A major battle is underway in France. The newly elected president Nicolas Sarkozy and his right wing government have launched a wave of attacks on workers and students.
But the movement against neoliberalism has fought back magnificently – with resolute rank and file activism to the fore.
The media is comparing Sarkozy’s attacks on French workers to those undertaken in Britain by Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s.
Spearheading the struggle are railway workers, whose strike has gone into a second week, and students, whose protests have affected more than half of France’s 85 universities.
Teachers, nurses, solicitors, magistrates, post workers, gas and electricity workers, fishermen and civil servants have also taken action, along with ballet dancers, actors and stagehands at both Paris opera houses and the Comédie-Française theatre.
Railway and metro workers are defending pension rights in the public sector.
They are part of a group of half a million workers who have the right to retire earlier on a full pension, although in return they make higher social security payments.
The government wants to end this “privilege” so that nobody is eligible for a full pension until they have worked for 40 years. It will then launch further attacks on the pension rights of all workers.
Opposition from the Socialist Party and its leader, François Hollande, has been weak.
He is in favour of pension reform and has only criticised the way Sarkozy has gone about it. As one railway worker put it, “When I hear poor old Hollande, I want to cry.”
It is the railway and metro workers themselves, rather than the official opposition, who have taken the fight to Sarkozy. They walked out on strike on Tuesday of last week.
Daily mass meetings then voted to renew the action so they were still out when other public sector workers demonstrated over pay and job cuts on Tuesday of this week.
The government has entered into talks with some groups, such as gas and electricity workers, in the hope of isolating the railway workers.
It is trying to divide France’s various union federations and wants to draw the railway workers’ main union, the CGT, into calling off the strike, negotiating and selling out the fight over pensions.
But pressure from below has ensured the action has remained effective, with as much disruption to the transport system as during France’s great strike wave of 1995.
The CGT leadership knows that if it calls off the action it will lose credibility and members. But its control of events is already threatened by rank and file activity.
By ensuring the current strike has been continuous, union activists have prevented it from being focused on individual days of action and thereby fragmented.
Sarkozy is also confronted by another battle, led by students, against a new law which will shift control of higher education from the state to the market, opening the door to privatisation of the university system.
As the transport network ground to a halt last week, universities across the country were disrupted by action, with riot police attacking students who had set up blockades in Rennes and Nanterre.
The students’ national coordinating committee urged students to join workers on Tuesday of this week and to prepare for a nationwide strike in schools and universities two days later.
The students have also issued a call for every “sector in struggle” to mobilise for a day of action on Tuesday of next week.
The coordinating committee declared, “We must build a movement of all young people and workers to fight back against the government’s offensive.”
One student activist summed up the mood last week, “We’re not great leaders – we’re just students who are afraid our future is being flogged off.”
Anger at the havoc and misery caused by neoliberalism is what unites all the different groups now engaged in struggle, whether over pay, pensions or market-led education reforms.
Sarkozy has sought confrontation in order to neutralise their movement, which has undermined every French government elected since 1995.
But students and workers are drawing on the activist networks and experience they have built up over the past 12 years.
Despite the government’s offensive, this means they have entered the conflict with a higher level of organisation than on previous occasions.
Yet they are faced with a government that is confident it has a mandate for cutbacks and a trade union leadership that has failed to give impetus to the movement.
There are signs that the strikes are provoking tensions on the right. Last week Sarkozy was forced to head off attempts by members of his own UMP party to inflame the situation further by organising an anti-strike demonstration.
He knows that if the government is defeated, the reputation of his hardline presidency will be in ruins.
But the movement of workers and students has already proven its capacity to overcome setbacks.
This week will be a crucial test of the strength of opposition to Sarkozy, who is prepared for a long conflict.
The ability of activists to maintain radical action and mobilise wider layers of workers and students will be crucial.
As one railway worker put it, “After the demonstration on 20 November, the movement has to snowball.”