Over one million people took to the streets in 250 cities and towns across France last Saturday against president Nicolas Sarkozy’s attacks on pensions.
Numbers may have been down on previous protests, but resistance to Sarkozy remains considerable.
Since September virtually every sector of the French labour movement has struck. Some—including oil refinery, railway and local government workers—held rolling strikes.
Parliament has now adopted Sarkozy’s reform, effectively raising the retirement age to 67.
But the movement against him—supported by 70 percent of the population—has become much more than a campaign over this issue alone.
Parliament’s defiance of mass strikes and eight national demonstrations of up to 3.5 million people has raised the question of what democracy means in a neoliberal society.
Anna, a student at Censier university in Paris, told Socialist Worker, “There have been bigger demonstrations than anything we’ve seen for a long time.
“The government has completely shut its eyes and ears to this. This has only made people angrier. Normal, traditional kinds of protest haven’t got results. Action could now take harder, more brutal forms.”
So far, only the government has used brutal forms of action. It sent armed forces to break strikes in the oil refineries. Last month police in Paris hospitalised a school student by firing a flashball round in his face.
For Laurent, a CGT union activist from Grandpuits oil refinery, being forced back to work does not mean the fight is over.
“If enough people stay mobilised against this law we can still overturn it,” he says. “The movement needs to spread—and to get harder.”
The slogans on Saturday’s Paris demonstration expressed the same defiance: “What parliament does, the street can undo”, “We’re not giving up on anything”, “All together, all together: general strike”.
Julien, a teacher from the Paris region, acknowledged that Saturday’s demonstrations were smaller than the highpoint a few weeks ago.
“But a million people in the street isn’t something that happens every day,” he said. “We don’t know what new forms action over pensions might take.
“Some sectors say they’re ready to go on strike again—the dockers in Marseille, refinery and railway workers. The movement could well continue.”
This poses a problem for union leaders. Some have openly turned their backs on continuing strikes and would rather shore up their role as intermediaries between the movement and the government.
But competition between unions and pressure from below means their leaders are wary of being seen to sell the movement short. The unions have called a further day of action on Tuesday 23 November.
But unlike earlier ones it is a day of activities ranging from meetings to work stoppages rather than one of national strikes and mass demonstrations.
Activists will have to infuse it with as much militancy as possible.
The movement’s greatest strength has been its unprecedented unity.
The task now will be to make its actions sharper while keeping maximum numbers on board.
The fact that the movement is fuelled by a rejection of neoliberalism and, increasingly, class hatred, makes this possible.
As Marie, an education worker from the north of France, said “Many people who were never in a union before have realised that to fight Sarkozy we need to be organised.
“That’s why so many are joining unions now.
“The French working class is rebuilding itself.”