at previous movements, the locomotive (no pun intended) of the 1995 movement was a solid strike by rail workers, backed up by large parts of the public sector. The result was that the government abandoned its plans for pension reform, though it held the line on social security reform. In 2003 the teachers’ strike was not enough on its own to play the same role. In 2006 the government’s attempt to introduce a cut-rate minimum wage for young people (the CPE) was defeated by a mass movement. A collective was formed at national level, and replicated locally, involving unions, parties and student organizations. The key element, the driving force of the movement, was a massive mobilization of students and school students, closing down universities and engaging in forms of direct action, blocking motorways, rail services, etc.

When we look at the present movement, we can see that there are elements of these previous movements. But they have come together in a particular way which reflects the depth and power of the movement, and which has so far avoided the all-or-nothing choice between the movement petering out as in 2003 and a full-scale ongoing general strike. To the continuing united union front and the political support there have been added two other elements. In the first place, ongoing strikes by key sectors of workers, sometimes continuous, sometimes rolling strikes. Strikes by rail and public transport workers have been a feature, though not on the scale of 1995. What has been crucial has been the involvement of dockers, who are also campaigning against privatization of the ports, lorry drivers and above all oil refinery workers, who also have worries about the future of their industry. Secondly, towards the end of September, school students began to mobilize on a large scale, and hundreds of high schools are now on strike and blockaded. University students have been slower to move, but the universities have only recently started classes after the summer. Both workers and students have engaged in the kind of action that was so effective in 2006 – in particular blocking railway lines and motorways.

Moving into Action

The turning point of the movement so far was undoubtedly in the first half of October, and in particular after October 12. Demonstrations were called on October 2, a Saturday, thus making it possible for many workers in the weakly-unionized private sector, where it is often difficult to strike, to participate. October 2 saw roughly the same number of demonstrators as September 23. A poll indicated that 71 per cent of people in France supported the call to demonstrate. Simultaneously, in another poll, 72 per cent expressed dissatisfaction with Sarkozy, who is now beating records for unpopularity.

After the October 2 demonstrations, the Paris daily Le Monde summed up the situation as follows: “The executive [the president, MS] thinks that time is on his side and that the CFDT and the CGT do not at all want to launch into ongoing strikes which they consider to be extremely risky for the workers and for trade unionism. But this strategy is dangerous. Frustrated by “the government’s autism”, some of those who oppose the reform can try to radicalize the movement in order to make themselves heard. And in that case, which is not the most likely, it is the President who will be in the front line, accused of having thrown oil on the fire and of having waited too long to find a way out of the present impasse”.

As it turned out the newspaper saw the danger more clearly than did Sarkozy. The next one-day strike and demonstrations took place on October 12, with 3.5 million demonstrators and many sectors on strike. That was when the sequence of one-day actions followed by a wait till the next one came to an end. The following day the strike continued in many places and a new phase opened. The involvement of school students and the continuing strikes meant that demonstrations were now daily. The police intervened quite brutally against the school students, taking full advantage of attacks on property and clashes with the police by small groups of youth. It has been documented that some of these actions were actually the result of police provocateurs, but there is certainly a layer of the most disadvantaged youth which is ready for such actions.

Once again on October 19 there was another day of strikes and demonstrations, again mobilizing 3.5 million people. But it was no longer the sole centre of attention. In the last week it is the oil refineries and the ports which have been the centre of attention. Dozens of tankers are blocked off Marseilles by the strike of the port workers. All the refineries in France have been on strike and blockaded and fuel supplies are running low. And it is not only the oil workers who have been blockading the refineries; they have been supported by many other workers and students. The government has responded by sending riot police in to break the blockade and get supplies moving, though the situation is still far from normal.

Having already been voted on by the National Assembly, the law on pension reform has now been hastily voted by the Senate, under considerable pressure from the government. The next step is for it to be formally adopted by both houses, in principle on October 27, and the final stage is it being signed into law by the President around November 15. However this timetable is not set in stone, nor will the promulgation of the law necessarily be the end of the matter. In 2006, the CPE had already become law before being withdrawn.

A step too far

The strength of the movement is an indication of profound dissatisfaction with Sarkozy and his government. It has crystallized around the issue of pensions, about which there is indeed strong feeling. People believe they have a right to retire on a decent pension at an age when they can enjoy their retirement. But there are also other factors at work. There is a widespread feeling that this is one neo-liberal measure too far; that after this there will be others, and that it has to stop somewhere. There is a questioning of what sort of society this is leading to. This is true even among young people. Probably many of the school students who demonstrate do not understand the fine details of the law on pensions. But they know they will have difficulty finding any kind of decent job, they wonder why people will have to work till 67 when there is so much youth unemployment, and in a more diffuse way they wonder what kind of society they are growing up into. There is also a widespread feeling that it is ordinary people, workers, the poor, young people, who are being made to pay for the crisis, while bankers and brokers continue to rake in the money.

This is particularly aggravated by the blatant links between Sarkozy and the rich. As it happens, the minister, Eric Woerth, who has been in charge of pension reform, is himself at the centre of a financial scandal. It should be said that scandals are nothing new in French politics. It is quite frequent that elected officials of various kinds are accused and sometimes convicted of misuse or embezzlement of public funds, illegal financing of parties and individual campaigns, etc. Sometimes this is for personal enrichment, sometimes for the benefit of their parties. Next spring former president Jacques Chirac will face trial on charges of misusing his position as Mayor of Paris from 1977 to 1995 to finance his party, the RPR. However what is particular about the present scandal surrounding Eric Woerth and Sarkozy is the light it sheds on the very close relations between Sarkozy and his political allies and the highest, in the sense of most wealthy, circles of French society. Woerth was for some time simultaneously Minister of the Budget and treasurer of Sarkozy’s party, the UMP, an unfortunate combination. As budget minister he conducted a high-profile campaign against tax evasion by the wealthy. However at the same time he gave a 30 million euro tax rebate to Liliane Bettencourt, heiress of the L’Oreal fortune and France’s richest woman, whose finances were handled for a time by Woerth’s wife. It has subsequently emerged that Mme Bettencourt had been avoiding tax by salting her money away in Swiss bank accounts, and also that she made a practice of making large undeclared donations to French politicians, including Sarkozy. It is not sure that there will be any legal action over all this, though it is possible. Sarkozy has stonewalled, refusing to sack Woerth and denying any wrongdoing. But the whole affair has underlined the different worlds in which he and his circle live, on the one hand, and on the other the situation of the mass of the French people who are facing hard times and whose pensions are under attack. A book about Sarkozy has just been published, whose title is as accurate as it is self-explanatory: The President of the Rich. The icing on the cake has been the revelation that Sarkozy’s elder brother Guillaume, a prominent businessman, is planning to launch a private pension fund on January 1, in partnership with public financial institutions that are ultimately controlled by his brother.


What is the situation today and what are the perspectives for the movement? First of all, the unions have already programmed two more days of action, one on a working day on October 28 and one on a Saturday on November 6. We will have to see if the mobilization remains at the same level as it has up to now. Secondly, there are signs that the strike in the oil refineries may be weakening, if not coming to an end. Thirdly, student demonstrations are planned for this week and it seems possible that the school student mobilization will continue after the autumn holidays. It is too early to tell whether the movement is coming to an end, will continue at lower intensity or will take on fresh impetus as it did after October 12.

The government is holding firm. It has made some concessions covering workers in particularly arduous jobs, women who have brought up children, etc. On another front it has been forced to announce the end of the infamous and highly unpopular “tax shield” which protects the super-rich from being taxed at more than 50 per cent of their revenues. But on the key elements of the reform – raising the pension age from 60 to 62, 41.5 years of paying in to qualify for a full state pension, raising the age for that pension from 65 to 67 – it is not budging. Only a new wave of ongoing strikes and demonstrations could force it to give in on one or two of those points, or even to withdraw the whole project and negotiate. Failing that, it will succeed in making its proposals law, and the movement will have been defeated. Sarkozy will have survived, avoided becoming a lame duck for the rest of his presidency, but he will still be damaged goods.

But even if the movement is defeated – and it has not been yet – that may not be the end of the story. There are defeats which simply demoralize and defeats which prepare future battles. The last few months have shown that French workers and youth have huge capacities of mobilization. They have also shown extremely radical attitudes in French society. A poll conducted on 20-21 October – after a week of strikes, blockades and petrol shortages – showed some remarkable results. Here are a few of them. Support for strikes and demonstrations: 69 per cent (92 per cent among supporters of the Left). Support for transport strikes: 52 Per cent (77 per cent among supporters of the Left; 63 per cent of workers). Support for blockading oil refineries: 46 per cent (70 per cent among supporters of the Left; 57 per cent of workers, 52 per cent of those aged 25-64). Whatever happens in the immediate struggle over pensions, the capacities for mobilization, the combativeness and the radical attitudes that this movement has revealed will reappear on other fronts. And if the radical Left knows how to rise to the challenge, that will also reinforce the perspectives for a political alternative to neo-liberal capitalism.