In France they do it on the street

February 28, 1996

BRENDAN DOYLE arrived in France at the beginning of December and witnessed three weeks of strikes and the biggest demonstrations since May 1968. On one Saturday there were 2 million people on the streets all over France, and millions of others supporting them. Here he gives his impression of the events. The events of December felt like a popular uprising, led by public sector workers, against the arrogant cynicism of the Juppé government's attacks on working conditions. These were days of renewed hope in the combined strength of working people. In Aries, a small town much painted by Van Gogh, the weather was freezing but the atmosphere was warm and jovial for the day's demonstration. I joined about 5000 mainly public sector workers. We wound our way around the Roman amphitheatre, chanting vulgar lyrics directed against Juppé and the "reform" of the social security system. There were many young people at the demo, and several told me how good it felt to be able to get out in the street and yell out their feelings about the government. After long years of resignation and putting up with falling living standards, poorer working conditions or unemployment of 10% or more, and the indifference of politicians, people were rediscovering the joy and enthusiasm of collective action where it counts most — on the street. People had been promised that, after years of austerity measures aimed at keeping wages down and profits up, things would get better. They had believed the government, when it offered tax breaks to employers, that they would hire more workers. Instead, more workers were put off, as profits rose. The Socialist Party and the new openly right-wing government did the opposite of what they promised, blaming their shortcomings on "world financial markets" or the necessity of becoming part of the "European economy". Juppé's "reform" aimed to destroy certain rights of public sector workers, to increase dependence on private health insurance, to privatise and push for profitability in public services, to make wage-earners pay more for superannuation. All this to "reduce the deficit". Sound familiar? Beyond their immediate concerns about their working conditions, the strikers wanted to say no to a society based on all-out competition and profit at all costs, and to promote a more humane society, based on the right to work, health and housing. They did not want profitable public enterprises like France Telecom to be privatised. And, far from being anti-European, the strikers were rejecting a concept of Europe based on the sacrifice of living and working conditions on the altar of monetarism. Some victories were won. The planned attacks on public servants' retirement benefits were put on hold. Rail workers' special retirement conditions were maintained. Juppé was forced to back down. The strikes and demonstrations showed that united struggle can force even a highly reactionary and repressive regime to go back on some of its attacks. The December mobilisation may well have been only the beginning of a wider struggle that will put forward alternatives to the dictatorship of the financial markets.

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