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How they fight back in France

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After years of attacks on pay, pensions and living standards, ordinary people in France have had enough. Huge strikes—the most significant wave of workers’ action since 1995— should be an inspiration to everyone, says Charlie Kimber
Issue 2684
Railworkers at Paris Gare du Nord vote to extend their strike
Railworkers at Paris Gare du Nord vote to extend their strike (Pic: O Phil Des Contrastes )

Huge strikes swept France on Thursday of last week as millions of workers revolted against attacks on pensions by president Emmanuel Macron.

Strikes in certain sections—such as the railways—have continued afterwards. And another great day of united mass strikes and protests was taking place as Socialist Worker went to press on Tuesday this week.

It is set to be the most significant wave of workers’ action since 1995 when protracted strikes broke a rightwing government’s assault on welfare. The demonstrations on the first day of action this time were bigger than they ever reached in 1995.

The magazine Le Nouvel Observateur—a bit like the New Statesman in Britain—ran a ­headline recently, “Half way through Macron’s ­presidency—the fear of insurrection”.

Although the pensions issue is central, it is a focus for a much wider sense of bitterness in society.

The strikes have been hugely effective. Last week around 90 percent of high-speed TGV and ­intercity trains were cancelled. In Paris, just five of the city’s 16 metro lines ran—with a much-reduced service.

In the northern city of Lille ­transport was largely at a standstill. One of the two metro lines was totally stopped, many buses cancelled and the trams ran only every 30 minutes.

Air France said it had cancelled 30 percent of internal flights and 30 percent of short-haul international flights, amid walk-outs by air traffic controllers. EasyJet was also hit hard.

Around 70 percent of primary school teachers were on strike as were 60 percent of secondary teachers.

The Eiffel Tower was closed.

Train driver Pierre told Socialist Worker from a march in Paris, “It’s happening. What we have been ­waiting for is happening.

“On previous strikes I thought we were going through the motions a bit. But this is brilliant.

“On marches people chant ‘All together’. This is a glimpse of how that could be made real.

“I began on SNCF rail 20 years ago, when under some scenarios you could retire at 50. But we have had attack after attack.

“Firstly the ­retirement age was pushed back to 52-and-a-half—on a reduced pension. Then it went to 57-and-a-half. Now they want to make us work even longer.”

A teacher said, “The pension reforms are one blow too many. We’re fighting not to lose hundreds of euros of pension a month—after more than 40 years in a job.

“How can you dream of ending your career beyond the age of 70, in worsening conditions and on what for many of us is just a minimum wage?”

Hospital workers struck in many cities. And postal workers in 20 regions who are in dispute with the state-owned La Poste over changes to their conditions struck too.

Substantial sections of workers in private industry were also out.

Among them were truck drivers, supermarket workers, staff at some restaurants and food workers. Over 250 demonstrations took place last Thursday. The CGT union federation said 1.5 

million people marched nationwide. Even the interior ministry said over 800,000 took part.

In Paris 6,000 police officers were deployed against protests and there and in Nantes, Bordeaux and Rennes police attacked marchers.

Police assaulted striking firefighters in Paris. The firefighters then pushed back the riot police.

In many areas the Yellow Vests, who have been fighting Macron for a year, joined the protests.

There is a massive feeling that life is hard and public services are declining. A poll last month in the newspaper Liberation found 89 percent of French people felt the country was experiencing a “social crisis”.

It’s crucial to being together all the sections of strikers and protesters, and to stop the union leaders ­choking off the action before it wins

Fascists try to poison new movement

The fascist National Rally (RN) party, headed by Marine Le Pen, claimed it supported the strikes—but not the unions.

It is trying to win over at least some of those on the streets.

Unions responded strongly. The CGT said, “The extreme right, whose racist positions divide workers, has no place here.

“The problem in our country is not immigration, it is the sharing of wealth.

“We defend the equal rights of all workers as a fundamental and emancipatory principle, allowing improvement of everyone’s rights.”

That anti-racist response will be needed even in the middle of mass action. President Macron and his supporters have recently stepped up Islamophobia in an effort to divide workers.

A month ago Macron gave an interview to a far-right magazine that has been fined for “the provocation of discrimination, hate or violence towards Roma people”.

Macron said that he was “obsessed” with immigration.

“My goal is to throw out everybody who has no reason to be here,” he wrote.

More than a day of action

Crucially last Thursday wasn’t just a one-day strike. Workers in several sectors have met daily and voted whether to continue the action. Rail workers decided to strike at least until the beginning of this week.

At the oil refinery in La Mede in the Bouches-du-Rhone region, workers in the CGT union announced their strike would last until Monday this week—as a minimum.

Nurses in FO union join the action

Nurses in FO union join the action (Pic: FO)

Last Thursday 300 teachers from the schools, colleges and high schools of Toulouse met in an assembly and voted to continue the strike until at least Tuesday this week.

As well as the withdrawal of the pension attacks, they demanded payment for strike days and resolved to join the weekly Yellow Vests demonstrations.

At Paris’s Gare du Nord station on Thursday rail workers met to decide their next moves.

Solidarity delegations from a hospital, students from Paris 8 university and Yellow Vests in Nantes were also present.

They voted to continue the strike and also elected a strike committee.

In the port city of Le Havre, an assembly of 200 workers brought together a huge range of strikers.

According to the Revolution Permanente website, it included education staff, dockers and port workers and those in metal industries, petrochemicals, various branches of the public services, call centre workers and also Yellow Vests and students.

Unionised workers from the CGT, Solidaires, FSU, FO and UNEF federations, were among those present—but also many non-unionised workers.

It voted to renew the strike until the weekend and blockade the streets. Such assemblies are needed everywhere to take control of the strike.

They can boost rank and file initiative and give ownership of the action to workers themselves.

As a striker said at the rail workers’ assembly in Bourget, “Let’s be the actors in our strike, not the audience”.

Do it like 1995—and even better

In 1995 workers confronted right wing prime minister Alain Juppe’s plan to savage pensions and welfare services.

A day of action on 10 October saw impressive strikes in the public sector and around half a million people take to the streets.

The union leaders were hesitant about calling further action. Many thought workers had had their day of resistance and that was it. However, renewed student protests kept the sense of fightback going and there were further workers’ demonstrations, although nothing like on the same scale as 10 October.

The unions were eventually pushed to call more strikes and protests on 24 November. The response was massive. Not only did 800,000 join marches, but crucially activists among the rail workers, who faced a particularly severe attack, were strong enough to call an all-out strike.

A few days later the rail strike spread to the Paris bus and Metro workers, and then to a minority of post, gas, electricity and telecom workers. Daily mass meetings in the striking industries kept the battle going, and different groups of strikers began to meet in district-wide assemblies.

By the beginning of December the government was in retreat. It made major concessions to students, but this just fueled the fightback. The post, gas, electricity and telecom strikes spread.

On 7 December 1.3 million marched across France. Many cities saw their biggest protest since the great strikes of 1936.

And all the while the indefinite strikes continued on the rail, buses, Metro, the post and elsewhere. The government made concessions first to the rail workers, then others—and then finally withdrew key parts of the entire programme.

Had the strike continued then Juppe would have been forced to leave office. But the union leaders called off the strikes. Workers won a victory, but less than was possible.

The combination of united strikes and sections that fought for all out strikes was what won.

Why Macron is on the attack

France has a much better pension system than Britain.

It’s possible for some workers to retire at 62 and the rates of pensions are better.

One result is that rates of poverty among older people are a third of those here.

And some groups, such as rail workers have won better schemes through struggle.

Metro workers retire earlier than others to compensate for years working underground.

Successive governments have chipped away at the retirement schemes, but they have not made fundamental breakthroughs.

Macron is determined that he will succeed where other neoliberals failed.

Under his plan everyone would have to work until they are at least 64 for a full pension.

He wants to abolish all the special schemes and have a single system for every worker.

People would collect “points” for the years they work.

But their value could be changed in the future, thereby slashing the pension.

In addition at present pension benefits are largely calculated using an employee’s 25 highest-paid years of work in the private sector. In the public sector they are based on payments made in the final years before retirement.

Macron wants pensions based on the average wages over a working life. For nearly everyone, taken together the scheme means working much longer to receive much less.

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