A hot French winter looms
By Stan Demidjuk
The new millennium in France has begun prophetically. Besides the snow, rain, tempests and storms, a wave of industrial and political action has swept across the country. France is in for a very hot winter.
Throughout January and February, strikes, demonstrations, occupations and other forms of action have occurred in both the public and private sectors, at national, regional and local levels. This wave has unsettled the "left" coalition government, led by Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.
Since early January, hospital and health workers in major city and regional hospitals have come out against cuts to thousands of beds, the closure of natal and other services in two important country hospitals, the reduction of emergency services in many establishments, the general degradation of patient care and the lack of staff and medical equipment. A national strike has been called for February 29 in Paris.
Postal workers in Nantes, Montpellier and Marseille have carried out sporadic strikes, walk-outs and go-slow actions, protesting against the present form and application of the disastrous 35-hour-week Audry law.
The law that promised so much has turned out to be so full of loopholes and "special exceptions" (only for the bosses, of course) that it has become an easily manipulated law and a formidable weapon against the working class, their previously hard-won conditions and their unions. Chaos, increased exploitation and insecurity, the reduction of workers' rights and conditions have occurred wherever the present law has been applied.
A national strike is being organised by the postal workers unions for the end of February or early March.
A national strike was also called by workers from the ministry of finance and taxation against the 35-hour-week Audry Law on February 3, which resulted in a 30,000-strong demonstration in Paris.
Having a job in the public service in France was long considered a "job for life", guaranteed by the state. That comfort has long gone and social trauma has arrived en masse, in a country with the highest public administration work force in the world.
The "Profitability of the Public Sector" program, inaugurated by the previous, conservative Juppe government, has not only been prolonged but has been intensified under the present social-liberal Jospin government.
Occupations of kindergartens and primary schools by teachers, non-teaching staff, students and parents in the Languedoc region in the south-west of France have lasted for two weeks. Successful demonstrations on February 12 mobilised 25,000 people in Nimes and Montpellier, demanding the immediate employment of an extra 500 desperately needed teachers and the establishment of new schools in the area. It was the first time since the early 1980s that all of the national education unions have been unified.
The crisis of public education in France has become extremely serious. Not only is there a grave lack of teachers and other staff to meet overall demand but the working conditions for both teachers and students are deplorable. The rate of primary and secondary school violence has exploded and school failure statistics are high and increasing.
A three week strike by private transport workers throughout northern France is still underway against "a special exception" in the Audry law. Not only do transport bosses not have to apply the law and they have imposed a 59-hour week on drivers, backed by threats of instant dismissal.
New forms of radicalism and solidarity, not seen since the near-general strike of 1995, characterise all these different struggles throughout France. Workers and the public are collaborating together on a larger scale than ever before, particularly in the health and education sectors.
The trade unions, organised into four main, politically defined confederations, are attempting to work together on specific issues more than they have in the past. Though "left" union leadership is still ambiguous and contradictory, the new combativity is being led by the radical confederation SUD and is reinforced by numerous inter-union linkages and actions at the base.
This combativity goes against the official union tendency to go soft on the "left" coalition government of Jospin, made up of parties that these unions have looked to as their hereditary allies.
Another example of the new radicalism is the boycott launched against France's biggest petroleum company, Elf-Total, during a 30,000 strong demonstration in Nantes in early February against a catastrophic oil-spill on the coast of Brittany.
Yet another was the February 13 mass walk-out and picket by 90% of the workers of a mega-supermarket in the north of France, protesting against their working conditions.
Threats by the bosses' union, the MEDEF, have also increased social and industrial tension. MEDEF has said it will leave its seat in permanent negotiations with the unions, social security agencies and government by the end of the year, even though it is required to be part of these talks by law.
The government of Jospin, a parody of social-democracy, is behaving like the major corporations do. While announcing a one billion franc surplus for the year (through increased taxation and a tight budget policy), it reduces expenditure on social services and modifies trade and labour legislation in favour of the employers. It has privatised more public assets than the previous conservative government would have dared to.
In rural areas, schools, post offices, police stations and hospitals are being closed, all in the name of efficiency and profitability. One hundred thousand university students live under the official poverty line while the government increases public aid to private and religious schools.
Working-class unity is being undermined by the increasing precariousness of employment and the widespread use of part-time, short term and sub-contracted labour, a relatively new phenomenon in French economy.
The year has not begun calmly, as Jospin and his class-collaborationist government had hoped. The French working class and the French people, however fragmented they seem to be, have at last grasped the fundamental hard facts. Their "left" government is far from serving their interests and far from honouring its promises. Let their winter boil.