THE BATTLE to defend workers' pension rights in France is at a critical stage this week. The Tory government has been rattled by last week's strikes and demonstrations. Up to two million workers joined marches across the country and many more walked out of work.
Many unions called a new day of strikes and protests on Monday. Teachers struck in huge numbers across the country, and many have been on all-out strike for weeks now. They are fighting both the pension plans and wider government attacks on education. Council workers, civil servants, transport workers and others also struck on Monday.
In all around half a million striking public sector workers joined demonstrations in over 70 towns on Monday. A national demonstration is set for Paris this Sunday. Union leaders expect it to be massive - with public and private sector workers marching together. Prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin is determined to press ahead with plans to force workers to work longer and pay higher contributions, yet get lower pensions.
But the strikes, the biggest since the 1995 revolt which broke a previous assault on welfare by a Tory government, have pushed the government to hold talks with union leaders.
The government's strategy was to offer minor concessions in the hope of splitting the opposition. It succeeded, up to a point. The important CFDT union federation accepted government proposals which offered some changes to the pension plans, but left the main thrust intact. But its leaders faced opposition within their own ranks.
The significant rail workers' section of the CFDT bitterly denounced the federation's national leaders and said they would back further protest action. France's other big union federations walked out of talks with the government, denounced the deal and pledged more mass protests. The powerful CGT and FO national union federations, as well as the main teachers' unions, backed Monday's protests and called for Sunday's demonstration in Paris.
Many workers have also been taking action to keep up the momentum of the fight, often in a tussle with their own national union leaders. Significant groups of workers stayed out after the national strike on Tuesday of last week. Some had support from union leaders, while others struck in opposition to them.
Tens of thousands of teachers remained out on strike at the start of this week. Many teachers, along with school students, staged local marches. Council workers in some cities also stayed out for several more days after the national stoppage.
And in some areas, such as in Paris, tube, bus and rail workers did the same. Leaders of the CGT union federation, which had been the biggest force on the demonstration in Paris last Tuesday, was trying with some success to rein in such stoppages.
But its leaders were forced to sanction the day of action this Monday, while putting their main energies into Sunday's planned national demo. They and other key union leaders have also had to promise more strikes from early June if the government does not retreat. There is no doubt of the mood and potential among workers for the kind of sustained and militant strikes and protests that could, as in 1995, defeat the government.
The key battle in the coming days will be between those within the unions who want to build on that mood and those who want to contain it.