Since October 12, France has been gripped by intensifying mass opposition by workers and students to proposed counter reforms to the country’s pensions system by the right-wing government of President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Public opposition to the attack has been highlighted by three national strikes each involving millions of people, two national student strikes and a growing wave of indefinite strikes in a range of industries — most notably the crippling shutdown of the oil industry.
Despite the size and intensity of the mobilisations, the Sarkozy government remains defiant, insisting the changes to the pension system are essential to France’s future. The government has threatened to repress attempts to disrupt France’s economic life.
The three national strikes occurred in the lead-up to the October 20 Senate debate on the pension scheme proposals. Unions estimated the October 12, 16 and 19 national strikes were attended by 3.5 million, 3 million and 3.5 million people respectively.
After the slightly smaller mobilisation on October 16, labour minister Eric Woerth told France 24: “The turnout is clearly down … I think the French people have understood that pension reform is essential.”
However, this proved wishful thinking.
In the space of 29 days, there were five national strikes, each mobilising between 2.7 and 3 million people. The General Confederation of Labour (CGT) estimated that more than 5 million people (8% of France’s metropolitan population) have taken part in the movement on the streets.
Since October 12, indefinite strikes have broken out in the state rail system, among local authority workers, in several education academies, industrial factories (such as in metallurgy and chemicals), the finance ministry, postal services, urban transport networks and hospitals.
An indefinite strike has hit France’s ports since September 27.
High school students have begun large protests that have closed down hundreds of schools across France.
Polls have indicated up to 70% of people support the strikes.
After October 16, the movement rapidly strengthened in response to union calls for its intensification.
The General Federation of Transport and Equipment-French Democratic Confederation of Labour (FGTE-CFDT), which is the strongest union in France’s road transport industry, called an indefinite strike starting on October 17. Lyceen Student Unions called a national mobilisation for October 18.
On October 17, Ardennes departmental unions from the CGT, CFDT, Workers Force (FO), National Union of Autonomous Unions (UNSA), United Union Federation (FSU) and Solidaires called for an indefinite strike in the private and public sectors to start the next day.
On October 19, the question was posed: was the slight decline in numbers on October 16 just a pause as the movement gathered its strength?
Or was it, as the government and its national and international supporters hoped, a sign of the movement’s demoralisation and reconciliation with the “inevitability of counter reforms”?
Government hopes were disappointed when 3.5 million people joined more than 277 protests organised in cities and towns. Not only did the numbers match the size of the October 12 protests, but in many cities, including Bourgoin, Marseilles and Rennes, the turnouts reached new highs.
The movement among high school and university students also peaked. The National Union of Students of France (UNEF) said 10 universities had been totally or partially blockaded and a further three administratively closed.
The Federation of Independent and Democratic High School Students (FIDL), France’s second largest high school union, said 1200 of France’s 4300 lycees (the second level of secondary education in France for students aged 15-18) were involved and 850 were blockaded.
In the face of the growing movement, the government has become increasingly shrill in its denunciations. In response to student protests, government ministers accused unions and left-wing parties of manipulating young people.
Responding to clashes between police and high school students, Sarkozy said: “Troublemakers will not have the last word in a democracy. It is not acceptable.
“They will be stopped, tracked down and punished, in Lyon and anywhere else, with no weakness.
“Because in our democracy, there are many ways to express yourself. But violence is the most cowardly, the most gratuitous and that is not acceptable.”
Woerth told France2 television on October 22 that, once the law is passed, “The law is the law, so the protests, the discontent, the concern ... should end the moment the law is voted up”.
The government has moved beyond harsh words to attempts to repress the movement. High levels of violence have been used by police, especially against high school protests. Tear gas and flash ball rounds (a form of rubber bullet) have been fired at students.
On October 20, police used tear gas against a student blockade of the bus depot in Rennes. The students had assembled at 4am to establish a blockade and ensure no buses could move.
About four hours later, riot police began firing tear gas at students. The CGT said students retreated into the depot, where they were treated by the depot’s nurse.
The bus drivers then escorted the students out to avoid their arrest. Drivers, many of whom were also affected by gas, held a meeting and voted to strike for 24 hours.
By October 20, the British Guardian reported that about 1400 people aged between 14 and 20 had been arrested across France and the repression was intensifying. On October 21, riot police hemmed in more than 1000 protesters at Place Bellecour in Lyon, repeatedly firing tear gas into a crowd that was unable to escape.
Strikes have gripped France’s oil industry since September 27, when workers in the oil port of Fos Lavera near Marseilles began indefinite strike action.
Since October 12, oil refining has been almost completely disrupted. Indefinite strikes in all 12 refineries have forced France to rely on strategic reserves of fuel. Blockades by workers and students of fuel depots have added to pressure on reserves.
More than a third of France’s service stations reported they were either low on petrol, or had run out since October 11. On October 20, Sarkozy ordered police to begin breaking blockades on fuel depots and refineries.
Refinery workers were “requisitioned” to return to work and those who fail to do so face prosecution.
On October 22, police successfully reopened some depots, as well as the Granduits refinery that supplies Paris. However, picket lines have been organised as small-scale “flying pickets” able to be redeployed quickly at the same or different locations.
It is also unclear how many oil workers will respond to the requisition orders.
International media coverage has tried to downplay this mass movement’s significance by attributing it to a French propensity to strike. The significance of the attack on pensions has been downplayed by insistence on the “economic necessity” of reducing access to pensions for the future of the French economy.
However, the reforms are extremely significant and the movement against them even more so — for workers in France and internationally.
Under the current system, French workers are entitled to retire from work at 60. However, they are not entitled to the full pension until 65. To qualify for the full pension, workers must first have worked for 40 years.
Under the proposed changes, the retirement age will be raised to 62 and the age at which the full pension can be accessed to 67. The period of work needed to qualify for the full pension will be raised to 41.5 years.
These increases have been justified on concerns that the pensions system, which operates on a pay as you go basis (i.e. the contribution of active workers pays for pension payments to retirees), will become increasingly underfunded as France’s population continues to age.
The ratio of active workers to retirees is expected to fall from 2:1 to 1.25:1 by 2040. As a result, the government predicts the level of underfunding will reach 100 billion euros by 2050.
The movement is opposing the changes on the basis of the impact they will have on workers’ lives. The movement also rejects the government’s economic justifications.
The government argues people need to work longer because they are living longer. However, this ignores the fact that the current minimum age of retirement is already higher than the average age at which French people can expect to live to in good health, which is 59.87 years.
On average, 60% of the years that French people live over 60 are affected by reduced physical or sensory functions.
Raising the minimum retirement age increases the number of those working despite poor health. This will be worsened by the increase in the qualifying period for the full pension, as those unable to work due to illness may risk not qualifying for a full pension.
This will also increase the proportion of workers whose retirement will be marred by poor health.
The changes are seen as particularly unfair to those who enter the work force early and thus already reach the qualifying period for a full pension before the minimum retirement age.
The government has exempted people who start full employment at 17 from the changes, allowing them to still retire at 60. However, those who start work at 18 will have to wait until they are 62 — an extra 2.5 years above the qualifying period.
Extending the period of qualification for a full pension is expected to adversely affect those with interrupted working lives, which will particularly affect women.
The government’s arguments regarding the financial need for the changes are also problematic. They assume the level of productivity in France will remain static, but it is estimated that labour productivity will double by 2040.
The problem is not that there won’t be enough productivity to support the ageing population, it is that capitalists want an ever-increasing share of what is produced.
The European Commission on Economic and Financial Affairs said the wages share of GDP in France has declined from 73.3% in 1985 to 65.4% in 2010. This decline has stripped billions of euros from both workers’ pockets and the pensions system.
Unions have also asked why workers should be made to pay for maintaining the pension system in the first place.
Ultimately, the struggle is about more than France’s pension system.
A defeat in this struggle would open the door for a wider scale attacks on the rights of French working people. However, a victory for the movement could potentially build the confidence of French workers and students to extend their fight to other anti-people policies of the Sarkozy government.
Similar austerity measures are being imposed by governments across Europe in a bid to make working people pay for capitalism’s economic crisis. The outcome of the struggle in France could affect workers’ confidence to resist in other countries.
Despite the protests, the pension bill was passed by the Senate on October 22. It will now be referred to a joint committee of the Senate and the National Assembly to draw up a unified text from the versions of the bill passed in the two bodies.
This text is expected to be presented to the National Assembly for a final vote. Jean-Francois Cope, the head of the Sarkozy’s UMP in the National Assembly, said this is likely to occur on October 26 or 27.
After it is passed by the National Assembly, the bill still needs to be enacted by the president to become law.
The ongoing process of passing the bill into law provides a target for more protests. But it is increasingly clear the government intends to defy the pressure and pass the law.
This makes the question of how to defeat the bill increasingly pressing.
Up until now, the unions and left parties have not had a united concept on the outcome being fought for. Most leaders of the union confederations have aimed to force the government and employers into negotiations.
The more conservative unions, such as the French Confederation of Christian Workers (CFTC), UNSA and the French Confederation of Management-General Confederation of Executives (CFE-CGC) had previously expressed some support for changes to the pension system. They have been pushed into hardening their opposition by the government’s refusal to compromise.
Among the left parties, the opposition Socialist Party (PS), as well as the Communist Party of France (PCF) and the Left Party (PG), have pushed for a national referendum on the reforms.
The United Left (GU), a split from the radical New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA), has argued that the movement could force new elections.
The far-left NPA and Workers’ Struggle (LO), along with the militant trade union Solidaires, have consistently argued for the need to extend and intensify the strike movement to defeat the government.
NPA spokesperson Olivier Besancenot told l’Humanite on October 18 that the movement’s aim should not be to “rewrite or amend the reform. We need to bury it altogether. We must not give in on the content.”
Besancenot said there needed to be “more effective strike action” for the movement to win. “For my part, I see no other [way], and certainly not a referendum.”
LO’s Nathalie Arthaud said: “What the parliament does, the street can undo if the mobilisation is growing.
“I do not agree with the proposal advanced by the left for a referendum, because retirement at age 60 at full rate is an inalienable right.”
On October 21, the inter-union coordinating committee met to determine the course of the struggle. In the lead up to the meeting, Solidaires called for an expansion and intensification of the strike movement and for the next national mobilisation to occur quickly.
There were also predictions some of the more conservative unions would withdraw from the committee once the Senate passed the pensions bill.
In a joint statement, signed by CFDT, CFE / CGC, CFTC, CGT, FSU and UNSA, the committee called for new mobilisations on October 28 and November 6 to correspond with the vote in the National Assembly and when Sarkozy is expected to promulgate the law, respectively.
Solidaires issued its own statement supporting the days of action. But Solidaires raised concerns that no earlier mobilisation had been called and that the committee’s statement did not clearly endorse the actions initiated by workers at the local level.
Solidaires said the committee was not in step with the developments within the movement, and on this basis, did not sign the statement. Solidaires called for the movement’s intensification, with expanded strikes and walkouts.
The division within the movement is now more open. It is not just activists in Solidaires and the far left parties that have pushed for a more militant position. The movement has been pushed to its current heights in part by the ranks and local leaderships of the other union federations.
The question is now whether these forces are able to maintain the movement’s momentum. At stake is more than just changes to pensions, it is also the issue of just how much of the burden for the economic crisis working people in France and across Europe can be made to carry.
[Chris Latham maintains www.revitalisinglabour.blogspot.come, which features regular updates on the French labour movement.]