French workers and students defend social services

December 5, 1995

French workers and students defend social services

By Sam Stratham MONTPELLIER, France — Hundreds of thousands of students, workers and unemployed people took to the streets around the country on November 30 to protest against the Chirac government's attacks on social services and the public sector. The demonstrations were met with police violence in Paris, Nantes and here. An indefinite strike called by the rail union (SNCF) has left France almost without trains since November 22, and Paris without public transport since November 28. Already corporatised, the SNCF is due to sign the a four-year contract with the state, under which cuts of 30,000 to 50,000 jobs are envisaged, later retirement and the loss of 6000 kilometres of secondary lines. The first week of train strikes led to record traffic jams in Paris (totalling 521 kilometres!), widespread production blockages, and now it has been joined with strikes in 49 out of 90 universities across France. In early December, strikes will spread to postal and telecommunications workers. La Poste, EDF (the electricity utility) and GDF (the gas utility) are also threatened by privatisation and job losses. Strikes could extend to electricity and gas workers and there have also been calls for road transport strikes. Hospital strikes, public service (including education) and national transport strikes have also called for December 4. Other actions will include strikes at Air France with and drastic reductions in air traffic. In the private sector, where unionism has been eroded, actions have taken place in some large factories such as Sollac metallurgy at Strasbourg (for reduced hours) and at Aerospatiale in Toulouse (to save jobs). Since the large demonstrations in defence of public service salaries on October 10 and the first student national day of action on November 9, solidarity between students, staff and public servants has grown. A possible general strike could threaten the Chirac government.


Students, who face unemployment even after many years of tertiary study, are radicalising. As the first wave of neo-liberal education "reforms" were defeated last year by student mobilisations, this year the attacks on public education have been more subtle. They include the syphoning of funds into private facilities (technopoles and elite grands ecoles) and the block on promised funds to public institutions (especially in humanities and social sciences). Students are now demanding funds for much needed staff and facilities and equal access to quality education. The second student national day of action on November 21 was three times as large as the first, and was followed by a massive turnout of 400,000 in defence of the Secu (Social Security) on November 24 when the majority of France's more than 5 million public servants went on strike to defend the social security system. The number of the demonstrators on that day has been estimated by the establishment media to be over a quarter of a million. There was another strike and mobilisation on November 28 just before the massive turn-out for the third student national day of action on November 30. The wave of strikes and demonstrations was fuelled by the announcement in October of the third consecutive month of increased unemployment and falling production and consumption. Although the Chirac government was elected on a promise to heal the "social fracture" of unemployment, it is prioritising deficit reduction — one of the requirements of the Maastricht Treaty of European Integration — and has concentrated on cut-backs in social security, education and public utilities. Prime Minister Alain Juppé's plan for the reduction of the Social Security deficit hinges on: centralising spending under parliamentary control; the fast passage of a new 0.5% tax for the repayment of social security debts; hospital restructuring; restrictions on health spending; and increasing household contributions to social security funding. The contribution of households to social security is already six times that of business, and will rise to eight times in 1997. Public health is under-funded while the turnover of the French pharmaceutical industry is 25 times the cost of health professionals and the "health and social" sector. The imposition of these "reforms" will be ensured by the increased police powers under the Pasqua and Vigipirate Laws, and the reinforced garrisons of paramilitary police (since the summer bomb scares). However, the Chirac government has been slow to respond to the recent actions hoping that the movement will peter out. The government's only other options are to use force against the strikers or to back down. However, neither are desirable for the government which fears that an alliance of Socialist and Communist MPs might pass a censure motion and force a referendum, a change of ministers, including the PM, and even a change of government.

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