The recent strikes and mass demonstrations in France

France has made the headlines in the recent period thanks to a wave of strikes mainly aimed at stopping the government's attacks on pensions. The militancy of the French workers however was not matched by their own trade union leaders, who played a key role in fragmenting and confusing the movement. The workers will draw their own conclusions over the coming period.

Over recent months, France has once again been the arena of a major struggle against the representatives of capitalism. The wave of strikes and demonstrations, which were on a scale not seen since the public sector transport strike of 1995, was in response to government plans to dramatically reduce retirement pensions and lengthen the number of years in employment required to qualify for them. The Raffarin government, which came into office following the defeat of the left in the June 2002 elections, has been carrying out an offensive against the living standards of workers and attacking public services.

Another major source of discontent was the so-called "decentralisation law", whose introduction would mean the transfer of financial responsibility to local and regional government for basic public services, which will lead to the "out-sourcing" of many of these to the private sector, with a corresponding loss of job security and wages to workers in these services. The project particularly threatens workers in schools and universities, and was the major issue, together with that of pensions, which pushed teachers and other workers in the education sector into action on a massive scale. They were, in effect, the central core of the movement.

The legislation on pensions, which has now been voted by the National Assembly, deals a serious blow to workers' rights and effectively opens up retirement provision as a "market" for the capitalist insurance companies. Workers who want to retire in decent conditions will have little alternative but to turn to these companies, and those who cannot afford it will face hardship and the threat of pauperisation.

Throughout the months of March and April, as the mass protests against the war in Iraq died down, demonstrations and sporadic strikes took place throughout the country in anticipation of the new laws. The demonstrations rose steeply in size and in number, and by early May, thousands of schools were already involved in strike action. The mayday demonstrations, although smaller than those of last year, when, between the first and second rounds of the presidential elections, 500,000 demonstrated in Paris alone against the racist Front National, were among the biggest seen for many years. On the Parisian demonstration of May 13, and then again on the national demonstration on May 25, between 400,000 and 600,000 workers turned out, and the national total on the 13th was probably around the 2 million mark. Clashes with the police took place on a number of occasions. Demonstrators were attacked by the police outside the Palais Garnier in Paris, and the skirmish carried on inside the opera house itself. In Perpignan, in the south-east, violent clashes took place between students and riot police in the university, where barricades were erected to keep the police out.

The mood on the demonstrations was exuberant and optimistic. The demonstrators remembered how, both in November 1995 and in March 2002, just as it had been earlier, in 1986, for example, mass mobilisations of this kind had forced both right and left governments to back down. "Juppé, we got you - Raffarin, we'll get you too!" they shouted. However, this time, events were to prove them wrong. After many long weeks of struggle, with massive popular support, the Raffarin government still stood firm. The June 19 demonstrations, although still extremely impressive protest actions in themselves, showed that the movement was in decline. Over the following week, the strike movement collapsed.

But the struggle against Raffarin is not over yet. During the summer, the government will announce measures relating to the privatisation of France Télécom, revising the status of over 100,000 public sector workers. The coming months will also be marked by strikes and bitterly angry protests by workers in the entertainment and cultural sector. These workers are faced with very difficult working conditions, on short-term and poorly paid contracts, and Raffarin wants to make it much more difficult for them to receive unemployment benefits. The strike movement of these workers is gathering momentum, and a number of major summer festivals have already been wholly or partially cancelled. Nonetheless, the struggle to defend pensions, in spite of the scale and determination of the movement, has ended in a setback, and the lessons of this struggle must now be taken into account.

In spite of the fact that the pensions "reform" - in reality a counter-reform - will have a negative effect on just about every working man and woman in the country, the movement had an uneven, sporadic and partial character from the beginning to the end. Even though the strikers and demonstrators undoubtedly had the support of the overwhelming majority of working people and youth, the private sector hardly moved at all, although significant numbers of trade union activists from some branches of the private sector were present on the marches. Even within the public sector, where the level of organisation is higher, the militant traditions stronger, and the danger of reprisals for strike action considerably weaker, the strike was far from general. It mainly involved teachers and school staff, postal workers, finance ministry and customs workers, museum staff and health sector workers. Railway, métro and urban transport workers joined in the strike movement in the first week in June, but not as effectively as in the 1995 strike, and only for a short period.

Of course, there is nothing automatic about how workers respond in a given context to attacks on their living standards. It is not easy to mobilise the private sector on such an issue as pensions because the attack does not come directly from their employers, and because of the precarious position in which most of these workers find themselves, particularly in a period of rising unemployment. However, the fact is that this struggle was handicapped from the very beginning by the bureaucratic conservatism of the leadership of the major trade union confederations, namely the CGT, FO, and the CFDT.

In the case of the CFDT, the general secretary, Francis Chérèque, openly betrayed the struggle by signing an agreement with Raffarin on May 15. This treacherous act was a stab in back for the two million demonstrators who were out in the streets just two days before, for the other main trade union confederations, and also for the CFDT workers themselves. Even the leadership of the most important CFDT federations, like that of the railway workers for instance, only learned of the signature when it was announced on the radio.

As for the FO (Force Ouvrière) leaders, who have been on the right wing of the trade union movement in France ever since FO was formed as a "yellow" union after the Second World War, it played a typically deceptive and pernicious role in the events. On the demonstrations, the FO full-time hacks and officials would give the line: "Grève générale! Grève générale!" (general strike!), but in practice, on almost every single occasion where the question of going on strike was posed concretely, they opposed strike action of any kind. For example, when the RATP (Parisian Transport) section of the CGT called for united action, FO refused to join the strike, and therefore weakened the impact of the strike.

Calculating bureaucrats such as Marc Blondel, the FO General Secretary, are not averse to toying with the most radical sounding slogans to "score points" against rival unions and to deceive the rank-and-file FO membership, many of whom are among the most exploited and poorly paid workers. But in the build up to the national demonstration of May 25, when the call for a general strike was on the lips of almost all demonstrators, when general assemblies of workers up and down the country were discussing ways and means of extending the movement, and when, clearly, many FO members were also taking the demagogic phrase-mongering of the leadership at face value, and urging strike action on a massive scale, Blondel came out firmly against any such development: "I am against a general strike, because a general strike means a near insurrectionary situation, which would not be good for the country, and which nobody wants." he said when interviewed on France Info radio.

The CGT has emerged from the recent struggles having firmly established its position as the most powerful and the most representative trade union organisation in the country. It is undoubtedly within the CGT that the greater part of the most conscious and combative sections of the working class are to be found. CGT members were in the forefront, together with the teachers' unions, of the struggle, and formed, again alongside the teachers' unions, the largest contingents on the demonstrations.

Generally speaking, the most active and militant workers have a more indulgent attitude towards the actions of the CGT leadership in the course of the recent struggle. However, in reality, the national leadership of the CGT failed to act in accordance with the needs of the movement. The strikes in the transport sector were organised under pressure from below and in spite of adverse pressure from the national CGT leadership.

On the evening of the May 13, while the streets of all the main towns and cities of France were still thronging with masses of angry demonstrators, Bernard Thibault would only say that he "understood the emotion" of RATP workers who had decided to continue their strike action beyond that day, but was clearly not enthusiastic about this decision. The CGT leadership "supported" workers on strike, but left them to their own devices, and at no time advocated or made a clear call for strike action.

Thibault tried to justify this attitude by saying that calling strikes was "not the role" of a trade union confederation, and gave the example of 1968 to support this rather astonishing statement. "At no time, in 1968, did the CGT call a strike". This only goes to show that Thibault is no better as a historian than he is as an organiser of strikes. In point of fact, in 1968, the CGT, together with other workers' organisations, called for a 24 hour general strike for May 13 of that year. What they did not call for was what happened from the following day onwards. The strike continued, grew rapidly in scope, to the point of completely paralysing the economy, the government and the state apparatus, placing the power de facto in the hands of the workers, and giving rise to precisely the kind of "near insurrectionary situation" which, as we have seen, still haunts the mind of fossilised bureaucrats like Marc Blondel.

Faced with the pressure from the ranks of the CGT and the teachers' unions for a clear call for a generalisation of the strike movement, the CGT national apparatus had its answer in readiness: "A general strike cannot be decreed, it must be prepared!" This phrase ran through workplace general assemblies and demonstrations, and undoubtedly rang true in the ears of many workers, who understood it as a call for patience, while the CGT leaders "prepared" for an escalation of the movement. In fact it was, like the empty sloganeering of the FO officialdom, a bureaucratic trick and a snare for class-conscious workers. Of course, even the most clear-sighted and courageous leadership cannot pull mass strike action out of a hat. However, if strike action must be prepared, it must also be prepared in time, with energy and decision, and around a clear program of demands. This, the CGT leadership completely failed to do.

Ever since the coming into office of the Raffarin government one year ago, it was perfectly clear that these attacks would be made. If instead of repeatedly saying that he hoped the government would be "as good as its word" in its claim to want "dialogue and discussion" with the unions, if instead of harping on incessantly about the "calendar", wanting to fix dates for new - and fruitless - discussions, Thibault had used this precious time to warn the working class of what was in store and worked consciously to prepare the movement, organisationally, politically, and psychologically for the inevitable struggle which was ahead, the mass of the workers - particularly those in the private sector - would not have been taken by surprise by the sudden eruption of this conflict, and the movement would not have had such an uneven and improvised character.

Nonetheless, once the teachers had given the signal for action, pushing their own leaders into a strike, which they did not want and now could not control, it was still not too late to act. The movement could have been extended, first of all into a 24-hour general strike, then into an even greater demonstration of union power, and Raffarin could have been defeated. But the truth is that the CGT national leadership neither "decreed" nor prepared a general strike, but, on the contrary, exercised whatever pressure they could to curtail the scope of the struggle. The key demand put forward by Thibault was for the government to "open new negotiations", even suggesting on occasions that these would simply "improve" the government measures! The activists in the streets saw matters very differently: they demanded complete withdrawal of the reforms in relation to pensions and decentralisation, and put forward a whole series of demands intended to defend and improve pension rights. The demonstrations showed a radicalisation of the most conscious layers of the workers. Air France workers demanded the renationalisation of the company, and the most popular slogan on the marches was the call for a general strike.

However, the more inert sections of the working people, who were not on the demonstrations, needed a clear answer to the vicious and divisive propaganda of the government about public sector workers selfishly defending their "privileges". But they were given not a bold call for mass strike action, not fighting demands, but only soporific calls for more "talks" from Thibault. Clearly, in spite of the widespread sympathy for the movement, which existed, such a limited aim was incapable of bringing out the private sector, or even, as events were to show, of extending the movement to the whole of the public sector.

The teachers and the other sections of public service workers fought courageously, but could not be expected to carry the entire struggle to defend pensions and against decentralisation on their shoulders. Workers in education do not have the same economic power as workers in industry or in the transport sector. In 1995, the movement which defeated Juppé was spearheaded by the railway workers, which meant that the economic impact of the movement was considerably greater. From mid-June onwards, as the end of the school year approached, and with hopes for a generalisation of the strikes fading, the strikes in the schools and elsewhere petered out.

This was a tremendous wave of struggle, which once again confirms the magnificent resilience and fighting spirit of the French workers when they move into action. The number of days lost in strikes has increased every single year since 1997. This latest struggle has blooded a new generation of young workers, who were massively present on the demonstrations, bringing many thousands of them into the arena of mass action for the first time.

The movement ran up against the resistance of a hard-nosed reactionary government, faced with a stagnant economy, falling profits, shrinking markets at home and abroad, and having no other way out than to grind down the rights and living conditions of the population. But this was not the main reason for the unfavourable outcome of the struggle, which is to found in the shortcomings and, in some cases - such as that of CFDT leader Chérèque - the blatant betrayal of their interests, on the part of the leadership of their own organisations.

The end result of this phase of the struggle is a setback for the cause of labour. But other phases will follow. The cynical and pugnacious Raffarin, emboldened by his victory, will now move on to further attacks against France Télécom workers, against Public Health Insurance, and against state control of the universities. Many other battles lie ahead, therefore, and the lessons learned in this last one will serve to harden the attitude of workers and youth, making them more critical and discerning in relation to their leaders.

The harsh reality of modern capitalism, which is pushing society backwards, destroying industry, destroying public services, undermining welfare and pensions provision, and condemning millions to desperation and poverty, will stir the consciousness of workers and lead many of them to far-reaching revolutionary conclusions. We must work to accelerate this process, and to give the growing militant instinct of the working people a fully conscious and more organised character. That is the key to the future of the labour movement, and indeed to that of the whole of society, in France and internationally.