Workers and students mobilised in their millions on October 12 in the fourth and largest mobilisation in the last month against laws that will reduce the pension entitlements of French workers.
The protests and strikes come the French Senate has begun passing aspects of the pension bill that will see an increase in the retirement age from 60 to 62 years of age and increase the qualifying period that workers must work to receive a full pension.
The mobilisation demonstrates an increasing polarisation over who should pay the price of the economic crisis in France as the country heads towards another national strike on October 16.
As with previous protests the size of the protests has been heavily contested, with the government attempting to downplay the level of public support and unions emphasising the extent they reflect broader public anger.
Unions estimate that 3.5 million people participated in 244 protests in cities and towns across France, a significant increase on the 3 million people estimated to have joined each of the previous two mobilisations on October 2 and September 23.
According to AFP France’s Interior Ministry announced that with the Paris protests yet to come, half a million people had participated, substantially down from its estimates of 883, 000 and 997, 000 for October 2 and September 23 respectively. However the Interior Ministry’s final estimate was 1.23 million people.
According to unions the growth in numbers primarily came from two sources: private sector employers and students.
According to the Confédération Générale du Travail (General Confederation of Workers – CGT) substantially larger numbers of private sector workers participated in the strike, including non-union members.
In some companies the rate of participation was as high as 80% of staff. One of the most significant developments was in the oil industry with strikes occurring at 11 of the country’s 12 oil refineries.
There was a substantial increase in the number of university and high school students participating in the mobilisations, with tens of thousands joining protests, and at least 400 schools closed as a consequence of staff and student action.
The government has attempted to paint students as the ones with the most gain from the reduction in pension rights, arguing that it will reduce the size of the pension system that they will have to support.
However students, entering the workforce will face a longer working life than their parents, and the fear that the delay in the retirement of older workers will further exacerbate France’s youth unemployment rate of 24%.
The media has made much of the entry of students into movement, raising the spectre of the movement of May-June ’68, however of more concern will be the more recent movement against the First Employment Contract in 2005-2006.
This legislation would have dramatically reduced the rights of young people entering the work force for the first time. During this campaign students shut down their campuses for months, with almost permanent street demonstrations that were punctuated by large union protests. These mobilisations were successfully defeating the legislation.
Adding to the threat of student mobilisation, has been the decision of union members in a number of industries including oil, rail, ports and a number of government services to begin indefinite strike action. The strike by oil workers poses a real possibility of substantial fuel shortages across in the coming days.
While unions such as the CGT and Solidaires are calling for the strike movement to be spread, other unions have raised concerns that an intensification of the movement risks alienating the broader public and providing President Sarkozy with an opportunity to rebuild his flagging electoral fortunes through a shattering defeat of the unions.
Confédération Française des Travailleurs Chrétiens has opposed indefinite strikes, and stated that the union's members in the rail system will not participate in the indefinite strikes.
The BBC reported on October 12, that Francois Chereque, Secretary General of the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (French Democratic Confederation of Labour - CFDT) as saying: "The large majority of employees cannot afford to pay for repeated days of strikes".
With government already pushing the legislation through the Senate, with the Senate approving the increase in minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 on October 8, the movement will find that the government will grow in confidence in its ability to ride out the movement.
Faced with government and more than 67% public support for an intensified industrial campaign, and the momentum build up in the struggle since April, the unions are in a strong position to push the movement forward. As a statement issued by the Trade Union Solidaires on October 12 says, “There is no time to lose: now is the time to harden and expand the movement to win”.
While the immediate focus of the media is on the outcome of the government’s attempt to wind back France’s welfare state, there is far more at stake.
The determination of the government to cut pensions so soon after it provide massive bailouts to the banks and business to help them recover from the Global Financial Crisis, risks a far deeper radicalisation with the unions and social movements going on the offensive if they are successful in defeating the pension bill.
The Inter-Union Coalition, which has lead campaign, is scheduled to meet on October 14 to plan actions coming out of the next national strike on October 16.
The response to this strike call, in the wake of the October and localised indefinite strike will be important tests of the capacity of the movement to win.
Reprinted from Revitalising Labour
Related article: Explosive situation as France heads towards general strike by Sandra Demarcq