ONE OF the most well-known figureheads of the global movement against corporate power was thrown in jail in France last week. José Bové, leader of the radical farmers' Conféderation Paysanne, faces ten months inside.
His jailing is a signal by France's Tory government of its determination to carry through a wide-ranging assault on welfare provision, workers and wider social movements. It has already faced down huge resistance over pensions. Over the last two months millions of workers have joined strikes and demonstrations.
The government made significant concessions to groups like rail workers and teachers, who were at the heart of the revolt. But it now looks to have pushed through the core of its pensions 'reform'. It should not have succeeded. The mood among many workers was to expand the strikes. The most popular call on all the demonstrations was for a general strike.
But key trade union leaders refused to take up that demand, and instead undermined it. The result - just repeating one-day protests - was, eventually, to tire the active core of movement.
Tory minister Francois Fillon, the architect of the pension plan, celebrated last week: 'This reform is historic. A turning point has been reached.' But, he warned, 'the most important combats lie ahead. Reform will not stop.' This declaration of war has pushed union leaders to warn of a 'hot autumn' and a 'social explosion'.
It would be foolish, though, to place any confidence in those leaders mounting the kind of resistance which can beat off the Tory assault. The CGT is the most powerful union federation. Its leaders justify avoiding a decisive clash with the government by saying the Tories want a 'Thatcher-style showdown' - a major confrontation like the miners in Britain in 1984. France's Tories may hope to win such a decisive battle. But the answer to that is not for unions to run away. It is to ensure our side wins the fight. France is not the only European country where a neo-liberal, or Thatcherite, assault is leading to sharp new battles.
The same pattern is emerging in Germany, Europe's biggest economy. When German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder came to office in 1998 he talked of a 'new middle', a German version of Blair's New Labour. Widespread resentment among workers and protests at the effect of his policies then pushed him to adopt a more 'Old Labour' tone. Famously, Schroeder won re-election last year by opposing war on Iraq.
Now he has moved sharply rightwards with his Agenda 2010 plan. German political commentator Peter Loesche talks of Schroeder's plan as 'a turn away from the traditional welfare state to a neo-liberal welfare state'. Agenda 2010 will cut £14 billion from the healthcare system, cut benefits for the unemployed and make it easier to sack workers.
It has provoked deep discontent among his own SPD (Labour) party members, trade union leaders and among German workers, who have staged significant demonstrations. There was also a crucial fight over working hours. Up to 10,000 engineering workers in the old East Germany struck for a reduction in weekly working hours from 38 to 35. Workers in the old West Germany already have a 35-hour week.
Workers wanted to level conditions upwards. German bosses, with the support by Schroeder's government, want the reverse. The hours strikes showed how vulnerable the bosses and the government are. The stoppages by a few thousand workers were in factories supplying parts to major car and engineering firms.
BMW had to halt production in three factories. Production at Europe's biggest carmaker, Volkswagen, was also hit. Bombardier, the world's largest producer of rail carriages, also faced a production stoppage.
Instead of piling on pressure, union leaders in the giant IG Metall federation last week called off all the strikes. Incredibly, the union leaders feared the strikes were being too effective, and could harm the German economy!
A pattern is becoming clear across Europe. Governments of every political stripe want a new round of assaults on workers. That is provoking sharp new struggles. Some union leaders genuinely want to lead resistance. But their deeply ingrained instincts are to avoid using the full power of workers. Other union leaders are even more cowardly.
Both risk allowing a determined government to push through its attacks. A crucial issue across Europe in the coming months will be whether rank and file workers and left wing forces can overcome the timidity of the union leaders.
His 'crime' is destroying trial plantings of genetically modified maize and rice as part of a union-backed protest. He became internationally famous four years ago when he led a symbolic dismantling of a McDonald's. Bové was then a keynote speaker at the 1999 protests at the WTO meeting in Seattle. When he came to trial in the summer of 2000 for the McDonald's action up to 100,000 people descended on the town for a giant protest.
Send messages of support to José Bové No d'Ècrou 22377 Y, Bloc A 07, 34753 Villeneuve-les-Maguelone, France. Send copies by e-mail to: [email protected]