SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 142 - October 2010

Pension protests gain momentum in France

IN AN enthusiastic response to the call by the major French trade union organisations, a flood of workers went onto the streets on 7 September in protest against the government’s attack on the pension system. Over two-and-a-half million demonstrators took to the streets in 220 protests across France. The mobilisation far exceeded the previous one in June, and represents one of the biggest mobilisations of the French working class for years. Even the government’s official channels gave a figure of 1.12 million participants.

"There was a very big number of workers who never usually participate in demonstrations", commented Leila Messaoudi of Gauche Révolutionnaire (CWI France), on the demonstration in Rouen. The Independent newspaper quoted a middle manager in the car industry: "There is now a feeling that, under Sarkozy, things have gone much too far. People are sick of seeing the rich allowed to get away with everything while we are expected to give up the rights we have won over many years". The demonstration in Paris was so big that it had to be divided into two separate marches. According to the CGT union federation, it was around 270,000-strong – more than double the size of June’s demonstration in the capital.

For decades now, every mass movement in France has thrown up the spectre of another ‘68’. In May 1968, the biggest general strike in history posed sharply the question of whether capitalism would survive. While capitalism did survive – because there was no sizeable force able to show what concrete steps were needed to achieve a socialist transformation of society – 1968’s movement won huge genuine reforms for the French working class. But even that movement began with hesitations and confusion about what the alternative to General De Gaulle’s government was. While this autumn’s movement has many differences with 1968, it is gathering a momentum that could carry it further.

The pension ‘reform’ is the cornerstone of the new wave of cutbacks launched by the increasingly unpopular right-wing government of Nicolas Sarkozy. It involves an increase of the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62. The age for full pension entitlements would be increased from 65 to 67 and the period of contributions from 40.5 to 41.5 years. The level of the contributions from public-sector workers would come into line with those in the private sector – already undermined by previous reform measures.

But the rejection of this attack is only part of the wider reasons which brought people out onto the streets. A French political commentator was quoted in the Guardian: "Never in the history of opinion polls have French people been so convinced of social injustice". Most workers are aggrieved that, while the present pension system is supposedly an "unaffordable luxury", the money for it exists, but is increasingly hijacked by a minority of rich parasites, symbolised by the French billionaire, Liliane Bettencourt. She has been involved in a massive finance and corruption scandal, accused of collusion with, among others, Eric Woerth, the labour minister in charge of the pension dossier! One banner on the Paris march read: "Requisition Bettencourt’s €22 billion for our pensions!"

Work stoppages were also at a higher level. This is particularly clear in the public sector. In education, for instance, the level of strikers reached 60% in primary schools and 55% in secondary schools compared with 31% and 10% respectively in June, according to union figures. Significant disruption occurred in the transport system with about a 52% strike rate, according to the CGT – again, much higher than in June. Planes, metros, suburban and intercity trains came to a halt. Strike action also took place in the private sector: in the car and metal industries, the banks, and energy companies.

Immediately following this day of action, Sarkozy announced some concessions – broadening the categories of workers who will be able to keep their retirement age at 60. This includes workers who started work before the age of 18, as well as workers who can prove 10% incapacity because of physically demanding jobs (previously it was 20%). These concessions were obviously calculated well in advance in anticipation of having to come up with something in the face of the mass mobilisations. It was an attempt made under pressure of the mass turnout to show that the government is supposedly ‘open to negotiate’, and that Sarkozy has understood the concerns of the protesters.

But this will hardly prevent the government facing a barrage of resistance. It could, in fact, inflame it. A clear majority of French people oppose the essence of this reform, with 87% opposition among 18-24 year-olds, 82% among white-collar workers, and 79% among manual workers, according to a poll published in Le Monde (4 September). The racist campaign of Sarkozy, especially against the Roma, launched during the summer, was aimed at cutting across the growing social resistance. It has failed. Working people in France are definitely more preoccupied by their jobs, pensions and public services than by this artificially created war against ‘insecurity’, designed to divert their anger towards immigrants.

The 7 September mobilisation has shown the potential for defeating the pension ‘reform’. Nonetheless, the huge anger among workers and youth, and their will to resist the attacks are combined with a certain scepticism when it comes to the outcome of such a battle and the way to organise for victory. This is reflected in opinion polls. A majority oppose the pension reform. But most do not seriously think that the mobilisations can have enough of an impact to defeat it. This is a direct consequence of the absence of a strategic view from the trade union leaders on how to defeat this and the other cuts being implemented by this government.

Regrettably, national trade union leaders do not show the same determination to defeat the reforms as the capitalist politicians do to impose them. The unions’ top officials mainly see workers’ mobilisation as opening up the way for negotiations with the government to obtain concessions, not as potential for building serious mass opposition. Consequently, Sarkozy does not see them as serious challengers. The expectation is there they will continue to guide the workers’ movement down safe channels.

All public declarations from national union leaders go in that direction. They are begging for more ‘social dialogue’ with the government and for sufficient concessions to be presented to their members as a ‘victory’ with the purpose of calming down the movement. The Financial Times commented: "Only a radical escalation – such as an open-ended strike – is likely to force the government to reconsider the main elements of the reform". An endless repetition of ‘days of action’, if they are not part of a well-coordinated plan to escalate the mobilisation, will exhaust and discourage the initial enthusiasm.

After being on the mass Paris demonstration, Alex Rouillard of Gauche Révolutionnaire commented: "Tuesday’s demonstration had an atmosphere of being a beginning, not a funeral… But, if France’s workers are clearly not ready to swallow the attacks silently, they are not ready to go blindly into a brick wall either. Workers and youth, while being ready to strike and demonstrate, have no clear alternative to Sarkozy in their hands. The Parti Socialiste is simply expanding its proposals for a so-called ‘fair and concerted’ reform of the pensions. And Sarkozy will not retreat easily; that would put into question all the austerity policies in Europe... We will need to go towards an open-ended general strike to beat them".

Announcements of further action by the trade union federations must be seized by all trade union and political militants to inform, structure and prepare the movement. Regular general assemblies need to be organised in the workplaces, schools and universities to democratically coordinate the struggle, and to let the rank-and-file workers and trade union activists have their say and exert real control over the strategy and organisation of the movement.

In order to win this battle, the working class will need a more offensive approach. A proper general strike will be necessary to force the government to retreat. This must be seriously prepared for and publicised, and continue until the complete withdrawal of the pension reform, as a minimum objective.

This would renew the confidence of French workers and youth. They would begin to feel capable of winning not only this battle, but many others that will follow unless the Sarkozy government is brought down. The idea of replacing it with a democratic government of workers, youth and poor will gain ground and the way will be opened for achieving lasting socialist change.

Cédric Gérôme


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