Over one million workers and youth participated in the mass demonstrations during the national day of action in France on October 4, in which some 100 000 marched in Paris. This new high point in the recent history of the workers’ movement is a further indication of the explosive social and political situation that exists in France. The day of action, which included public sector strikes, was supported by all the main trade union organisations. Besides the traditionally militant CGT, the CFDT and FO, even the managerial staff union (CGC) and the catholic CFTC participated. Significantly, the CGC participation was probably higher than at any other time in recent history. Even the police participated in the demonstrations in a number of cities.
The day of action took place as the spectacular strike movement in Marseille and Corsica against the privatisation of SNCM was entering its third week. SNCM runs ferries between mainland France, Corsica and North African ports. On September 19, the government announced the “total privatisation” of the company. The sailors and SNCM dockworkers organised in the CGT launched immediate strike action, as did the minority STC (Syndicat des Travailleurs Corses). Shortly afterwards, dockers in the Port Autonome de Marseille (PAM) also declared strike action against “creeping privatisation” of PAM installations and services, and in protest against redundancy notices served on trade union activists. Within a few days, more than fifty ships were either unable to leave Marseille or else were forced to remain out at sea, unable to enter the port.
Privatisations have often taken place at “friendly prices”, as the French say. Successive governements have sold off public assets to their big business friends and supporters. But the privatisation of SNCM is surely one of the most scandalous operations of its kind. There are various estimations of the value of the company assets, but all of them fall somewhere between 450 and 500 millions euros. And yet the governement concluded a deal in which Butler Capital Partners would acquire the company for just 35 million euros. This would be outrageous enough, but the deal also included a donation of 113 million euros to Butler in order to “refloat” the company. In other words, Butler would aquire a company worth anything up to 500 million euros and would be paid 78 million to do so by the government! The government also undertook to pay the cost of the 400 job losses demanded by Butler - an official adviser and personal friend of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin
Faced with the scale of the strike provoked by this operation, the governement changed its plans, in an attempt to give a - very short-lived - impression of meeting the strikers half-way. Instead of Butler getting the whole company, the State would keep a 25% stake, and another company, Connex, which belongs to a friend of president Jacques Chirac, would also get a slice of the privatisation, Butler and Connex sharing the 113 million euros handout between them. The loss of 400 jobs was still part of the deal.
On the September 27, STC unionists took possession of the Pascal Paoli, left Marseille and set course for the Corsican port of Bastia. This was a critical new development in the struggle. The port of Marseille was already in the hands of the dockers. Shipping was completley paralysed, thousands of tourists were marooned on the island, and now the crew of the Pascal Paoli had organised what amounted to a munity and set sail for Corsica, where they could count on massive support from the local population, just as dock and SNCM in Marseille workers were being encouraged and supported by the local population there.
The governement was extremely concerned that the seizure of this “floating factory” would serve as an example to other sections of the workers. The GIGN – the highly specialised “intervention force” of the Gendarmerie Nationale - usually used against terrorists and dangerous gunmen - was sent in by helicopter, took possession of the ship and arrested four STC “ringleaders”.
This action led to a virtually complete blockade of Corsica by strike action. Petrol-tanker truck drivers went on strike, closing petrol stocks depots and suspending deliveries to petrol stations. Chronopost postal services stopped work. Air France personnel joined the movement, stopping all flights out of Bastia, and almost all flights out of Ajaccio. In Bastia and elsewhere, crowds clashed with police in the streets. Some 15 000 people needing to leave the island – mainland workers and returning tourists – were unable to do so. Supermarkets ran out of stock as a result of shortages and panic buying.
Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy - a particularly vicious, impulsive and ambitious reactionary - insisted that at least two of the four arrested workers be imprisoned, while awaiting trial. But the judge who dealt with the initial hearing understood the inflammatory character of such a decision, and released all four of the accused, pending trail.
Immediately after their release, STC leader Alain Mosconi adopted a very conciliatory tone. “Now is the time for apeasement”, he said.”We must sit down with the government in order to find a solution”. However, this moderation was not repaid in kind, for even as he spoke these words, Sarkozy was planning the massive police operation against the strikers which succeeded in opening the ports for the private and rival company to SNCM known as Corsica Ferries.
The strike has continued nonetheless, and this inspite of tremendous pressure from the government, defective trade union leadership, and problems related to the national question and terrorism.
The government is holding at knife the throat of company employees. The workers must either accept privatisation and the loss of 400 jobs, it says, or else the company will be closed down and all 2400 jobs will be lost. In the face of this blackmail, the national leadership of the CGT has failed to adopt a serious fighting stance in relation to this struggle. It accepts partial privatisation as inevitable, but hopes that the governement will increase its participation, if possible to 51%. This would solve nothing fundamentally. The job losses would take place anyway, and the problem of unfair private company competition - subsidised by the state - would still persist. A partial privatisation would only be the prelude to new measures against the workers, including further job losses, at some future date.
The position the workers find themselves in is further complicated by terrorist activity. On September 29, a rocket was fired on a regional authority building. There were no casualties, with limited material damage. Explosions were then reported in Marseille, and a “bomb scare” was announced on a ferryboat. These incidents could be the work of Corsican nationalist groups, but could also be that of the French State. The two possibilities are by no means mutually exclusive. The Corsican nationalist groups have a long history of being willing accomplices of the State, in exchange for various favours, such as contracts and building permits, cash payments, dropped charges and shortened prison sentences for “patriots” accused or convicted of terrorist activities.
One thing is certain: these events have been crudely exploited by the state in order to discredit the strikers. The seizure of the Pascal Paoli was associated with “terrorist activity” and bombings, both in the speeches of de Villepin and Sarkozy, and in the press, on TV and radio. The evening news programme on the private TV channel TF1, for example, produced a lengthy “potted history” of corsican terrorism in the middle of the item dealing with the strike. On the docks, the strikers hoisted huge banners onto railings and buildings: “We are workers, not terrorists!”
The poison of nationalism is another danger. The STC is a nationalist-inspired minority union. It was formed on the basis of demanding priority for Corsican workers over non-Corsicans for jobs on the ferries and in other sectors, and has organised a number of strikes on that basis over recent years. The STC leadership demand, put forward during the strike, for SNCM to become a purely Corsican Company is clearly unacceptable. In a context where hundreds of jobs are under immediat threat, and given the compromising attitude displayed by the STC leadership after the release of the arrested STC members, this attitude can be understood as meaning that if jobs are to be lost, they should be lost on the “French” side of the workforce. The government is clearly trying to play on this source of division. For the time being, the strike remains solid.
Whatever the final outcome, the implacable ferocity of the government, the use of the police as strike-breakers, of subterfuge and divisive tactics, and the magnificent fighting spirit of the workers, is a stark indication of the bitter struggles which lie ahead for French workers.