THE TRIAL of strength between French workers and their Tory government reached a decisive stage on Tuesday. The government pressed ahead with its attacks on workers' pension rights, presenting its plans in the country's National Assembly.
The plan would force workers to work for more years and pay more to qualify for a lower pension than the one offered now. After what was a bank holiday weekend, trade unions called another national strike and round of demonstrations on Tuesday. The strike once again saw much of transport across France shut down. Teachers, the vanguard of the movement, once again struck and marched in massive numbers.
Bank workers, council workers, some engineering workers and many others also staged strikes. The battle over pension rights has been raging for almost a month now. There have been repeated national strikes of public sector and some private sector workers.
Tuesday's action was the third strike in four weeks. And each one-day stoppage has seen millions strike and up to two million people join demonstrations. Some groups have gone further than one-day strikes. Teachers in thousands of schools have been taking indefinite strike action. As well as the pensions plan they are also battling an attack on education which would mean job cuts and could open the way for privatisation.
Some rail and public transport workers have also gone beyond one-day stoppages, staying out after the last national one-day strike last week. The government is combining a hard stance with manoeuvres aimed at dividing the opposition.
It has sought - with only limited success - to keep key groups of workers out of the pension battle by promising that their special pension arrangements will not be affected. It has also offered some concessions to teachers, and was due to meet teachers' leaders again on Tuesday.
The battle in education faced a key moment this week, with France's national 'baccalaureat' exams (roughly equivalent to Britain's A-levels) due to get under way on Thursday. The government was seeking to turn parents, students and wider public opinion against the teachers by raising the prospect of disruption to the exams. Teachers' union leaders responded by threatening to maintain their strikes through Thursday unless the government backed down.
The two sides stood nose to nose as Socialist Worker went to press. One side is likely to blink before Thursday and whichever side does will shape what happens next.
Trade unions must unleash full fury
The French government has been aided by the divisions inside the main parliamentary opposition Socialist Party (roughly equivalent to Britain's Labour). Newly elected Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande has sought to rebuild the party's fortunes by reflecting the popular mood against the government's plans. He has even joined some demonstrations.
But key Socialist Party figures have come out in support of the Tory government plans. Last week former Socialist Party prime minister Michel Rocard declared, 'To call for the withdrawal of the government's plan is stupid. When we come back to office we would pursue similar policies.' This has encouraged the government to stand firm.
Some key union leaders are also allowing the government to believe it can push its plans through. These union leaders, in the CGT and FO federations, are calling for workers to strike - but are holding back from unleashing the full power of workers in all-out strikes.
This is causing frustration among some groups of workers, who last week blockaded rail lines and motorways, and occupied buildings in some areas. There were also some attacks on local offices of the Medef bosses' organisation, which supports the government. In La Rochelle in western France the Medef office was burned down.
The key to winning the pensions battle is to spread the all-out strikes among wider groups of workers - and to press union leaders to stop fighting with one hand tied behind their backs.