France: a general strike needed to defeat the government

On Friday, October 22, finally the French government managed to get the pensions reform passed through the Senate. The increasingly unpopular government of Sarkozy, faced with an unprecedented movement of strikes, demonstrations, road blockades, mass pickets and general assemblies, hoped that this, together with the beginning of the All Saints school holidays, would bring the mass movement to a halt. This does not seem to be happening, however.

With all opinion polls still showing 60 to 70% support for the strikes and blockades, and one of them suggesting that 59% of the population was in favour of the continuation of the movement even after the approval of the law, the trade union leaders have been forced to call for two more "national days of action", on Thursday, October 28, and Saturday, November 6.

However, there is a general mood in the movement that repeated days of action are no longer enough to force the government to retreat. Since the beginning of September there have been six days of action, three of which saw the participation of more than three million people in demonstrations all over the country. After the national day of action on October 12, with 3.5 million people on the streets, a number of sectors started indefinite strikes, notably the refinery workers and the railway workers. Despite the stubborn refusal of the national trade union leaders to call a general strike, section after the section of workers have joined a growing national movement whose focus has become the idea that only by bringing the economy to a halt can the government be defeated.

The continued strike of refinery workers has now reached a point where nearly half of the country's petrol stations are without fuel, and the figure is even higher in the West of the country and the Parisian region. As in any important strike movement, the workers have become aware of their own power. CGT shop steward at Total group, Marcel Croquefer, explains it this way: "We have become aware of our own weight, of our ability to organise decisive action." He also explains how they have become a focal point for the movement and have received solidarity from other groups of workers. Croquefer explains that solidarity is very positive but "at the same time, the more sectors join the strike, the stronger we will be".

The same sentiment is expressed in the statement of the National Federation of Chemical Workers of the CGT. While thanking all those who have shown solidarity, they explain that:

"We want to state clearly and once again that the best form of ‘solidarity’ is to spread and strengthen the strikes to other sectors of the economy. Only in this way we will be able, all together, to stop the dismantling of our social welfare system at the hands of the Medef and the government".

The refinery workers’ union of the CGT is to the left of the national leadership, refusing the idea of "social partnership" and remaining loyal to "class struggle". But it would be wrong to think that it is only the refinery workers who are part of this movement. The strike is continuing at the country's ports, preventing the unloading of crude oil at the country's main terminals. There are also road blockades organised by the lorry drivers, strikes of public transport in cities like Marseille and Toulouse, there were blockades at several airports last week, a continued strike of refuse collectors in Marseille, in state education, etc.

The strike of the energy workers, including stoppages at some of the country's nuclear power plants, has also had an important impact. According to official figures, on October 19, between 13 and 14 hours, France had to import 5,990 megawatts of electricity, equivalent to the production of 6 nuclear reactors.

A very interesting video of the blockade of the Toulouse airport on October 21, shows the mood amongst growing sections of the movement. "We have had plenty of demonstrations and Sarkozy doesn't listen - we must move on to something else... we need to blockade the economy... we need a general strike" seemed to be the common opinions of those present. The mass picket involving hundreds (perhaps up to 1,000) was composed of workers and trade union activists from the buses, Airbus, students, hospital workers, and many others, and had been decided and organised at the Interprofesional General Assembly on the previous day.

It is clear that some of the trade union leaders wanted to put an end to the movement, taking advantage of the fact that the law on "reform" of the pensions was going to be voted in the Senate on October 20. The massive scale of the demonstrations on October 19 prevented most of them from retreating. "Given the mood of the rank and file we cannot put an end to the movement", trade union leaders both from the CFDT and the CGT, explained, almost apologetically. However, instead of giving the movement a clear lead, calling for a general strike   the only step that would make the movement stronger   they called for yet another two "national days of action" on October 28 and November 6 (the latter on a Saturday). As a matter of fact the trade union leaders seemed to be more worried about "debordement" (being overtaken by the movement), than about giving the struggle a clear lead.

This left the movement without a clear direction, but despite that, stoppages, road blockades, strikes and all sorts of initiatives to maintain the movement strong developed at the initiative of the rank and file and local and regional trade union bodies. On the day when the Senate was supposed to pass the law, Wednesday 20, thousands of workers and students marched in Paris in two separate demonstrations, one called by the school student organisations, the other at the initiative of General Assemblies of railway workers, postal workers, and others. Both demonstrations attempted to reach the Senate building, but were stopped by anti-riot police. The main problem was that, lacking a call on the part of the national leadership, they did not have the necessary numbers.

The media has concentrated on the strikes at the refineries, but a report on Friday 22, spoke of nearly 250 industrial establishments in the private sector which had been affected by strikes and stoppages of one kind or another. In the North Pas-de-Calais region, where the CGT is to the left of the national leadership, 25 private sector factories have been on strike or suffered stoppages of varying duration. Many industrial areas around the country are only working partially, as trade union activists organise regular blockades and mass picketing.

The government keeps talking of a "minority of radicals holding the country to ransom" and the media hide the real extent of the strike. This is in contradiction with the statement of the Economics Minister that the movement is causing daily loses of between 200 and 400 million euro.

The port town of Le Havre is one of the epicentres of the movement, with mass demonstrations of tens of thousands and an indefinite blockade of the harbour. Here a daily inter-professional general assembly involving all sectors in struggle meets to share information and take decisions on the steps to be taken. The daily bulletin of the general assembly (Havre de Greve www.havredegreve.org) has listed all those factories and workplaces which were still part of the strike movement on Saturday, October 23: Total Raffinerie de Normandie, CIM (99%), Petrochemicals, SNCF (railways), Chevron, Centrale EDF (energy), Exxon, Foure Lagadec, Vinci, Ponticelli, Debris, Opteor, building workers, regional civil servants at Gonfreville, Gainneville, d'Harfleur , Konecranes, also Aircelle, lorry drivers, Renault Sandouville, France Télécom, Lafarge, Yara, etc.

The government has responded with violence and repression. There are now plenty of eyewitness reports and video evidence showing the presence of agent provocateurs at student demonstrations and orchestrating violence at demonstrations in general (see for instance this video). The CGT has denounced cases of plain-clothes police officers wearing CGT stickers or even CGT steward arm-bands playing a role in creating violent incidents during demonstrations. In order to defend their demonstration against provocateurs and anti-riot police, the last student demonstration was stewarded by trade unionists.

At the same time, realising the key role in the movement played by the strike at the refineries, the government has used violent and legal means to attempt to break the resolve of the workers. First they used the CRS anti-riot police to lift the blockades that were organised outside the main refineries and fuel depots by refinery workers with the support of trade union activists from other sectors. This soon became a game of cat and mouse. In one refinery the CRS opened the gates, only to realise that if the workers continued the strike the refinery would remain paralysed anyway. At another refinery, the barricades were removed by the CRS, but the trade union activists then proceeded to blockade a nearby roundabout, thus preventing any fuel from leaving the site.

Using emergency laws which are supposed to deal with cases of "national emergency" the government moved to "conscript" all workers at the Grandpuits refinery on Friday 21, after violently breaking up the picket line. With 430 workers, Grandpuits is the smallest of the six Total refineries in the country, but supplies 70% of the Ile-de-France region. In effect this means that workers are ordered to go back to work or else they face jail sentences. This is an unprecedented attack on the right to strike, which shows the truth contained in the Marxist analysis that the state (police, the laws, etc) is, in the last analysis, "armed bodies of men in defence of private property". The initial order forcing all workers back to work was subsequently revoked by a magistrate, only to be replaced by another ordering about 25% of the workforce back to work to cover "essential services".

The movement of the oil workers has also found an echo in Belgium. The socialist union ACOD, who organises the workers on the locks at the two main rivers Schelde and Leie, have threatened to block river transportation of fuel to France. Another socialist union, the FGTB, at the Total refinery in Feluy blocked the whole site today as it realised that it was being used to break the strike in France. A group of important socialist and Christian trade unionists, shop stewards and leaders, including some MPs of the Socialist Party and the Green Party, and the Socialist Party left wing SP.a Rood have called for the blocking of all transport to France which is intended to break the movement. On Thursday, October 28 they will organise a demonstration in front of the French embassy in Brussels. The Marxists of Vonk have played an important part in this initiative.

A statement of the FGTB on Monday 25, declared that they would go on strike at the Total Feluy refinery, which has seen increased production in the last few days, which the workers rightly interpret as a strike-breaking activity against their French class brothers and sisters. The union warned that they have witnessed an increase of 25 oil tankers a day and that unless production went back to normal levels they would stop work as of today, Tuesday 26.

The movement of the French workers has captured the imagination of millions of workers, youth and trade union activists all over the world. They can see the French workers taking a firm stand against attacks which are very similar to the ones they are suffering. An example of this is the call for a general strike in Guadeloupe, Martinique and French Guyana for Tuesday, October 25. Clearly the reasons for the strike are particular to these French overseas territories (the rise in the prices of fuel, food, water and electricity), but they have also been inspired by the movement in France. This can be seen by the call by the UGTG for an indefinite strike of oil and refinery workers in Guadeloupe. In turn, many workers in France were inspired by the victorious 44-day general strike which paralysed Guadeloupe in 2009.

Despite violent repression and draconian legal measures on the part of the French government, on Monday, October 25, workers at the six Total refineries in the country voted to continue with their indefinite strike. Three other refineries voted the same way. At another three refineries belonging to Exxon Mobil, workers voted to put an end to the strike and resume production. According to a company spokesperson this was down to the "CFDT not playing the game anymore". As a matter of fact, CFDT national leader Chereque had made scandalous statements on France Inter, to the effect that "the right of people to free circulation" had to be guaranteed, and that the strikes and blockades of the refineries and fuel depots was "threatening to undermine the popularity of the movement". It has to be said however, that Chereque was only taking to its logical conclusion the wording which was already on the October 21 statement of the national Intersyndical (trade union alliance) to the effect that united initiatives should take into account "the respect for property and people".

In effect, the CFDT leadership would very much like to put an end to this movement, but after the massive show of force on October 19 they were forced to call for the two new days of action together with the CGT. The government, with its firm and intransigent stance, is also making the job of the trade union leaders more difficult. The trade union leaders are begging for the government to reopen negotiations, rather than demanding the outright withdrawal of the reform. The CGT leadership also uses the excuse of maintaining “trade union unity” in order to avoid an open call for a general strike, but when 60% of the population are in favour of a general strike this argument comes across as very hollow. The leader of the CFDT, Chereque, has stressed that he “does not put into question the legitimacy of Parliament” and that after the law is finally passed we will be in a “new stage”, and he has also made an appeal for negotiations with the bosses’ organisation MEDEF about “jobs for the youth and the old”, clearly preparing his own exit from the movement. CGT leader Thibault, however, cannot afford to be so open, since he is under pressure from the ranks of his own union, and so he has insisted that the “movement has not ended”, but adding that after the law has been passed, the movement “will have to take on new forms", and by this he clearly does not mean the calling of a general strike!

The danger in this situation is that the sectors which are on strike will grow tired and exhausted and the strike movement could fizzle out. As well as the three Exxon Mobil refineries which have voted to end the strike, the refuse collectors in Marseille have also voted an end to their strike at the request of their union FO. Some of the general assemblies of the railway workers over the weekend decided to continue the movement but to use other means which will hurt them less in their wages; for instance, instead of a 24-hour strike, to strike for an hour at the beginning and the end of each shift, thus causing maximum disruption. The CGT coordinator at the Total group explained the mood amongst the refinery workers: "We know that refineries weigh heavily in this movement, but we do not want to be the only ones to act in France".

The responsibility here is on the shoulders of the trade union leaders, particularly those of the CGT. The conditions could not be better for the development of a general strike which would bring the government to its knees and force a retreat on the pensions reform. There is massive and unprecedented public support for the movement, even despite the disruption caused. The approval rating of Sarkozy, now only 29%, is at its lowest level since his election in 2007. Strong links of solidarity have been built amongst the strikers in different sectors of the economy through the common picket lines and blockades, and basic coordination has been established in many towns and cities through inter-professional general assemblies. All that is missing is a leadership of the trade union movement which is up to the task.

Tomorrow, Wednesday, October 27, will see the final stage of the parliamentary proceedings for the approval of the pensions reform, and the government is already putting heavy stress on the question of the legality of the reform as a way of take legitimacy away from the movement. However, the anti-CPE struggle in 2006 managed to force the withdrawal of the "contract of first employment" after it had been approved by parliament. Incredibly, the trade union leaders have called for a national day of action for October 28, after the approval of the law. The student organisations have called for a national day of action for today, Tuesday 26, with demonstrations which could be joined by many workers.

The current movement of the French working class is an extraordinary confirmation of the power of the working class today. What is needed is a clear call for a general strike. If this does not come from above, the local and regional inter-professional general assemblies should link up at a departmental and also national level, through elected representatives, in order to give the movement a clear leadership. Despite all the obstacles that they face, the French workers have revolutionary traditions. This is the country of 1936 and 1968, as the comrades from La Riposte clearly point out, that is, a country with revolutionary traditions of a movement from below escaping the control of the trade union leaders. The last word has not yet been uttered.

Jorge Martín

See also an interesting picture gallery on boston.com with pictures from strikes and blockades around the country.