French workers and students continued their inspiring strikes in Thursday, as the movement comes to a critical point.
The government is under pressure from the strikes, street protests and riots. The sharpest issue is petrol supplies.
The strikes at all 12 of France’s refineries and its two biggest methane terminals, plus the blockades of refineries and depots, have led to the closure of around a third of the country’s petrol stations.
The school half term holidays begin tomorrow, a time when traditionally many French people travel for holidays, and this will further stretch supplies.
On several occasions right wing president Nicolas Sarkozy has sent in riot police to smash blockades of petrol depots, refineries and airports. But the actions have frequently resumed after they have left.
For parts of yesterday demonstrators cut off Roissy and Orly airports near Paris, and airports in Nantes, Toulouse, and Clermont-Ferrand.
Police today opened up Marseille airport after hundreds of striking refinery workers had cut it off access earlier this morning. But strikes mean the docks in the city are still not open to tankers—52 are lying off coast.
Union leaders meet tonight to agree further moves. Speaking in advance of the gathering, Bernard Thibault, secretary general of the CGT union, called for a new day of protests next week.
'The government remains intransigent. We need to continue with massive action as soon as next week,' he said. 'We will ask the unions for strong action that will allow people to stop work and go on to the streets.'
Yesterday school students continued to blockade over 600 secondary schools as well as six universities. Police violence against school students continued in several places—particularly Paris and Lyon.
The French Interior Ministry said 245 people were arrested yesterday, taking the tally to almost 2,000 since 12 October.
The state is threatening huge penalties against those who stand in its way. Bosses threatened blockading refinery workers with five year prison sentences. School students who participate in schools that are not their own have been told by the authorities that they could face £35,000 fines and three years imprisonment.
But the repression is sometimes rebounding on the bosses.
Gerald Foreau, secretary of the CGT union, says, “In Rennes about 60 students blocked the entrance to the STAR bus deport one morning earlier this week..
“Riot police arrived around 9:30am and, although it was a very calm situation with students and drivers talking to one another, riot police started using batons and tear gas.
“Drivers, outraged by the violence of the riot police, held an impromtu mass meetring and voted 95 percent for an immediate strike. We have also put in complaints about 50 drivers affected by the gas.”
Strikers at the EDF state electricity firm have begun to turn off power to municipalities where Sarkozy’s UMP party is in office. They are also cutting off power to regional police headquarters.
In several areas, particularly in the south of the country, bin workers, catering and nursery workers are on continuous strikes.
The big issue now is whether the union leaders will maintain and escalate the strikes. They need to turn the screw on Sarkozy, not surrender.
Some union leaders have argued that once the bill is passed – which will happen in the next few days – that the battle will be virtually over as it will have “legitimacy”.
But the CPE laws which attacked youth in 2006 were repealed weeks after they went through parliament because of continuing strikes and protests.
The mood to fight is there. Tuesday’s demonstrations reached new levels in many cities – 240,000 in Marseille, 140,000 in Bordeaux, 50,000 in Rennes, 45,000 in Lyon.
Around 70 percent of the population back the protests and strikes, and there is strong enthusiasm for the continuous strikes among the workers involved. New initiatives are springing up daily. In Le Havre, for example, trade unionists from different unions meet every night, discuss and publish a joint strike bulletin.
But union leaders are not encouraging and developing the action.
It will take huge pressure from below. But it’s still possible to win.