France: Millions demonstrate to defend pensions

September 7 rally of 1.1 million in Paris after the pension changes were presented in parliament by Sarkozy’s labour minister.

More than three million people took part in strikes and protests across France on September 23. They were demanding the withdrawal of laws that will dramatically reduce the right of workers to access pensions.

The protests, which had been called by a coalition of seven of France’s union confederations, showed that the passage of the Pension Bill through France’s lower house of parliament had done nothing to weaken opposition to the attack on pensions.

With the President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Francois Fillon determined to increase the minimum retirement age despite widespread opposition, many question what strategy is needed for workers to defeat the government.

The protests reflected an important rise in the level of support for the movement. Numbers were up from the 2.7 million estimated to have taken part in the September 7 national strike.

This growth was also reflected in the number of protests held across France. Two hundred and thirty-two separate actions were held in cities and towns across France, compared to 200 on September 7.

A General Confederation of Workers (CGT) statement said the growth reflected an increased number of workers from the private sector, particularly small- and medium- sized workplaces, as well as a larger participation by women and young people.

The government and conservative commentators had hoped for a decline in the movement, signalling that people would accept the pension changes as inevitable after the September 15 National Assembly vote.

Some in the government are claiming the protests were smaller. Labour minister Eric Woerth told France 2 Television: “There is a clear deceleration in the protest movement. The reform will be voted and it will be applied.”

Reuters reported on September 24 that Fillon said: “Government in France also means knowing how to say ‘No’. We will not withdraw this reform because it’s necessary and reasonable.”

Despite government claims, most media reported protest sizes consistent with union estimates. The growing mobilisations signal a willingness of working people to continue the fight to defend the right to retire at 60, and to stop the increase from 40 to 41.5 years as the period of time workers must work to qualify for the full pension.

Demands that employers foot more of the bill for pensions are winning support. Under the current scheme, 84% of the 30 billion euros to be invested in the pension system by 2020 will be paid by workers, while employers will provide just7%.

Despite the growing support, the movement Is grappling with the problem of how to defeat the austerity measures pushed by the Sarkozy government and its supporters in the Movement of French Enterprises (MEDEF).

The Union Coalition, which is dominated by the CGT and the French Confederation of Democratic Workers, has called for further protests on October 2 and October 12. Some confederations will also take part in the September 29 Europe-wide mobilisation against austerity called by the European Confederation of Trade Unions.

The Union Coalition has said it will meet again on October 4, the day before the Senate begins its debate over the Pension Bill, to determine further action.

The New Anti-Capitalist party (NPA) and the militant union confederation Solidaires, which is taking part in the Union Coalition, are urging workers to demand an indefinite strike be called, similar to the strike movement in November and December 1995 that defeated attacks on pensions at the time.

[Chris Latham maintains]