BY MURRAY SMITH
PARIS — France was again brought to a standstill on June 10 by the movement against the government's attacks on workers' pension rights. The demonstrations were as massive as on previous occasions: 200,000 marched in Paris, 200,000 in Marseilles; up to 1.5 million protested across the country. But fewer workers were on strike this time compared to the massive May 13 and June 3 general strikes.
It is now clear that the trade union leaderships, in particular the Communist Party-aligned General Confederation of Labour (CGT), will not call an indefinite general strike to defeat the government's attacks. It is also clear that, at the present stage, most workers are not ready to defy those leaderships to launch such a strike from below.
Nevertheless, the size of the demonstrations, the continuing strikes in many places and the more radical forms of action that are developing show that the attitude of the most combative sectors of the working class is hardening.
The attitude of the CGT was clearly stated in an interview with the daily Le Monde by Jean-Christophe Le Duigou, the federation's deputy, who explained: "We don't have a political objective of defeating the government".
At a mass rally in Marseilles on June 12, CGT general-secretary Bernard Thibault put an end to any remaining ambiguity by formally ruling out a call for an indefinite general strike.
While the CGT is prepared to pressure and negotiate with the government over a withdrawal of its pension plans, it is not willing to launch a full-scale general strike which would not only force the government to back down but provoke a political crisis.
The CGT's refusal to confront the government head-on was illustrated symbolically on June 10. The destination of the Paris demonstration was the Place de la Concorde, a huge square just across the river Seine from the parliament building, where the draft law on pensions was being presented. The bridge over the Seine was blocked by riot police.
Rather than mount a show of strength by filling the Place de la Concorde with 200,000 demonstrators, the unions chose to dissolve their contingents into the adjoining streets. Nevertheless, thousands of demonstrators did make it into the square: teachers and parents, rail and car workers, including many CGT members. They were attacked with massive doses of tear gas and blasted by water cannons. The square was finally cleared in the evening; dozens of demonstrators were arrested.
The situation remains highly volatile, but a full-scale general strike now seems highly unlikely. However, that does not mean that the movement is at an end. Sectors remain on strike in many areas. This is particularly the case where there exist strong co-ordinating committees of unions and strike committees. In some places, above all in Marseilles, there are quasi-general strikes at the local level. A June 12 rally and demonstration in Marseilles was even bigger than on June 10.
The persistence, dynamism and rank-and-file organisation of the teachers' strike is also a thorn in the side of the CGT leadership, which is wary of any movement that it does not control, and an example of what is possible.
The government, which has sought to create the image that it will refuse to back down on any of its propositions, has nevertheless been forced to do so in aspects of its education "reforms". A proposed reform of the universities was hastily withdrawn when students began to mobilise. The transfer to the regions of 20,000 of France's 110,000 non-teaching education workers has been cancelled. These concessions have not weakened the teachers' determination.
But as the possibility of an indefinite national general strike recedes, those sections of the working class that have been on strike for one month — and in some cases two months — will drift back to work.
The movement will continue in various forms — strikes, demonstrations, occupations — during June as the draft pension law is discussed in parliament. Socialist Party and Communist Party MPs have submitted thousands of amendments. The CGT is now talking about launching a mass petition to reflect the weight of public opinion. Another national day of action has been called for June 19.
What looked a month ago like a black and white, them or us situation, in which one side would win and the other lose, is turning out to be much more contradictory. It is now probable that the government's reduction of workers' pension rights will become law and that the bulk of the proposed "decentralisation" of education will be maintained.
That would represent a victory for Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin's government. At the same time the government will emerge from the battle weaker rather than stronger. Fresh battles are on the horizon. The victories that Raffarin appears to be winning will remain fragile.
[Murray Smith is a leading member of the Scottish Socialist Party resident in France.]
From Green Left Weekly, June 18, 2003.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.