The French government and most of the world’s media have declared that President Sarkozy has beaten back opposition to his attacks on pensions.
But it would be premature to declare the battle over. And Sarkozy has survived only because the trade union leaders failed to push the movement forward.
France shows the potential to defeat austerity policies, not that resistance is doomed to defeat.
Seven days of nationwide strikes and mass protests have seen millions on the streets and continuous strikes in key industries.
In dozens of cities and towns across France, general assemblies of workers and students met regularly—sometimes daily—to plan democratically how to take the action forward.
In some place students and workers met together.
And throughout the last few months, 65 to 70 percent of people in polls have backed the strikes.
There were also continuous strikes.
The most important were the stoppages and blockades in the oil refineries and terminals that led to more than a third of petrol stations closing.
Fearing he was losing control, Sarkozy unleashed police to break the blockades.
This should have been the signal to call wider action—a general strike—to defend the oil blockades and beat Sarkozy. Instead the union leaders signalled retreat.
Marcel Grignard, the second in command of the CFDT union federation, said that now the pensions bill had passed its key parliamentary stages, “Our responsibility as trade unionists is to construct compromises that make sense, not to threaten the legitimacy of politics.”
Despite that the movement was not defeated.
On 26 October workers at two refineries in Belgium joined the strike in solidarity with their French colleagues and to stop their production undermining the strikes over the border.
And some two million people took to the streets across France on Thursday of last week.
This was despite far fewer students and school students being involved because of holidays.
But with the police manhandling pickets and clearing the blockades, workers at France’s 12 oil refineries returned to work the next day.
The final grudging votes to return came at Gonfreville, Donges, Feyzin, and Grandpuits refineries and the two oil
terminals of Le Havre in Normandy and Fos-Lavera on the Mediterranean.
A report in Le Monde headlined “Sorry and bitter, Feyzin workers end their strike” chronicles the frustration felt by workers who have been on strike for 17 days, inflicted heavy losses on the other side—but are now going back to work without a victory.
CGT rep Michel Lavastrou said, “Returning to work under these conditions will not be glorious.”
Thierry, another worker at the plant, added, “I would have continued the strike for an additional week, until the next day of action on 6 November.”
Paul, a 54-year-old technician, said, “Retirement is salvation for us. I have been breathing dangerous chemicals since I was 18.
“Besides which, climbing columns that are 60 metres high—it’s too much at my age.
“We are bossed around by people who have never had to do the hard labour we do.”
However, workers do not feel they have been steamrollered. They feel they should have won. Bellouz Hakim, the CFDT rep at Feyzin says, “The strike welded us together. We had over 800 messages of support. We lost a battle, but not the war. Sarkozy is politically dead.”
He said local residents and farmers donated dozens of crates of fruit, vegetables and cakes to support the strikers.
David Faure, Feyzin’s CFDT secretary says, “The next step is the general strike. And at that time, the response of employees will be violent.”
The magnificent struggle by workers and students will leave lasting benefits in the organisation of workers—and the hatred of France’s rulers.
It must not be allowed to peter out. This Saturday’s day of demonstrations must be a launchpad for a new wave of struggles—over pensions but also the other attacks that Sarkozy is preparing.
And the rank and file structures built during these tumultuous months must be strengthened so they can give an independent lead when the trade union leaders surrender.