|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Capitalist offensive in France
THIS YEAR, the French government is attempting a massive offensive against workers and youth. National education is under attack. Post and SNCF, the national railway company, have been reorganised to prepare the way for privatisation. On 8 February, the government led by Jean-Pierre Raffarin smashed the 35-hour working week. This onslaught has provoked anger against the government and bosses amongst workers and youth. The more the government attacks, the more the anger grows.
In 2003, a pension ‘reform’ (neo-liberal attack) was driven through, followed by the semi-privatisation of the electricity and gas utilities, followed by the ‘reform’ of social services in 2004. The main unions organised a few demonstrations against these attacks, but no real mobilisation in the workplaces. Struggles were very isolated, especially against redundancies in the private sector.
The French capitalists are determined to ensure their own profits by taking more and more from the workers and youth. It was significant to see how quickly the government changed the work-hours law. Last December, a first debate in the national assembly was the beginning of the end of the 35-hour week. On 8 February, the law was definitively changed and the 35-hour week cancelled. On 1 March, the Senate will vote to ratify the decision. They explain that it is a right to ‘work longer and be paid more’. The former law introduced flexibility of time, on the basis of annualised hours. The new law deals more with the question of payment of supplementary hours.
Besides this change in the law, the government is authorising the right of bosses to make workers work longer without paying for all the hours worked over and above 35. Bosses need to make rapid profits on wages. The former 35-hour law, introduced by the ‘plural left’ government – a coalition of social democrats, ‘communists’, greens and independents – gave them the opportunity to cancel workplace breaks and other stoppages linked to the production process. This new law not only enables them to pay lower wages for the same work time, but also to introduce a lot of different wage scales and levels inside the workplaces, dividing workers and breaking up collective agreements.
Raffarin is trying to do his best job for the bosses now, even if it turns out to be the last job for him before the referendum on the European constitution due in June. That’s why Raffarin is standing firm on the question of the change in the working week. French capitalism could not step back on those issues without losing more influence in the world market.
The attacks have increased worries of the majority of the population about income, redundancies, wages and life conditions in general. Mobilisations against the attacks have been growing since the beginning of 2005. Conflict between the workers and the government is greater than at any time since the 2002 elections. Previously, in each sector, workers did not see as well as they do now the link between attacks on their own conditions and those on other sectors. But the capitalist strategy of attacking private and public sectors separately does not work any more. People feel they are all ‘in the same boat’.
On 20 January, more than 300,000 public-sector workers took part in demonstrations to defend wages and living standards. On Saturday 5 February, 500,000 workers were on the streets in 118 cities demonstrating against the 35-hour week ‘reform’, for wages and to defend public services. At the same time, since 20 January, a school student movement has developed, despite holidays in several regions. On Thursday 10 February, 100,000 school students were on strike, demonstrating against the proposed new law on national education. This huge school students’ movement is being well received by workers and could reinforce their determination to fight. A combined struggle of the workers and youth is the most scary situation that a government could be confronted with.
Unions have a key role in that situation. Last year, workers who wanted to struggle against cuts and privatisation felt that the unions failed them. And the unions have lost influence over the past several years. During the last two months, in the face of the bosses’ actions, rank-and-file pressure has been growing in the workplaces. Union leaderships were obliged to call a one-day strike in the public sector in January. For them it was also a question of surviving as unions recognised by the workers and as organisations the state has to deal with.
The massive demonstrations of public- and private-sector workers on 5 February were a starting point. People realise that all sectors need a common struggle to fight back against both the specific and generalised attacks. This has concretely raised the issue of a unified struggle of all the sectors to resist the bosses’ and government offensive.
Since the beginning of February, nothing clear has been announced by the unions. In some sectors, such as national education, unions have called for several days of action, demonstrations and a strike in March. But none of them really call for the same one-day strike. In reality, the huge potential for building that common strike day of all sectors against the new 35-hour law, redundancies, low incomes and attacks on public services makes them worry. The leaders refuse to take responsibility. They are trying to avoid a prolongation of a strike they could not control.
In all the sectors, workers need a common target. One day of common strike action by all the workers and youth in the middle of March has to be built as the main aim and prepared for in each sector. Workers cannot wait for the unions to organise it.
A unified struggle is the only way that workers can stop the offensive. We need to prepare it, all together, members of a union or not, by building general assemblies and strike committees. Assemblies in each sector, democratically controlled by the workers, are the starting point of an efficient and successful common day of strike action against the bosses’ policy.
It is possible that the bosses and government are ready to confront one day of strike action. But the possibility of a prolongation of that into a general strike makes them nervous. A general strike stops the economy and profits. Workers realise during a general strike that they have real power to disturb, but also to control, production and to decide what to do with that production.
A unified struggle is not a guarantee of success in stopping permanently. The same measures could come back on the agenda. The more workers are organised and prepared during the struggle, however, the less ability the government will have to put forward new attacks after the struggle. A general strike also raises the question of replacing the government. To get organised, to discuss aims together, to decide and organise the strike, enables us to be more aware of the situation. But it does not provide a programme to replace the government, and we cannot be on strike all year.
The new political situation in France has opened the crucial debate of how to fight the government and the bosses. The aim of a one-day common strike of public- and private-sector workers is the only concrete aim to put forward in the situation. Gauche Révolutionnaire, the French section of the CWI, is the only organisation which has developed that aim in some unions and on demonstrations and rallies. None of the unions, but also neither of the two far-left organisations (Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire and Lutte Ouvrière) have proposed concretely any way to oppose the government and the bosses. They are talking of a need for "a counter-offensive of the workers", or of a building a "big, all-together movement", without being more precise.
Today, the issue of building a new party which organises workers, youth, unemployed and all those who want to fight back is a key question. Such a party has to really break with capitalism and all the parties which accept responsibility for managing misery for the poor and profits for the rich. Such a party has to answer the question of the alternative to capitalism and has to fight to build a society which can really satisfy the demands of all the people: a socialist society. We need to fight for a socialist alternative to capitalism with a concrete programme for the workers to fight back against attacks.
As we go to press the trade union federations of the CFDT, CGT and FO have launched an appeal to all public and private sector workers to organise work stoppages on 10 March. Although using very cautious wording, this shows the tremendous pressure on the trade union leaderships for an inter-professional 24-hour general strike. This call represents a new and important stage in the struggle against the Raffarin government.