Friday, November 16, 2007

John Mullen: Towards an explosion of struggle in France?

My thanks again to John Mullen who wrote a shorter piece on the events in France earlier in the week. This second piece is a further, more analytical look at where these events are going. John is editor of Socialisme International and you can also find him here.

A wave of strikes and protests is blossoming in France as I write. The new government, determined to « reform France », to « end once and for all the legacy of 1968 » but extra-careful to take it step by step, is finding mass resistance rising up in its path. It is impossible for the moment to know what will be the result a month or two from now.

The first battleground is pension rights. In France, although it does exist, poverty among old age pensioners is far far less common than in Britain, because workers have been able over the years to defend, more or less, a decent system. Then in 1993 pensions in the private sector were cut back. It was no longer enough to work 37 and a half years to get a full pension - you had to work forty years. In 2003, despite strikes and demonstrations by millions, that cutback was extended to the public sector. Forty years working life for everyone, and scary plans to increase that at the next Pensions Review in 2008. The idea was not really to make people work longer (in any case employers try to get rid of you after you’re fifty five), but more to make sure as few people as possible retire on a full pension, so as to save money on pensions.

But a few sectors were not included in the 2003 pension cuts - railway workers; metro workers, electricity and gas, the Paris Opera (!) and a couple of other groups of public sector workers were still on thirty seven and a half years. Sarkozy declared that it was essential to change this (« in the name of fairness »). The SNCF general manager went on TV to explain. The nice polite interviewer didn’t ask her about the difference in life expectancy between train drivers and General Managers, nor about whether she had to get up at three or four in the morning.

Defending their pension scheme is the reason for the transport strikes which began last Tuesday. Sarkozy chose this battlefield carefully, knowing that a lot of workers accept that everyone should move to forty years.

Meanwhile in the universities, students are boycotting lectures and voting to blockade the campuses in almost half of the universities across France. This is a situation which could change from day to day. The beginning of the movement, however, has started up much more rapidly than was the case two years ago with the victorious movement against the First Employment Contract (a movement which ended with a delicious humiliation for the Conservative government). The issue for students this time is the new Law on Universities. This has been carefully written so as to present only a first step in Conservative counter-reform. Nevertheless, its clear aim is to increase private funding in universities, to make universities compete against each other for funding and students, to cut financing of arts and humanities and increase the financing of subjects closer to the hearts of profit. It also aims to create a real management structure in universities - giving much more power to the Rectors, who up to now have had to manage universities hand-in-hand with powerful committees of professors. The professorial committees could be pretty dusty - but better than being managed by a big boss who always has an eye on private sector funding.

This time round there has been much more of an attempt by anti-strike students to organize against the strikes. And a few cases of radical students being satisfied with small group action instead of wanting to draw in as many as possible. For example the national student coordinating committee declared they would block the railway stations the day before the rail strike - until rail union leaders asked them not to.

Finally, the public sector workers (teachers, hospitals and civil servants) are planning a one-day strike next Tuesday for wage rises and against job cuts. The government has been trumpeting about the need to reduce the numbers of state employees, who are badly paid compared with the private sector but have real job security. Sarkozy’s slogan has been « only half of state employees who retire will be replaced. »

It is difficult to know how solid this public sector strike will be, and whether there is a chance it will be renewed after the first twenty four hours. This will fundamentally depend on how far the transport strikes and student revolts have risen by next Tuesday.

The transport union leaders are desperately looking for a way out. A very minor concession by Sarkozy saying he was willing to have governmental representatives attend negotiations between public transport managers and unions, is being used as an excuse by union leaders to say that the strike could end soon. The most conservative union - the CFDT - has called for an end to the strike. The major more radical union leaders - those of the CGT - have not dared to do this, not wanting to cut themselves off from an angry rank and file. But they have been saying how wonderful it is that these negotiations will allow them to talk directly to government representatives.

The stakes are high. If the railway and metro workers are beaten, demoralization could easily set in in all the other sectors, including students. The struggle, today Friday, hangs in the balance. If the strike stake off next week, we are in for a big explosion.

Already, it is excellent news that the struggle has risen so high. If the unions had given in without a strike, the government would have automatically accelerated their attacks in every area of economic and social life. But what we really need is not just proof that we can fight, to make the bosses wary, but proof that we can win, to make them terrified.

The major defeat for our side in 2003 on pensions, and the major victory for the workers in 2006 against the First Employment Contract, give the context - it could go either way. All radicals in France should be doing everything they can to make it go our way.

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