FRANCE: Confrontation enters crucial stage



PARIS — More than 600,000 people marched here on May 25 — 1 million across France — in an impressive show of working-class opposition to the French government's attack on pension rights.

The demonstration was the latest in a series of mass actions against the government's proposals to make it harder for workers to retire on a full pension. Under the plan, employees would have to work for 42 years (up from 40 years in the private sector and 37.5 years in the public sector) before being entitled to a full pension.

There was massive general strike on May 13, the largest since 1995. On that day, 2 million people demonstrated across the country. A one-day strike by public sector workers also took place on May 19; 800,000 demonstrators took to the streets in 70 cities.

Polls now show that 65% of the population support the movement against the "Fillon Plan" (named after the minister of social affairs Francois Fillon). But the government of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin has not backed off a centimetre on the pension plan and has only made a vague offer to postpone attacks on the education system.

The strike movement has continued to gather strength. On May 27, striking teachers' unions called another day of action. More than 50,000 teachers and other public sector workers demonstrated in Paris. Local government workers are now also on an indefinite strike.

The May 27 general strike in the Marseilles region, supported by all the union federations, was a huge success. Of 323 workplaces that came out, 197 were in the private sector and there was a demonstration of more than 200,000 people in Marseilles.

Many people are asking, if it can be done in Marseilles, why can't it be done everywhere? That is precisely the question that is posed in the coming days. On June 3, a one-day strike has been called by the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) and Force Ouvriere trade union federations, and the teachers' unions. The strike is also being supported by the opposition in the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT) and the left-wing G10 Solidarity union federation.

What is important is not just repeating the success of the May 13 general strike but making June 3 the launching pad for an ongoing general strike. The question of continuing the strike is already being raised by workers in the Post Office, France Telecom, the electricity company EDF, in social security offices, the hospitals (20 of which are already on strike) and at Air France. In the private sector, workers at Renault car factories, Michelin tyre plants and the shipyards at St Nazaire, among many others, will strike on June 3 and are discussing what to do after that.

Raffarin knows that June 3 will be huge. He is prepared for that. He doesn't know what will happen afterwards. The union federations, especially the CGT, are playing an ambiguous role. They are not clearly calling for an all-out strike from June 3, but nor are they saying that it will be limited to a one-day strike. That leaves the door open for the unions leaderships to let the most militant sectors of the working class off the leash — but it also leaves them the possibility of backtracking.

If the main unions, especially the CGT, were to put the brakes on after June 3, it would be hard for the general strike to take off. If they maintain their present attitude, everything depends on what happens on the ground. Over the last weeks, the teachers' strike has served as the rallying point for the creation at a local level of coordinating committees involving other sections of the work force. At the same time, in many cities strong inter-union links have been forged. In the coming days, these links may be crucial.

France is approaching a decisive trial of strength. If the working class can force Raffarin to withdraw his austerity projects, his government will be crippled. If he wins, the road will be open for his government to pursue the rest of its neoliberal agenda, starting with attacks on the health insurance system and further privatisation.

[Murray Smith is a leading member of the Scottish Socialist Party resident in France.]

From Green Left Weekly, June 4, 2003.

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