Mass strikes and escalating student unrest are creating a crisis for French president Emmanuel Macron’s neoliberal assault.
Rail workers held their third and fourth day of national strikes last Sunday and on Monday this week.
Services were hit very hard with only about one high-speed train in five running. Further strikes were set for Friday and Saturday this week.
The government wants to clear the way for privatisation, implement European Union competition rules, close unprofitable lines, raise fares and abolish the present rail workers’ contract.
This gives them some protection against redundancies and allows earlier retirement than most workers.
If Macron beats the rail workers—regarded a bit like the miners were in Britain in the 1980s—then he thinks it will show he can defeat any group of workers.
Rail strikers aren’t on their own. Refuse workers are holding intermittent strikes in many parts of France as they battle for national conditions.
Air France workers and airport baggage handlers are striking over pay. Electricity and gas workers are fighting privatisation.
Meanwhile students are occupying and protesting against plans to make it harder to go to university.
Elisabeth, a student in Paris, told Socialist Worker, “We are not going to give in to Macron who wants to shut the university doors to the working class.
“And we also want to show our support for those who are striking. Who wants a railway like in Britain?”
Representatives from 35 universities met last weekend at Paris Nanterre University and agreed a series of student mobilisations which began on Tuesday this week.
“The government is attacking us all and it is only together on strike and in the street that we can impose our demands,” the coordination meeting said.
Lectures have already been disrupted for several days or weeks in a dozen campuses in France including Montpellier, Toulouse, Grenoble, Nantes and Paris.
A series of fascist attacks on occupying students, the most recent at the Tolbiac site of the University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, have not stopped the movement.
The stakes are high. On Monday the government sent 2,500 police and armoured vehicles to attack an occupation that has halted a new airport project at Notre-Dame-des-Landes.
The CGT union federation has called for national action by all workers on 18 April. Other federations have not backed it.
Rank and file workers need to organise themselves to pressure the union leaders and act themselves when the leaders draw back.
And there needs to be conscious opposition to the new racist laws that Macron is implementing to divide workers.
As the NPA revolutionary socialist organisation said, “To stop the government, we need big demonstrations that show our collective strength.
“But it also requires a massive strike that blocks the economy.”
Strikes get stronger
Instead of collapsing, as bosses had hoped, the rail strikes are becoming stronger with some non-strikers now joining.
A driver told the Le Parisien website that they joined the strike because they realised that worse contracts for new workers would eventually undermine everyone’s pensions.
They added that they were exasperated by talks of “privileged” rail workers as well.
“I will retire after 42 years of paying contributions. I earn only a basic 1,316 euros (£1,145) gross per month. With the allowances and travel bonuses, I arrive at 2,100 (£1,827) euros net.
“But during the holidays, my salary drops to 800 to 1,000 euros without premiums.”
Solidarity across borders is a powerful class weapon
Workers in Britain are organising to stop a scabbing attempt by bosses during the French rail strikes.
It’s an excellent show of solidarity with a crucial battle—and the best sort of European unity.
As the French strikes began, Eurostar management tried to move engineering and maintenance workers at the Leyton depot in east London to the Le Landy depot near Paris.
Eurostar is 55 percent owned by French rail operator SNCF.
The British workforce includes two teams—Contingency and Winter Resilience—that can be deployed when problems emerge such as ice damage to trains.
Workers rostered onto these teams were asked to go to France—with an initial notification making clear they would cover for strike-hit services.
The union immediately organised to make workers aware that this would be strikebreaking.
The RMT union put out a statement which was distributed round the Leyton depot.
The union has vowed to join French pickets with RMT flags and seek to turn back anyone who does try to scab.
Union members are also producing badges for workers to wear around the depot showing solidarity with the French strikes.