Socialist Worker

Can strikes shake Tory government in France?

by Paul McGarr
Issue No. 1854

TUESDAY SAW another huge show of strength by French workers in their fight with the country's Tory government. Strikers shut down much of the country. But the government was gambling on some union leaders now holding back from the all-out action which could bring workers victory.

The immediate issue at stake is the government's determination to push through a savage attack on workers' pension rights. The government wants to make people work more years and pay more to get poorer pensions.

It is also pushing a wide-ranging assault on education which would pave the way for a two-tier system and privatisation. Behind this the real issue has become the future of the government. It is a battle about which side can impose its will – the government and the bosses it represents, or workers.

Tuesday's strike demonstrated that workers certainly have the power to humble the government. Rail services across France and bus, tram and metro systems in many cities were shut as workers walked out. Some strikers had declared their intention to stay out indefinitely. Teachers and other education workers were out again in massive numbers. Many of them have been on all-out strike for weeks now. They have become the driving force behind the wider revolt against the government.

Most flights within or to France were cancelled as air traffic controllers and airline and airport workers struck on Tuesday. Many post, electricity, gas, telecom and council workers as well as civil servants, dockers, TV and radio workers and others also struck – with some declaring that they could stay out for more than one day.

Impressive demonstrations took place on Tuesday with workers marching in scores of towns. Union leaders were meeting on Tuesday night to decide on the next step. The government is fighting hard. It knows the stakes are very high. It was playing the old bosses' game of divide and rule to prevent workers' full power being unleashed.

On Monday the government met education union leaders and proposed that part of its attack on education could be postponed from this month until September. Union leaders welcomed the announcement, but the mood from below meant they went ahead with Tuesday's strike.

The government wants to defuse the education revolt now, win the pensions battle, and come back to attack education in September. The government was trying the same approach elsewhere. It had succeeded in getting leaders of one major union federation, the CFDT, to accept the core of the pensions plan – though many CFDT members have rebelled over this and joined the strikes and demonstrations.

The government was trying to pull rail workers out of the movement by promising that their special pension deal would not be affected, and has tried the same approach with Parisian bus and metro workers.

In each case minority unions have been persuaded to lift their strike calls, though unions with majority support maintained the call to action. For union leaders to allow the government to divide the revolt and blunt the scale of strikes, risks disaster.

France's Tories are using the method which Margaret Thatcher used in Britain in the 1980s to keep fights against groups such as miners, print workers, dockers, and rail workers separated.

Whether French workers can prevent the government achieving this depends on ensuring the pressure from below is such that union leaders dare not go along with the government's manoeuvres. The instinct, and track record, of those leaders is to avoid the kind of full-scale challenge to the government now needed to win.

If workers turn the deep desire for united and general strike action into reality they could win a victory that would haunt governments and rulers everywhere.


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News
Sat 7 Jun 2003, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1854
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