Class struggle erupts again in France

More than half a million public and private sector workers demonstrated on February 5 against proposals to scrap the 35-hour week, while 100,000 school students came on the streets to protest against education reform on February 10. The class struggle in France has suddenly spluttered back into life after more than eighteen months of relative slumber. With 600,000 public and private sector workers demonstrating on Saturday February 5, 2005 against proposals to scrap the 35-hour week and 100,000 school students on the streets against education reform on Thursday February 10, the class struggle in France has suddenly spluttered back into life after more than eighteen months of relative slumber.

It has now become a hard and fast rule of economic life for most workers: what the bosses concede one day, they will take away at the earliest possible opportunity. This can be seen quite clearly in the right-wing Raffarin government’s recent manoeuvring in France. Although not noted for its radical break with the capitalist order, the “left-wing” Jospin government of 1997-2002 did introduce one major piece of legislation in favour of the workers, i.e. the 35-hour working week, aimed at raising real incomes and combating unemployment. The employers’ federation and the right-wing parties grudgingly accepted this legislation, biding their time until the opportunity came around to get rid of it.

That opportunity came in 2002, with the left’s defeat in the general and presidential elections. Since that time, the right has led a continual campaign against a whole series of workers’ rights won over the last fifty years. The Raffarin government began by attacking pension rights in 2003. Despite a massive mobilisation from mainly public sector workers, it succeeded in raising civil servants’ pension age from 60 to 65. We do not have the time to go into the reasons for this defeat now, although it clearly had a dampening effect on the working class for a whole period of time (roughly eighteen months). However, the government’s current attack on the 35-hour week legislation has once again sparked the workers back into action. According to the CGT union, 90,000 workers marched in Paris on February 5, with a total 600,000 up and down the country from Toulouse in the south, to Nice in the east and Lille in the north. However, the most noteworthy aspect of this latest movement was the participation of a large contingent from the private sector.

Unlike the previous pension reforms of 2003, which mainly affected the public sector, this reform affects both private and public employees. In fact, many workers have benefited from the 35-hour working week legislation, particularly in large companies such as Renault, Michelin etc. The legislation allowed workers to be paid the same amount for 35 hours of work a week as they were being paid for 39 hours. In practice, many workers in the public sector experienced a real cut in working hours from 39 to 35 hours a week, whilst in the private sector many carried on working more than 35 hours a week (although hours over 35 hours were treated as overtime) in return for extra days of holiday – up to 17 extra days in some cases. These days can be taken in batches of one or two at more or less any time of the year, but not usually in conjunction with statutory paid holiday. These days have become known as RTT (“reduction du temps de travail”) days and in reality increased the number of paid holidays enjoyed by workers from 5 to up to 7 weeks a year. Many workers use these extra holidays to spend more time with their families or pursue hobbies. However, under the banner of increased profitability and globalisation, the bosses have now put these gains under threat. In fact, in many areas, employers have already put a gun to workers’ heads, threatening to close workplaces and relocate abroad, unless they agreed to work more hours for the same pay, equating to a de facto scrapping of the 35-hour working week rules. Under pressure from these employers and their federation, the MEDEF, the government this week decided to submit its reform of the 35-hour working week to parliament for approval. The right-wing dominated parliament easily passed the reform, thus paving the way for its eventual replacement.

However, these are only the opening shots of the battle between the representatives of the capitalist class and the workers. In fact, it is unclear how far the government will be able to go at the moment, particularly after the success of last Saturday’s demonstration. It will not want to create a united front of public and private sector workers, an alliance that has been a glaring absence in a whole series of struggles over the last ten years. Furthermore, the government is also planning to privatise a number of state companies (EDF, GDF, Areva, Sanef) and hold a referendum on the European constitution over the next six months. With such a well-stocked timetable, something might have to be placed on the backburner for the time being.

The government’s predicament has also been made worse by the unexpected school students’ movement, which managed to bring out 100,000 pupils on to the streets on Thursday February 10. Once again, these reforms are intended to save money from the education budget and introduce greater inequality between schools. In reaction to the demonstration, the Education minister François Fillon stated that he was to withdraw the reform.

Finally, another significant piece of news last week concerned the European constitution referendum to take place in May. The pro-capitalist “Yes” camp was dealt a significant blow after the CGT union’s national council came out against the constitution, in opposition to its increasingly pro-market leader Bernard Thibault. Although opinion polls still point to a majority in favour of a “Yes” vote, the “No” campaign has been given extra impetus by this development. A successful “No” vote at the upcoming referendum in France would leave the ferociously pro-market and ultra-liberal European constitution dead in the water. Whatever Chirac and Raffarin decide to do next, the stage now seems to be set for a very turbulent period over the next few months in France!