Workers and bosses in France were set for a major trial of strength on Thursday. All the country's major union federations have called for strikes and demonstrations against a 'frontal assault' on workers' pension rights. It comes as the social and political temperature in France is rising. Strikes and demonstrations have been multiplying in recent weeks. Now the Les Echos business paper worries that bosses are playing 'a dangerous game'. Thursday's action centres around a provocative move by the Medef employers' organisation.
France has the best workers' pensions in Europe, run through a series of complex schemes negotiated directly between employers' organisations and unions. The employers want to scrap private sector workers' right to retire on full pensions at 60. The attack is part of a wider employers' strategy they dub 'social refoundation'-calling into question established welfare rights.
As a result workers outside the particular pension scheme under immediate threat fear their pensions could be next in line. The bosses' challenge comes against the background of the last five years of struggle in France. In December 1995 a major attack by the then Tory government on public sector workers' pensions and other welfare rights provoked an explosion of strikes and demonstrations.
That revolt ripped the guts out of the government, paving the way for the election of a left wing coalition government headed by the Socialist Party-the equivalent of Britain's Labour Party. That government has since shown every sign of wanting to go along with the bosses' 'neo-liberal' agenda of privatisation and cutting welfare.
But it and France's bosses have been buffeted by the continuing high level of workers' struggle. Pressure from below has forced the government to bring in measures such as the 35-hour week, even though this was watered down to placate the bosses. And protests by civil servants and teachers last year, for example, forced the resignation of two key government ministers.
Demonstrations were planned in some 84 towns across France on Thursday and all major unions had called on workers across the private sector to join them. Key groups of public sector workers also looked set to join the mobilisation-including rail, public transport, airline, post and telecom workers. The build-up to Thursday was worrying the government, with even the governing Socialist Party forced to attack bosses' 'intransigence'. Thursday's planned action also comes against the background of a rising level of protest in recent months.
One measure of the mood was the tens of thousands of workers from across France who joined December's 100,000-strong international workers' march in Nice demanding 'a social Europe'. A key battle has now erupted over the plan by the Danone food multinational to shut a dozen factories, which saw a national strike and demonstrations by the company's workers last week.
A leaked company document gives an insight into the social climate in France. The company admits it is making big profits and says the factory closures are about 'increasing profitability'. But it warns managers that they 'must argue publicly that it is to safeguard competitiveness and not to increase profits'. The Danone bosses fear workers' reaction could mesh with the wider feeling in society against neo-liberal policies:
'In a socialist-thinking France the announcement by a group whose economic results are remarkably good that it is closing half its factories will fuel the debate on globalisation.'
The same day as the Danone strike last week also saw negotiations over pay between the government and public sector workers, including teachers and nurses, break down.
Unions now plan a one-day strike. Unfortunately, they have called it for next Tuesday and will miss an oppertunity to bring all the struggles together.
A rash of local fights over pay and other issues has also broken out across the country, including an important five-week strike by public transport workers in the northern city of Rouen.
Fast food workers, often considered unorganisable, are catching the mood too. McDonald's workers in one Paris outlet struck and occupied over Christmas and won a pay rise for all McDonald's workers in France. Now Pizza Hut workers in Paris are on strike, with the strike spreading to four outlets.
Other protests too are looming. On 15 and 16 February a major protest and 'anti-globalisation' event is planned in the southern city of Montpellier. Left wing farmers' leader JosŽ BovŽ faces court, appealing against a jail sentence for his role in dismantling a McDonald's in the town of Millau a year and a half ago.
Bové's first trial last summer sparked the anti-capitalist festival in Millau, attended by over 70,000 people. The stakes are high, and the mobilisations and clashes of the coming weeks could decisively shape the future direction of politics in France.