France: Big protests as movement debates way forward

‘No to the reform’. A French student at an October 21 demonstration against the pension changes.

French workers and students have mobilised in large numbers again to oppose changes in pension laws that will raise the age at which workers are able to retire.

The seventh national strike in as many weeks took place on October 28, as indefinite strikes in many industries against the changes entered their third week.

The protests took place despite the government’s pension bill passing through France’s parliament on October 27.

However, there are clear signs the movement against the changes has begun to weaken. The passing of the pension law, and signs the struggle against it is slowing, have heightened debate over the direction of the campaign.

More than 2 million people took part in 270 protests in cities and towns across France on October 28.

The turnout, while large, was down on preceding national strike days, during which between 2.7 million and 3.5 million people took to the streets.

Bernard Thibault, general secretary of the Genderal Congress of Labour (CGT), told l’Humanite on October 28 that the mobilisations that day were “inferior” to the previous ones, but still “large” and “impressive” given the passage of the law.

He added: “What is impressive is that was probably the first time that after the passage of a law, we have events equally large … with popular support.”

The size of the protests was undoubtedly affected by the parliamentary vote, but the decline was also a consequence of the decision of the inter-union coordinating committee at its October 21 meeting to slow the pace of protests and strikes.

The meeting also reduced support for the indefinite strikes occurring across France.

The statement was not signed by one of the participating national unions, the radical Solidaires union, which argued for an intensification of the strike movement.

The United Union Federation (FSU) supported Solidaires’ call for an indefinite general strike, but put its name to the statement.

The October 21 committee statement set two new national days of protests for October 28 and November 6. This meant there were nine days between national strikes.

In that time, the bill was passed by the Senate on October 22 and went through the final stages of adoption of a common text between the National Assembly and the Senate over October 25, 26 and 27.

Between October 12 and October 19, three national strikes had involved between 3 million and 3.5 million people. Given that the October 28 national strike was supposed to provide a final show of defiance before the bill becomes law, it was a significant loss of momentum.

This is especially the case considering opinion polls continued to show huge opposition to the changes of 65-70%.

The October 21 statement also failed to endorse the daily local actions by workers. This contrasted sharply with the previous repeated calls by inter-union committee statements for unions to hold discussions at the regional and workplace level to determine appropriate forms of action.

After the statement, there was a decline in the indefinite strikes. Participation in the strike by state rail workers, which management had said involved 40-50% of workers when the strike began on October 25, fell to 4% by October 29.

Most significantly, workers at two oil refineries voted to lift their strikes on October 25. The shutdown of France’s refineries had caused a severe fuel shortage.

By October 26, workers at four refineries had voted to lift their indefinite strike.

Despite this dynamic of retreat, other developments showed the movement still has considerable strength. At the six large Total refineries, workers voted to continue their strikes.

At those refineries where workers had voted to return to work, it was difficult for production to restart with strikes continuing at the ports in Le Havre and Fos-Lavera.

This meant the refineries were only able to refine previously stored crude product and allow the transport of oil refined before the start of the strike.

The determination of a significant section of workers to continue striking with no pay, especially in the oil industry where the action resulted in more than a third of petrol stations across France running out of supplies, reflects a willingness to continue the struggle.

However, without the leadership and support of most national union federations, those continuing the struggle risk isolation. This is especially the case as the government has begun issuing “requisitions orders” forcing workers to return to work or face prosecution.

By October 29, other refinery workers and port workers had voted to return to work. reported that CGT representatives in the refineries expressed regret their strikes had not been supported by workers in other sectors.

However, since the inter-union committee’s statement, university students have increased the size and extent of their mobilisations against the pension bill.

On October 25, Young New Anti-capitalist Party (JNPA) reported that 37 universities were on strike and a further 10 universities had been closed by their administrations.

A coordinating committee representing 40 universities has called a national strike for November 4.

The differences expressed at the October 21 meeting of the inter-union committee were not new. But the meeting reflected a clearer expression of the differences that had existed since the start of the campaign.

The more conservative union federations had previously expressed support for an increase in the age for receiving the pension. This wing includes the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT), National Union of Autonomous Unions (UNSA), the French Confederation of Christian Workers (CFTC) and the French Confederation of Management-General Confederation of Executives (CFE-CGC).

The CFDT leadership had publicly supported the pension changes attempted by the Jean-Paul Raffarin government in 2003.

These unions were drawn into the campaign and the inter-union committee largely due to the refusal of the government to negotiate seriously with unions.

The focus of the leadership of these unions, along with the leadership of the more militant CGT, has been on forcing the government to reenter talks with unions.

However, among CGT ranks and some regional leaderships, there has been a lot of support for an indefinite general strike aimed at the total defeat of the pension bill.

Popular support for the strikes has been high. In the aftermath of the 3.5 million-strong national strike on October 19, Sandra Demarcq wrote in International Viewpoint that 61% of those polled supported prolonged strikes.

This dynamic has allowed alliances to be formed between militants across unions for indefinite strikes in the face of opposition from the more conservative national leaderships.

Despite popular support for further strikes, CFDT secretary general Francois Cheroquem was reported by Bloomberg on October 29 as saying the CFDT would not support further strikes once the legislation becomes law.

The bill has now been referred to the Constitutional Council to determine whether it complies with France’s constitution. Given the pressure from right-wing parties, it is unlikely to be blocked by the council without an escalating mass movement.

At best, the council discussions will delay President Nicolas Sarkozy from enacting the law.

With the changes likely to become law, there will be an increased pressure within the social movements to support the opposition Socialist Party (PS), which has promised to repeal the law if it wins the 2012 elections.

The militant Solidaires federation and the far-left parties continue to focus on pushing for further mobilisations to defeat the changes.

In an October 28 statement, Solidaires noted the movement still had strong public support. It said the bill’s passing made no difference “as democracy cannot be reduced to the parliamentary vote”.

Solidaires called for “a continuation of the engagement process, through national and local actions determined on a daily basis within individual units: support for strikes, blockades, rallies, initiatives of solidarity … It is responsibility of organisations to give this process a new impetus.”

The passage of the pension bill has significance beyond the negative impact it will have in lengthening the working life of French workers.

Solidaires pointed out in its daily strike bulletin on October 11: “Defeat on this issue will open the door for further challenges.”

The huge French strike movement has given hope in the ability of the working class to hold back the wave of austerity programs being implemented by capitalist governments across Europe.

In the latest of these attempts to make working people pay for capitalism’s economic crisis, the British government announced severe cuts to public spending on October 19.

This austerity drive has been bitterly opposed, with and big protests in Greece, but such resistance has so far failed to stop any of the anti-worker measures.

The militancy of the French strike movement, and the depth of public support for it, has held the possibility of galvanising resistance across Europe.

This hope was reflected in the actions of Belgian workers on October 26. They organised blockades to stop oil being transported from Belgium to France to ease the shortage caused by the French oil workers’ strike.

The Sarkozy government recognises the importance of this struggle and is determined not to back down in its plans to raise the retirement age.

How the movement will play out remains unclear. The growth of the student movement could give the broader movement renewed energy.

However, its strength remains untested until high school students return from school holidays on November 4 — coinciding with the national student strike.

A strong turnout for the student strike will strengthen the hand of the militant unions when the inter-union committee meets again that day. Its decisions will have a big impact on the size of the national strike that has been called for November 6.

Whatever the outcome, the revolt of French workers has already reverberated across Europe. Even if defeated, it could prove a sign of deeper resistance still to come.

[Chris Latham maintains, which follows the labour movement internationally and is following the events in France.]