France: Attacks on pensions: a decisive battle

Sarkozy is consciously provoking some of the big battalions of the French labour movement. His strategy is clear: take on the strong sections of the class and, counting on the weak trade union leaders, smash them in order to prepare the ground for an all-out attack on the rest of the class. The stakes are high. With a bold, militant leadership the workers could win.

With the latest decision of six SNCF [French railways] trade unions to launch a renewable strike movement beginning on November 13, the call for strike action on November 14 in the energy sector, and the mobilisation of civil servants for November 20, the perspective of a major confrontation between the workers in these sectors and the Sarkozy-Fillon government is becoming imminent.


For the government, as well as for the workers - all workers, whether they are conscious of it or not -the struggle that is about to begin is of key importance. A defeat for the strikers and the ensuing dismantling of the "special retirement system" would open the door to an intensification of the general offensive against the rights and living conditions of all workers, without exception.


Sarkozy has clearly sought to provoke this conflict. He undoubtedly thinks - and not without reason - that to postpone a conflict with the most well-organised and powerful battalions of the trade union movement would reduce his chances of defeating them.
His reasoning is similar to that of Margaret Thatcher, who deliberately provoked the British miners' strike of 1984-1985. Like Sarkozy, Thatcher did not lack audacity. She knew that if she could succeed in defeating the miners, she could carry out her objectives in relation to other workers much more easily. This strategy was proven correct. The defeat of the miners created, temporarily, a certain mood of discouragement within the British trade union movement. The workers would say: "If the miners could not stop Thatcher, what chance do we have of succeeding?"


For the same reasons Sarkozy is increasing his provocations against the railway workers. If they are defeated, the government will immediately move on to the offensive to go further in dismantling the pension system - to the benefit of private insurers - and intensify the ferocity of these attacks on other fronts.


Faced with this onslaught, the task of every trade unionist, of every communist and of every militant socialist - despite the cowardice of the leaders of the PS (Socialist Party), who are in favour of the abolition of the special retirement system - is to organise an active solidarity movement around this strike. Through an immense collective effort, we will show this reactionary government the vast energy reserves and combativeness that our organisations and our class possess! Such a battle does not allow room for the pusillanimous language we hear all too often from the mouths of the union leaders. The enemy is before us, implacable and brutal. We must respond with equally strong vigour and determination.


According to a recent TNS-Sofres poll, Sarkozy's "popularity" continues to fall, despite the efforts of the entire media. Only some 54% are in favour. In effect, the 140% salary increase that this champion of "wage moderation" has just given himself will not solve anything, no more than the corrupt practices of his "friends" and "brothers" in MEDEF. His popularity will certainly fall below 50% in the weeks to come. According to the same poll, Fillon [the current Prime Minister of France] already has fallen to 44%. The wind is shifting - and rightly so.


The French economy is stagnating. Although Sarkozy promised first a 4%, then 3%, and now "at least 2.5%" growth in GDP for 2007, it will not even be above 2%. The balance of foreign trade has literally collapsed. The social decline is aggravated in all domains. The purchasing power of the mass of the population is suffering constant erosion.


In the sphere of international politics, Sarkozy's diplomacy stumbles from fiasco to fiasco, whether it is a question of the threat of "war" with Iran, which was immediately abandoned, or the kidnapping of children from Chad - a "clandestine and illegal" operation supported by French army logistics!


The strike on October 18 and the massive stoppage at Air France reveal the growing combativeness of the working class. The students are launching actions against university reform. Even the magistrates and other professionals of the judicial system are mobilising against the government.


Sarkozy wanted to paint an image of himself as a "strong man" of the right, but he is a (very small) giant with feet of clay. It is entirely possible to defeat him. The railway workers and the whole of the public sector workers have enormous power. In 1995, Chirac and Juppé displayed an unfailing determination to defeat the railway workers. But they were forced to capitulate in the face of the size of the mobilisation and the economic impact of the strike.


La Riposte has never accepted the superficial analysis, promoted by numerous leaders of the PS and the PCF (French Communist Party), according to which the working class has "shifted to the right", meaning that we are condemned to a long period of reaction. The day after the electoral defeat, we wrote:


"Sarkozy's campaign was the height of dishonesty and hypocrisy. He said that he will deal with the poor, the disposed, the oppressed, the unemployed, and the workers. Those who actually believed this flood of promises will quickly become disillusioned. The actions of Sarkozy will respond exclusively to the needs of the capitalist class. The right have no other objective other than to submit the entire economy and society to the law of profit. The right will lead an implacable and systematic offensive against social gains, rights, wages, working conditions, pensions and social security. They will foment racism as well as administrative and police harassment against ‘foreigners'. [...] The electoral statistics hide more than they reveal. Universal suffrage gives the same weight to those who are inert, stagnant and demoralised as it does to the more conscious and militant social forces of society. Elections are like a snapshot. They provide a fixed image of a society in motion, in the context of growing instability. Social consciousness and the mood of the different social classes are extremely mobile and fluid. [...] Far from being a period of ‘national unity', the Sarkozy years will be marked by massive struggles, over the course of which the militant and revolutionary traditions of our class will be awakened."


And we are there already! The changes in the mood and consciousness of the workers, of course, in an unequal and hesitant manner, are a palpable reality, which even the pollsters have to admit. For example, 85% of those polled "do not believe in the ability of the government to do anything about the high cost of living."


If the truth were to be told, Sarkozy's main asset - and the main source of his "confidence" - resides in the weakness and ambiguity of the leadership of the trade unions. According to an AFP dispatch on November 1:
"At the Elysée, one notices that Xavier Bertran, Minister of Social Affairs, is ‘at the frontline of discussions with the unions'. To soften the impact of the strikes, he has entered a dialogue with several unions such as the CFDT and the autonomous drivers of the SNCF."


François Chérèque, who "leads" the CFDT from capitulation to capitulation, is perfectly capable of betraying the movement as cynically as he did in 2003, during the struggle against retirement reform. In the hours following the mobilisation of May 13, 2003, one of the largest since 1968, Chérèque signed the "Fillon reform" without even consulting the union federations. The leaders of Force Ouvrière, as usual, cover their refusal for taking decisive action with a lot of radical talk. The CGT, with its size and capacity to mobilise, is a decisive force in this conflict. However, the equivocal and conciliatory attitude of Thibault towards retirement reform and the policies of the government in general - "not systematic opposition, we will judge it case by case" etc. - is not up to the situation.


When Thibault [General Secretary of the CGT] announced that a different "framework" for the reform would prevent a conflict, what are the workers supposed to think? When he says that for him reform is necessary, but that the "terms" need to be negotiated, he is announcing defeat before the thing has even started. This explains the reticence and scepticism of a significant layer of workers. "After all, they say, is it worth it to take unlimited strike action in order to obtain a few minor changes?" The union leaders are engaged in suggesting a new "framework" to the government, which will allow Sarkozy to potentially divide the workers and weaken their resistance. Instead of working to unite the whole of the private and public sector workers around a common platform, the leaders of the trade union confederations seek to separate the different "cases", thus aiding the strategy of the government.


Sarkozy has said several times that he has no intention of budging on any of the main points of this counter-reform. Thus, what else can be negotiated, apart from the way in which the workers will lose their pension rights? The refusal of a CGT railway worker to shake Sarkozy's hand in front of TV cameras, did honour to the trade union movement, as do the comments of the trade unionist that declared that conflict would be settled on the streets. The union movement and the whole of the working class needs leaders whose language strengthens their thinking, raises their combativeness, unites them in a common struggle and revives the great militant traditions of the French labour movement.


Mobilisation all workers for the pure and simple withdrawal of the reform!
Keep the measures of the special retirement system!
No more than 37.5 years of pension contributions for all!
No retreat below the SMIC [Minimum wage!]


We are on the eve of a major confrontation between the classes, in which the issues go beyond the question of the special retirement system. As Raymond Soubie, social advisor to Sarkozy, said, "it is the most difficult of reforms, since it concerns those who have the strongest power to block it [...]. If it succeeds, the rest will follow." (Les Echos, November 1). The "rest" refers to the destruction of social gains, greater job insecurity, continuation of the dismantling of public services, lowering of purchasing power and all other measure intended to reinforce the interests of the billionaire capitalists who have all the power in this country.


We will support this struggle with all our might. We will try to make it as large and general as possible without losing sight of the need to rearm the trade union movement and the Communist Party with the ideas, programme and principles of socialism. In France, as everywhere else, capitalism offers no future to the millions of workers, youth and pensioners. As long as the capitalists own industry, trade, the banks, the credit and insurance companies, they will maintain power over our lives, stifle our aspirations, strengthen inequality and take society backwards.