France - A wave of working class mobilisation

Jul/Aug 2003

The period between mid-March and 19 June saw the largest wave of industrial protests in France since the Winter of 1995, when a railway strike developed into a full-scale mobilisation across the public sector.

This time, the spearhead of the protest was education workers. However, the series of national days of action called by the trade- union confederations provided opportunities for new sections of the public sector to join the demonstrations which were organised in many towns. In some cases, these workers remained on strike for several days, in between consecutive national days of action, or carried on participating in street protests. Such was the case, in the public transport systems of the large towns, in the railways, the post office, the road maintenance service and municipal services, among others.

Private sector workers did join many of the marches held during this period and some took strike action, if only for a few hours, to join the protest. But the mobilisation did not really spread to the decisive industrial strongholds of the working class.

The strikes and marches which took place during this period involved several million workers in one way or another - that is a significant section of the working population. The most positive side of this wave of militancy was its lack of sectional divisions. Due to the general character of its objectives (the issue of pension rights and to a lesser degree the attacks on education) and due to the determination of a large number of strikers to convince other sections of workers to join in the protest, it appeared as the militant expression of the working population as a whole. For once, thanks to this high degree of unity in purpose and action, teachers - i.e. intellectual workers who do not normally see their fate as being tied to that of the rest of the working population - had to take on board the fact that all wage earners, whether intellectual or otherwise, have the same interests.

This wave of protest failed to force the government to withdraw its attacks against the pension system. But despite this failure, it has proved that the working population could raise its head and fight back, even after the past years of on-going attacks from the bosses and their governments. Besides, no-one can tell what the future has in store. It may well be that this militant wave is not over and that what has happened in April-June turns out to be the first phase of a future larger mobilisation, large and deep enough to be victorious this time. In any case this is what can be hoped for.

The government's offensive

The background to this wave of protest was provided by the series of measures taken by the right-wing government which came to power after last year's presidential and general elections.

The circumstances which led this to happen are worth recalling. The previous Socialist Party-led coalition government (which involved the Communist Party and the Greens) had been implementing five years of pro-business policies, which not only filled many left-wing voters with a bitter sense of betrayal, but resulted in a significant degradation of working conditions for a whole section of the working class. The consequence was an abrupt drop in the coalition party's votes in the first round of the presidential election, allowing the far-right candidate Le Pen to come second behind the right-wing candidate Chirac.

The left-wing party leaders grabbed the opportunity. They embarked, together with the right-wing parties and most of the media, on a hysterical scaremongering campaign against Le Pen's alleged "threat", using it as a pretext to call for a vote for Chirac in the second round. There was no chance whatsoever for Le Pen to be elected in the second round, as Chirac would gain a large lead just by capitalising on the votes won by the various right-wing candidates in the first round. Nevertheless, this manoeuvre was politically convenient for the Socialist Party since it diverted attention from its own large electoral losses and allowed it to avoid having to offer an explanation for this.

The result was that Chirac was elected with an unprecedented score - 82% - which was followed by the election of a large right- wing majority in the subsequent general election. On the strength of Chirac's score they managed to patch up their differences to form a single party behind Chirac, something that they had failed to do for decades. The new government which was formed under Raffarin felt confident enough to embark on a series of measures designed to step up the policies followed already for many years by the previous governments in order to increase the share of the national income going to the wealthy at the expense of the working population, the jobless and the poorest in general.

These measures affected many different aspects of social life: from income tax to the minimum wage, the pension and health insurance system and even the level of old persons' benefit, which was reduced - something which affects mostly the poorest, without even allowing the state to make significant savings. The 35-hour law was amended, retaining all the aspects which worsened working conditions (annualised and flexible hours) but depriving workers in small workplaces of the right to a 35-hour week, while retaining the huge subsidies introduced by the Socialist Party to "compensate" the bosses for the "cost" of implementing this law. Besides, the new government adopted some of Le Pen's anti-immigrant demagogy and implemented some of the measures he had advocated.

Eventually, however, it is the vexed question of pensions, on which a previous right-wing government had already failed to crack in 1995, which has backfired on Raffarin's government.

Robbing the pension system

The French pension system is based, like in Britain, on a state basic pension which is financed by contributions paid by waged workers and bosses. The contributions of today's workers feed a special fund out of which the pensions of today's retired workers are paid. However, unlike in Britain, the basic pension is not reduced to ridiculous levels - not yet, at least.

The method for computing the basic pension is too complicated to be explained in detail here. Let us just say that up to 1993, one had to pay contributions for 37.5 years in order to get a full basic pension. In 1993, the then right-wing government changed the rules for private sector workers only, who were made to pay contributions for 40 years, while the level of their basic pensions was cut. At the time, public sector workers were unaffected. In 1995, however, another right-wing government tried to impose the same cuts on public sector workers and sparked off a huge strike wave. The attempt had to be abandoned.

In November last year, the Raffarin government announced a new attempt to impose the same cuts. Except that this time, he made no secret of the fact that they were to be followed by others, which would affect all workers. The measures, which are going through the French Parliament at the time of writing, will result eventually in cutting pension levels, with the reduction becoming much larger for older pensioners as they age further, due to the method of indexation which will now be adopted. Moreover public sector workers will have to pay 2.5% more of their wages in contributions and, already, it is expected that the number of years that one has to contribute in order to get a full basic pension will reach 42 years for everyone by 2020.

To cut a long story short, this means that French workers will have to pay more and work longer in order to earn smaller pensions!

The justification for such drastic cuts is familiar: the number of pensioners is increasing and they live longer, while the relative number of active workers is decreasing. Therefore since there are fewer and fewer workers to support more and more pensioners, new sources of funding have to be found, while pensions have to be reduced. This is almost word for word what Blair and Brown have told us over the past years in order to justify their policy of allowing the basic pension to drop to peanuts while forcing workers who cannot afford it to subscribe to their stakeholders' pensions.

But of course, in France just as in Britain, this pretext is a fraud. First, because it takes no account of the constantly increasing labour productivity in society, which allows fewer workers to produce considerably more wealth. How this wealth is used, of course, is a matter of social choice. Raffarin's and Blair's choice is obviously to allow this extra wealth to line the pockets of the wealthy. But society could be organised in such a way that this wealth is used to provide for the needs of everyone instead - that is, provided it is freed of the parasitism of the capitalist class. And after all, it would only be legitimate for society to guarantee a decent way of life to those retired workers who catered for its needs during their working lives.

Second, even within the present system, the argument about the "unaffordability" of decent pensions is a fraud and the Raffarin government provides a clear example of this. Its statisticians claim that, without the series of cuts which are being introduced, by 2020 the French pension system would be £29bn in the red. Such long-term estimates are highly suspicious. After all, governments are totally incapable of predicting the shortfall of their own budget for the next year, let alone that of the pension system in 17 years time! But let us assume that this figure is correct. What Raffarin does not say, when he throws this figure at the French working class, is that this is less than the estimated £33bn of state subsidies which will be dished out to the bosses during this year alone - and which come on top of similar amounts distributed to the capitalist class in the previous years and, no doubt, in the years to come! In other words, a modest cut to the state subsidies to companies would be enough to guarantee the future of the pension system!

As to the consequences of these attacks on the pension system for the working population, they may be catastrophic, especially in a situation when unemployment is rising and casual employment may be the only form of employment for many workers for long periods of their working lives. Indeed, the long-term jobless who have been thrown off the benefit register no longer accrue pension contributions and there are all sorts of other ways in which workers can stop to accrue contributions. Part-time workers only accrue contributions in proportion to the part-time wages they earn, which will reduce their pensions when they are finally computed on the basis of their past earnings. Those who will retire after having alternated between periods of unemployment and periods of casual, full, or part-time work on the minimum wage and sometimes less, are guaranteed to join the estimated eight million people who already live under the poverty line in France.

Instead of a "modernisation" of the pension system, as Raffarin describes his measures, they constitute a step backward for society as a whole.

Education workers lead the way

Raffarin probably did not expect that the first to react to his measures would be education workers, nor that they would be able to pull behind them many other workers from completely different sections. However, it was not over the pension issue that education workers went into action initially.

The French education system employs over a million workers, of which around 800,000 have teaching duties, 110,000 carry out administrative, social, health and playground tasks and about the same number are manual workers (technicians, maintenance workers, canteen staff, etc..). This latter group, known as TOS, which comprises the lowest-paid staff, was targeted by Raffarin's decentralisation reform which shifted their work contract from central to regional government (all education workers are normally employed by central government, which means that they can apply for transfer anywhere in France without loss of status or seniority). This was seen as a potential threat against their jobs and a possible first move towards privatisation in education. And it was this which initially prompted all categories of education staff into action.

Before that there had been a series of four token national days of action called by the education unions over various issues and some limited outbreaks of industrial action in the south. After Raffarin announced his plans against the TOS, the unions called a national day of action for 18 March. By that time, teachers in a number of schools had already taken it upon themselves to go on strike and they were calling on other schools to join them.

In the Paris area, the initial impetus to the strike wave was provided by a minority of teachers from ten secondary schools in the northern "red suburb" of Seine Saint-Denis. In other towns, like Toulouse and Marseilles, the initial core of strikers were mostly primary school teachers from the poorest areas. One remarkable feature of the situation was that the strike wave was developing independently in many different towns, partly due to being encouraged by the union-sponsored days of action, but without any real coordination from the unions.

After the Easter break, the strike wave resumed with the same spontaneity, without waiting for the national day of action called by the unions against the decentralisation plans for 6 May. In the Paris area, the strike spread to the whole of Greater Paris. Soon twice-weekly mass demonstrations were to be organised in central Paris, every Tuesdays and Thursdays. Elsewhere, the strike spread to new towns and new schools. It was a constantly expanding wave, although it retained the same character as before, with a minority of determined strikers in each towns, while many more took part in marches and joined the strike on and off depending on the activities organised on that day.

But the real turning point in the strike was reached on 6 May. Its overwhelming success across the whole country provided the strike with a new upsurge of energy. The number of strikers and of schools affected increased dramatically during the following days. Within a week, the strike which, so far, had been largely confined to a small number of urbanised regions, developed into a national strike. The strikers held daily meetings in each school and each town. In the big towns, these meetings often brought together several hundred strikers every day: 800 in Toulouse, 1,000 in Nantes, up to 800 for the Greater Paris mass meeting and between 200 and 600 in each one of the five suburban districts of Paris. And because they were democratically run and allowed everyone a say, these meetings boosted the confidence of the participants and encouraged them to bring others the next day and to be actively involved in the strike. Meetings were organised with parents as well, in order to explain to them what was at stake in the strike and, if possible, convince them to get actively involved.

By then the issue of Raffarin's attacks on pensions had joined that of decentralisation among the objectives of the strikers. They were conscious of the fact that to force the government to back down on these two vital issues, they needed to spread their protest to other sections of workers. Quite naturally, the practice for education strikers to make contacts with other public sector workers in order to convince them to join the protest was gathering momentum. And it worked well.

Transport workers join the protest

In the public sector in general, and public transport in particular, the protest over pensions began long before the strike wave in education, in the form of a long series of days of action called by the main union confederations, especially the CGT. There was a national day of action in the railways on 26 November last year, followed by three others - in February, March and 3rd April - each time with the participation of large contingents from other sections of the public sector. Each time, the demonstrations were led by a huge banner demanding "37.5 years of contributions for all - public and private".

The traditional May Day trade union demonstration was particularly successful and militant, boosting the morale of rank- and-file trade-union activists and militant workers, who expressed increasingly the need for an all-out response to Raffarin's plan. All the more so as, by that time, the education strike was becoming very visible and producing a sort of militant atmosphere which filtered outwards everywhere - especially where it was physically conveyed by delegation of education strikers distributing leaflets at workplace gates and inviting workers to discuss how to defeat Raffarin's plans.

Meanwhile the union leaders had called a one-day strike nationally in the railways and in the Paris transport system for 13 May and a lot of activity was going into its preparation.

This one-day strike was a resounding success almost everywhere, in any case far beyond the expectations of those who had prepared for it. In the railways, the number of strikers was the highest since 1979 and the unions even reported an unprecedented participation of managerial grades. In most depots, the mass meetings held on that day had voted to reconvene the following day to decide the next step to take. But for many of the tens of thousands of transport workers who marched in the streets of France on that day, the answer to this question was obviously that the strike needed to carry on.

However, the two major confederations in the railways, the CGT and CFDT had already decided otherwise. For them, the next step was to be a national day of demonstration already planned for 25 May (a Sunday which, therefore, would not involve strike action) and another one-day transport strike on 3 June. Then and only then would they consider a longer strike. Contrary to what had happened in 1995, when the CGT leadership had deliberately made the choice of extending the transport strike, this time they chose to stab it in the back just as it was taking off the ground.

The next day, in the depots were the union machineries did not bring in heavyweights to convince workers to return to work, the continuation of the strike was voted for by a large majority, particularly in the Paris transport system and the among the bus workers of many large towns. However, many workers were left disconcerted by the attitude of the unions, others made bitter comments, feeling that the militant mood could have delivered much more than a one-off strike. But, in the railways, the workers' determination had not reached the point were they were prepared to embark on a fight against the opposition of the union leadership, as they had done, for instance, during the 1986 railway strike. Soon, most of the railway depots were back at work, with only small minorities of militant workers remaining on strike in a few of them.

By that time, the CFDT decided that it had done enough. It announced its agreement with the pension plans, although many CFDT branches remained involved in the protest. Thereafter, the wave went on from one day of mobilisation to the next. Some of these where impressively successful, particularly the national demonstration on 25 May. Even the transport strike on 3 June was still remarkably strong, although there were already noticeably fewer strikers at the mass meetings. But the attitude of the CGT leaders, who did nothing to appear opposed to the idea of a fight back but kept proposing nothing other than these days of mobilisation, finally convinced workers that they were not prepared to wage a serious fight against Raffarin's attacks.

Towards another offensive?

Many other public sector workers staged strikes during this period, in many different ways - from the odd stoppages to strikes lasting for weeks. There were also a much more limited number of cases of stoppages in the private sector, including in medium-size companies, usually to allow workers to participate in local demonstrations. But many private sector workers took part in the demonstrations, either as parents or as future pensioners.

The protest wave never came close to the point of becoming a general strike. But it was dynamic and broad enough to really worry the government. There is no doubt that the days of action called by the unions played a decisive role in the build-up of the protest, even if this was largely unintentional on the part of the union leadership. But the fact that the strikers went on to develop their own channels to organise and spread the protest was a worrying factor for Raffarin: indeed, sitting at a negotiating table with the union leaders in order to get them to contain the strikers was always a possible option, but only provided they remained able to control the protest.

No-one can tell whether the conditions in which the protest wave developed would have allowed it to grow into a general strike.

In any case it would be pointless to blame the CGT leadership, let alone the other unions, for having failed in this respect. After all the CGT is first and foremost a reformist union. As such, it is not its policy to organise radical confrontations between the working class and the capitalist class or its state. On the contrary, due to its integration in the institutions of the state, it rejects such a confrontational perspective. Its leadership may use a more or less radical language depending on circumstances and propose more or less radical forms of actions, but never with the objective of building up a general mobilisation of the working class to defend its class interests. And if such a mobilisation was to take place, the CGT leaders would promptly put on the brakes.

Even if the CGT leaders had called for a general strike, no-one can guarantee seriously that the main battalions of the working class, particularly in the private sector, would have stood up for the occasion. A general strike is not something that can be triggered by pressing a button.

However, the CGT did weaken the protest wave in one way. It chose to put the emphasis on demanding the government to open negotiations without attempting to mobilise workers on the largest possible scale so as to have the strongest possible hand at the bargaining table. By doing so the CGT showed to the government - and to the working class - that it was willing to accept, even if within limits, the attacks on pensions. By putting its considerable militant resources into building up the mobilisation, thereby creating a relationship of forces which was more favourable to the working class, the CGT could have at least helped to bolster the workers' confidence in their ability to fight, even if this would not necessarily have changed the outcome of the protest.

In the history of the French working class, the past general strikes - whether that of June 1936, May 1968 or the civil servant strike of 1953 - have never taken place thanks to any militant strategy on the part of the trade-union leadership. In each case, the union leaders were forced by working class militancy to go much further than they wanted. This is why the working class cannot rely on union leaders to have a policy aimed at generalising strikes. But they can force union leaders to follow them and they can dump the union machineries which try to oppose the struggle or distance themselves from it.

In this protest wave, this process of generalisation by the strikers themselves was only carried out in a limited, embryonic faction by a minority of strikers, mostly among education workers. But those who participated in this process and understood why this strategy is necessary and how it can be implemented, have acquired a precious experience. If this protest wave re-emerges in the months to come (which may well happen against the planned cuts in Health Insurance), this experience will be decisive. Because, once again, there will be no way forward other than to extend the protest as broadly as possible, to involve the largest possible number of workers as activists of the protest and to win the participation of whole sections from the privately-owned industrial strongholds of the working class.

30 June 2003