FRENCH TRADE union leaders may have allowed their Tory government to survive the mass protests over its attack on workers' pension rights. There were two more days of strikes and demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands of workers last week, and more protests were planned this week. But they were not on the scale of the earlier strikes that repeatedly paralysed the country in recent weeks.
Many activists and militants feel the movement is, for now, beginning to subside. The strikes and protests forced the government to make some concessions. The government has also made concessions to teachers over a parallel attack on education.
If the government succeeds in pushing through its pension plans the responsibility will lie with the union leaders. 'General strike! General strike!' was the chant of around 100,000 people at a mass strike rally in the southern city of Marseilles on Thursday of last week. Bernard Thibault, leader of the powerful CGT union federation, could hardly speak to the rally over the crowd. But Thibault refused to back such a call.
The union leaders have been systematically working to stop the strikes spreading. In recent days they have been working to undermine the strikes. These union leaders are terrified of provoking the kind of full scale confrontation which could have beaten the government.
Thibault now talks of continuing the fight through 'other forms of action', such as petitions and appeals to MPs in the national assembly. Nick Barrett of Socialist Worker's French sister organisation Socialism From Below explained:
'The problem is a lack of a big enough network of organised activists pushing in every mass meeting for keeping up and spreading the strikes when faced with the union leaders behaving like this. The strikes have been driven and organised from below by the rank and file, far more so than in the last big eruption of strikes in France in 1995. And there is do doubt that there is a wide feeling that a general strike is needed among most strikers. But to turn that feeling into real action when the union leaders don't want it you need a big enough force which can organise and agitate in a coherent fashion throughout the movement.'
Even if the government gets its way now, the fight is far from over. The detailed implementation of the pensions changes could see lots of sectional struggles. And on Thursday of last week France's Tory president Jacques Chirac in a speech in Toulouse made clear that in the autumn the government was preparing for a wider assault on welfare.
Blair keen to follow French Tories' example
FRANCE'S TORY prime minister Jean Pierre Raffarin found one enthusiastic supporter for his assault on workers' pension rights - Tony Blair. Blair had breakfast with Raffarin in Paris on Thursday of last week, as strikes and demonstrations were taking place across France.
Afterwards Blair declared, 'All the developed countries are now confronted with the same challenges. We are all trying to make our public services and social benefits compatible with the demands of the modern world. 'This demands very difficult decisions and I want to pay tribute to the personal courage of the French prime minister for taking up these challenges, which are important for France, and for Britain.'