French workers vs. state and union leaders

November 11, 2010

From the Nov.-Dec. 2010 issue of News & Letters:

French workers vs. state and union leaders


What follows are excerpts from an in-person report.



Montpellier, France–People ask me what it’s like living in France during these massive one-day strikes and popular mobilizations against the conservative Sarkozy government’s pension “reforms.” These cuts would push the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 and the age for receiving full benefits from 65 to 67.

On the one hand, it is thrilling to see millions of citizens in the streets as well as hundreds of thousands of workers striking in defense of their hard-won social rights defying an increasingly reactionary government. What is most heartening is that the “troops” seem to be more radical than the union chiefs and Socialist Party politicians. Recent polls showed the French public not only supports the one-day strikes (which make life hell for commuters and parents of schoolchildren); nearly half are in favor of an open-ended general strike to make the government yield–a strategy advocated by the far-Left parties like the New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) as well as by militant rank-and-file workers and local unions who are chomping at the bit.

On the other hand, the unions used the same dilatory tactics of spaced one-day public sector work stoppages in 2009, and the government simply bided its time until summer, when the French go on vacation, and rammed the cuts through parliament late one night. And this wasn’t the first time these tactics failed.

Ever since the runaway general strike of 1995, every time the French have massively demonstrated and gone on national strikes in opposition to government attacks on their labor and welfare rights (as in 2009, 2008 and 2003), the official leaders of the unions have imposed the tactic of spaced one-day national work stoppages and demonstrations–designed precisely to “demonstrate” to the government their ability to call out their troops (and thus presumably to rein them in). These demonstrations inevitably run out of steam. Time is always on the side of the government and the capitalists in the class struggle. The masses’ only strength is in numbers and resoluteness, and their most effective tactic is to stay mobilized, spread the movement to all sectors of the economy, go for broke and paralyze the country until the bosses give in–as they did in 1936, 1968 and 1995.

The strikers and demonstrators want to use their mass power to force the government to rescind the cuts, as the Chirac-Juppé government was forced to do in 1995 when rank-and-file assemblies ignored the unions’ cautious tactics and took matters into their own hands. Paradoxically, this victory was a stinging defeat not just for the government but also for the unions, who were delegitimized as responsible “social partners” unable to control their troops.

Similar mass struggles are happening all over Europe, where the same neoliberal cutbacks are being imposed in the name of paying “the debt” created by bailing out the banks. Yet here again, the left politicians and union leaders, far from seeking strength through international solidarity, remain staunchly isolated within their national boundaries, despite the obvious fact that the European Union has created a common economic zone! But the unions and left parties depend for their “franchise” on the national state, which subsidizes them directly.

One hopes the French people, who are always full of surprises, will find some way out of this impasse in which their “representatives”–the union leaders and the official left parties–are apparently their worst enemies.

–Oct. 15, 2010

* * *

A week later, the biggest “surprise” is the entrance en masse of French youth, considered “apolitical,” into the arena of the social struggle. All over France, high schools are being blocked by their students, while the presence of beautiful young faces is overwhelming in the huge nationwide street demonstrations that keep intensifying.

This massive mobilization of French youth should not come as a surprise. Last year there were weeks of strikes and protests among high school and university students against education cutbacks, and in November 2005 there was serious rioting among mostly French-Arab and French-African youth in the ghetto-like projects that surround Paris and other French cities.

The second “surprise” since last week has been the mobilization of the truckers (mostly independent) and the refinery workers, which has resulted in gasoline shortages at service stations all over France and deliberate slowdowns (“snail actions”) by trucks on the highways. This is all the more remarkable in that the French truckers, who can retire at 55 under a special dispensation, are striking purely out of solidarity.

More and more, the movement is in the hands of local committees and worker assemblies, who vote to continue and expand the symbolic one-day strikes called by the cautious national union leaderships.

–Richard Greeman, Oct. 21, 2010


P.S. You can see 3 reports from Greeman here:

Oct. 15, 2010

Oct. 21, 2010

Nov. 4, 2010


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