French strikes: the end or beginning?

News Analysis

PARIS — During France’s powerful public workers’ strikes of November-December 1995, the political waters were somewhat muddy. On the one hand, President Jacques Chirac had based his recent election campaign on the theme of opposing “social fracture” and disharmony. On the other, newly appointed Prime Minister Alain Juppé had just launched a violent attack on welfare and on public workers’ pay and retirement benefits.

This year, however, things seemed much clearer.

Nicolas Sarkozy, leader of the right-wing Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), was elected president in May on the basis of an aggressively anti-worker, anti-social-entitlements program. The formation of his government, led by Prime Minister François Fillon — initiator of the retirement system “reform” of 2003 that sparked strikes at the time — did not leave any doubt. The class war had been announced, and everyone expected a renewal of open social conflict.

That conflict erupted Oct. 18 with a day of strikes and huge mobilizations. More than 300,000 workers from the public and private sectors demonstrated together — workers in transport, energy, metallurgy, chemistry, health, education, culture, distribution ... even the employees of McDonald’s — for the defense of public services and workers’ purchasing power, jobs and pensions.

The fronts of struggle quickly multiplied.

On Oct. 25, Air France’s cabin crew workers, whose productivity is up but whose purchasing power is down, struck to obtain wage increases. They shut down over a quarter of the airline’s flights for nearly a week.

For several weeks, college and high school students had already been mobilizing against the pro-privatization law on “freedoms and responsibilities of the universities” advocated by Valérie Pécresse, minister of higher education. Their solidarity strikes closed many schools and campuses, including the Sorbonne in Paris.

The strikers were soon joined by hospital, post office, telecom and museum workers, along with performing artists, lawyers, judges, commercial fishermen and even tobacconists.

In parallel with these events, resistance to rising government anti-immigrant repression continued. The repression of undocumented immigrants is led by Brice Hortefeux, head of the newly created Immigration and National Identity Ministry. One example: In Lille, police seized immigrant hunger strikers from their hospital beds and threw them into jail.

The conflict grew more intense on Nov. 14 with a strike by workers at the EDF-GDF (electricity and gas utility), SNCF (railroads) and RATP (the subway), whose government retirement benefits are under severe assault. Seventy percent to 80 percent of these workers walked out for eight days, paralyzing the transportation network.

Many labor activists drew the connection between these strikes and subsequent civil service workers’ strike, leading to a solidarity march of more than 700,000 people here on Nov. 20.

In the face of the government’s hard-line, pro-big-business position, the leadership of the trade unions had a clear responsibility to promote the unity of all of these struggles to rebuff the attack. Many activists observed that, just as the chiefs of the European Union are about to impose a new version of their previously defeated anti-worker constitution — in spite of the French “no” vote of the May 2005 — it is time to consolidate unity against the neoliberal, conservative policy of social regression.

However, what happened instead was the agreement by many trade union leaders, including Bernard Thibault of the left-led CGT union federation, to discuss the takeaway proposals on a case-by-case, company-by-company basis.

Such a move, veteran activists said, objectively undermined the building of a common front for the defense of pension and social security systems. The divergence between these union leaders, anxious to “sweeten” neoliberal reforms, and their own membership bases suggests that a deeper radicalization of the struggles may soon take place.

In the meantime, the divisions resulted in a setback. Workers in the transport sector returned to work Nov. 26. Despite some concessions won by the workers, Sarkozy has vowed to continue his “reforms.” The outcome of continuing discussions among the unions, the employers and the government remains uncertain.

One thing is particularly clear, however: the strikers who stood up to resist the assault on retirement benefits and public services were on the front line in the defense of all working people.

Rémy Herrera is a researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research and teaches at the University of Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne.