More on the Strikes and Protests in France (Updated)

Update Oct. 16: Richard Greeman writes from France about the inspiring mass mobilization and the difference between what workers and students are fighting for and what union leaders and Socialist Party politicians are up to. See below for Greeman’s observations.

The Sarkozy government is determined to press on with its attacks on pensions — but many workers including many young people are equally determined to stop the attacks.

This English-language text by workers at Agence France Presse who belong to the radical Solidaires union federation argues that “Pushing back the retirement age is an absurd measure. The real debate should be about how to bring about further cuts to working hours in order to mop up unemployment, and about ways to improve, rather than degrade, our pension system.”

For those who can read French, this Oct. 15 statement from Solidaires argues that a general strike is needed to stop the attacks. To that end, it calls for people to join in the hundreds of Oct. 16 demonstrations scheduled to take place across France and then take part in the day of strikes and protests on Oct. 19, a day that will be an opportunity to support workers who have been on strike since Oct. 12, to integrate strikes in some sectors scheduled to begin on Monday, Oct. 18 and to escalate the struggle.

Dear Friends,

People ask me what’s it 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 forward from age 60 to 62 and the minimum age for receiving full benefits from 65 to 67. For details:

On the one hand, it is thrilling to see millions of citizens taking to the streets as well as hundreds of thousands of workers striking in defense of their hard-won social rights defying an increasingly reactionary government. Indeed, what is most heartening is that the ‘troops’ seem to be more radical than their official leaders, 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 NPA as well as by militant rank-and-file workers and local unions who are chomping at the bit.

Once again I am reminded about what I love about France: a still-living revolutionary tradition of popular mass mobilization and struggle that goes back to the sans-culottes of 1789, the revolutions of 1830, 1848, and 1871 (the Paris Commune), the sit-down strikes of 1936, and in my own lifetime, the nationwide student-worker uprising of May-June 1968 and the1995 nationwide strike of public employees that went ‘wildcat,’ paralyzed France for two months (during which Parisians cheerfully commuted by bike and event boat) and forced an earlier conservative government to withdrawn its unpopular welfare ‘reforms.’ It’s also a great pleasure to see a nasty right-wing s.o.b. like Sarkozy humiliated by millions of angry, jeering citizens blocking the trains and taking over the streets.

On the other hand, I also have a disheartening feeling of déjà vu. Why? Because the unions used the same dilatory tactics of spaced one-day work public sector 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 August night. And this wasn’t the first time these tactics failed.

Indeed, 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 delaying tactic of spaced one-day national work-stoppages and demonstrations – marches and counter-marches designed quite precisely to ‘demonstrate’ to the government their ability to call out their troops (and thus presumably to reign them in). These demonstrations are great for letting off steam, but inevitably they 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, once they are mobilized, 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 apparent purpose of the leadership’s military-style maneuvers is to make a show of force and induce the government to invite the union leaders to a round table — thus recognizing their legitimacy as the official representatives of labor. This plays out in the media through competition over how many demonstrators went into the streets in each successive demonstration. Social struggle reduced to sports statistics. The unions count 3.5 million people, the police count less than half. The union leaders go on TV and call it a success: the government says it is not impressed and won’t budge. Then the politicians get into the act. With presidential elections looming and Sarkozy’s popularity at an all-time low, the Socialists, who in power also imposed neo-liberal cuts, grandstand their support for the movement. They, too, have an interest in prolonging the struggle against Sarkozy as they hope of reaping the results of his unpopularity at the polls. Former Socialist presidential candidate Segolène Royale encourages the youth, specifically high schoolers, to join the demonstrations. The Right (which has been cutting back teachers like mad) cries ‘scandal.’ Another political horserace.

The goal of the mass movement quite different. The strikers and demonstrators sincerely 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. Those 1995 strikes got out of hand and continued for two weeks until they achieved complete victory and the cuts were rescinded. Paradoxically, this victory was a stinging defeat not just for the government but also for the unions, who were de-legitimized as responsible ‘social partners’ unable to control of their troops.

This is worrisome for the brass at the CGT, CDFT and other federations, since only about 23% of French workers belong to unions, which are supported not by dues but by government allocations. Since 1995, the unions have tightened their control over the movement to prevent another wildcat breakaway. And you can’t cynically turn mass enthusiasm and anger on and off like a water tap without exhausting it, so such tactics inevitably spell defeat for working people whose dream of retiring keeps receding into the future while they remain on the treadmill.

Similar masses struggles are happening all over Europe, where the same neo-liberal 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 boundries, 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.

Best Wishes to All,
Richard Greeman

Montpellier, France
Oct. 15, 2010