Socialist Worker

The strikes that shook the French ruling class

Issue No. 1877

THOUSANDS OF activists from across Europe converged on Paris this week for the European Social Forum.

The social forum involves debates on all aspects of opposition to globalisation and war and a mass demonstration.

A year ago, when the social forum was first planned for Paris, many in the French movement against neo-liberalism were pessimistic about what could be achieved.

But the atmosphere is very different in France today. Tens of thousands will be at the European Social Forum.

The country's two main far left organisations recently announced a united electoral challenge for regional and European elections next June. The announcement was front page news, with a poll suggesting that over 30 percent of French voters would consider voting for them.

This transformation in the French political landscape was brought about by a strike movement which erupted in mass demonstrations through May and June. This movement so terrified the French ruling class that Tory prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin declared, 'The street must not govern.'

This revolt went largely unreported in the media here.

At their height the strikes saw eight million workers out in one of the biggest and most important workers' revolts in an advanced industrial country for many years.

Ross Harold is a teacher and union activist in Paris. He is also a leading member of Socialism from Below (Socialist Worker's French sister organisation). Ross described the strike movement to Socialist Worker: 'It was the biggest movement in France since the great strikes and revolt of May 1968. I've never seen anything quite like it. It was sparked by our right wing Tory government starting to introduce a whole series of attacks and driving through their neo-liberal agenda.

'They announced they were going to attack pensions, making people work longer and get less benefits. This attack was very similar to that which led to a massive revolt in December 1995. Then, a right wing government attacked pensions and sparked a huge movement of public sector workers with major strikes and demonstrations. This year's revolt was different and even deeper. The government had learned the lessons of 1995. Then they attacked all public sector workers, weak and strong sections.

'This time they left out some of the strongest groups such as the transport workers. And the government also pushed through an attack on education. The reaction of teachers to this really surprised everyone-it sparked the movement.

'It began before Easter with several schools taking action around Paris and in the south. THE MOOD picked up quickly after Easter and very soon teachers at hundreds of schools started walking out on all-out strike. It is normal practice in France for workers in one workplace to be in different unions or in none. So often only a minority of workers strike at any one time.

'This time a substantial number of teachers walked out. This helped create a situation where the unions called a series of mobilisations -demonstrations, days of action. Then things really took off at a huge demo over pensions on 13 May. The turnout surprised absolutely everybody. Around eight million struck and over two million people demonstrated in major cities across France.

'The movement was especially strong in some provincial towns. Marseilles in the south had 200,000 people on the streets on 13 May. The teachers' revolt gave the depth and dynamic to the whole movement. At one point in late May teachers in over 3,000 of the 7,000 secondary schools in France were on all-out strike.

'Every week there were major demonstrations of teachers in all the main cities and in many smaller ones. In each school the teachers on all-out strike, which varied between 20 percent and 60 percent, could pull out the rest on these days of protest. The movement saw the emergence of a new generation of activists.

'These young teachers, and the older ones drawn in too, made the strikes and demos feel very different from normal trade union events. There were a mass of locally produced banners, with old sheets and home made placards, showing real invention and humour and huge energy. There was noise, people banging saucepans, lots of sitting down, jumping up and then charging forward on the demonstration. You could see that young teachers were influenced by the atmosphere on anti-capitalist demos.

'This new way of demonstrating was very contagious. On bigger demonstrations called by the unions, the teachers' spirit overflowed into the other contingents. I could give you dozens of examples of the spirit of the strikes, but a couple stick in my mind. Teachers were marching through central Paris several times a week. We often took the same route, heading to the prime minister's office past a huge central postal depot.

'One week we stopped outside, shouting for the post office workers to come out with us. A few people went in and gave out leaflets. A week later we stopped outside and more and more people poured in chanting 'General strike!'

'Postal workers came out from offices around the depot and clapped with us, shouting 'General strike! General strike!' Soon the whole depot was echoing with the clapping and chanting. Teachers climbed onto the tables waving banners-the scenes were extraordinary. The most important reason why the movement went so deep was the rank and file organisation and dynamism.

EVERY DAY for almost two months there were regular strike meetings in many schools, where people debated and organised. We organised meetings between rank and file teachers across regions. In Paris we had assemblies of up to 600 teachers from hundreds of schools deciding how the movement would go forward. Teachers started going out to meet other workers. In my local area in east Paris we had regular meetings with postal workers, tube workers, bus workers and hospital workers.

'On a key day of protest we sent pickets to the bus depot. That was a memorable occasion. At 5am teachers, post workers and tube workers united and we blockaded the bus depot for three hours. This was just in one district. In other places it went even further.

'In Marseilles you had teachers, transport workers and refuse workers all out together on weeks of all-out strike. In Toulouse and Le Havre pickets blockaded the major roads into the city. We weren't strong enough to win the call for a general strike. The union leaders' strategy was to have repeated days of action and not to build for a general strike.

'They were well aware of the feeling for it, but they feared such a movement could completely escape their control and raise political questions. After 13 May some transport workers and others stayed on strike. But the union leaders worked hard to get them back.

'The teachers' movement was the only area where the rank and file was organised enough to sustain an all-out strike. But we came very close to a general strike, and if we had achieved it, private sector workers could have been drawn in, as many joined the days of action. Technically, in terms of the formal demands on pensions, we lost and the government got its legislation through parliament.

'Yet the feeling on the ground is not one of defeat. People felt that teachers and other workers had transformed themselves, their organisation and their ideas. One of main slogans on the demonstrations was 'We don't want this society'-meaning not just French society but the global system. A minority which is tens of thousands strong has begun looking for a radical, socialist alternative to the system.'

Strikes changed it all

THE STRIKES fed through into anti-capitalist mobilisations.

In June tens of thousands of striking French teachers joined the 100,000-strong protests against the G8 summit of world rulers on the French-Swiss border.

In August an astonishing 300,000 people joined an anti-capitalist festival at Larzac in the south of France.

Many of those there had taken part in the May/June strikes, and many were already talking about coming to the European Social Forum too.

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Sat 15 Nov 2003, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1877
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