After nine days of strikes against president Nicolas Sarkozy’s pension reforms, France’s rail and metro workers last week voted to suspend action as their unions agreed to talks on the government’s terms.
Other public sector workers look set to continue their fight over pay and job cuts following a 700,000 strong national demonstration on Tuesday of last week.
Action by school and university students against the LRU law to introduce privatisation into higher education was also still on at the start of this week.
The rail workers’ strike cost up to £290 million a day in lost revenue. Its suspension, by one of the most militant sections of the French working class, is a setback for the movement.
The rail workers are confronted by a confident government which claims a mandate to end the special pension schemes that give certain groups of workers the right to retire earlier.
The strikers have also had to wage their fight in the teeth of opposition from the leaderships of both the Socialist Party – France’s equivalent of New Labour – and the trade unions.
Sarkozy admitted last week that he is looking to co-opt union leaders to push through attacks on public sector workers.
“The special pension schemes are the aperitif,” his spokesperson said. “For the other reforms we will need responsible trade unions.”
Bernard Thibault, leader of the main CGT union confederation, did not feel able to openly oppose continuous strike action, but did not offer resolute opposition to Sarkozy either.
Rail workers could not sustain their strike in the face of union leaders’ desire to negotiate.
The actions of union leaders have created widespread discontent among rank and file activists and federal officials alike.
François Chérèque, leader of the rival CFDT union confederation, called on rail workers to end their strike. He was forced to run away after being heckled at the demolast Tuesday.
Some have compared Sarkozy’s offensive to Margaret Thatcher’s attack on the British mining industry. But the railway workers have not lost their jobs.
Nor is Sarkozy able to draw on the kind of widespread backing for “popular capitalism” that Thatcher enjoyed in the 1980s.
Although various groups of workers have suffered defeats over pensions during the past 15 years, strong support remains for public sector pay keeping pace with rising living costs.
Last year a majority of the population also backed the successful campaign by young people against the right’s CPE labour laws aimed at casualising youth employment.
But things have changed since then. Last year the French right was divided. Sarkozy has managed to unite it and his presidency is based on a promise to break with the defeats and compromises of the past.
Meanwhile the Socialist Party opposition is weak and ineffective, with no alternative to the market-led policies of the right.
This means that it is harder to relay the vitality of the movement into the political arena and take the initiative away from the government. Over time this will weaken the ability of the movement to fight.
For now Sarkozy has neutralised the railway workers. But he still faces significant opposition from the rest of the public sector and from students.
Aware that student protests could spiral out of control, the government has moved quickly to coopt the student unions.
Nevertheless, the class conflict that has shaped French politics for the past 15 years is not going away.
The lazy coverage of this month’s strikes in the British press has made much of France’s “bloated public sector”.
No journalist mentions that France gave 15 billion euros in tax breaks to the rich, three times what it paid out this year on the special pension schemes.
Last week the European Central Bank (ECB) told Sarkozy that he must cut public spending further.
France has more unemployment than anywhere else in the euro zone – nearly one in four young people is without work.
But the ECB claims that the unemployment rate among older people is “ridiculously low” and wants to see even greater “flexibility” in the job market.
The first major conflict of the Sarkozy presidency has demonstrated that he is opposed by significant forces that can turn anger into effective action.
But to win, the movement will also have to develop the political means to challenge its own leadership. Until that happens the initiative is likely to remain with Sarkozy, but there are more battles to come.