France: mass strikes shake bosses

Over recent years, the French labour movement has been in the forefront of the struggle to defend public services, wages, working conditions and pensions. Since the public sector transport strike of 1995, millions of workers have been involved in some form or other of militant action. In the last few weeks, a series of huge strikes and demonstrations have once again shaken the bosses, the government and the state institutions. Greg Oxley from the French Marxist paper La Riposte reports

Over recent years, the French labour movement has been in the forefront of the struggle to defend public services, wages, working conditions and pensions. Since the public sector transport strike of 1995, millions of workers have been involved in some form or other of militant action. In the last few weeks, a series of huge strikes and demonstrations have once again shaken the bosses, the government and the state institutions. Nearly 100000 workers demonstrated on Nice on 5th December at the time of the European Summit. Anything between 300000 and 500000 took to the streets all over France in defence of pension rights on 25th January. On the 30th, a national strike of public sector workers took place, demanding wage increases and job creation to replace the hours lost by the introduction of the 35-hour week. Since then, a national strike has broken out in the hospitals, with the biggest mobilisation of nursing staff since 1988. In both the private sector and the public sector, sporadic strikes and protest meetings are taking place every day. Strike figures for the year 2000 will no doubt be even higher than the figures for 1999, which increased by 43% in relation to 1998.

In fact, the number of days lost in strikes, through inevitable ups and downs, has been generally on the increase for the last six years. The year 1995 marked a turning point in the recent history of the french labour movement. Jacques Chirac won the presidential elections in that year and appointed Alain Juppé as Prime Minister. Chirac and Juppé were in no hurry to introduce unpopular measures. When Alain Madelin, a notoriously right-wing minister, called for attacks on the "privileges" of public sector workers, he was unceremoniously sacked. This alarmed the most powerful representatives of big business, both in France and internationally, and led to a speculative war against the french currency. Chirac reorganised the government. Juppé was kept on, but the previously cautious policies were replaced by the infamous "Juppé plan", which amounted to a large-scale assault on the past gains of the labour movement. The immediate consequence of the "plan" was a one-day general strike of the public sector involving 5.5 million workers. Juppé tried to imitate Thatcher, who had taken on and defeated the british miners in order to clear the way for attacks on other sections of workers. He therefore targeted workers in the transport sector, launching a frontal attack on their past gains in terms of retirement, wage levels and working conditions. This strategy backfired. A national transport strike, enthusiastically supported by more than two-thirds of the population, almost completely paralysed the french economy, and forced Juppé into an ignominious retreat. Within fifteen months, the right-wing parties were thrown out of the government.

With better trade union and political leadership at national level, the whole of society could have been raised to its feet in a struggle against capitalism in 1995. As it was, millions of workers who were not actively involved in the general strike were nonetheless inspired by it. Millions of workers who had never been on strike, nor even in a union, could see and feel the unstoppable material power of a collective struggle against the rich and powerful. The psychological impact of this event on the working people as a whole is undoubtedly the most important factor in the course of events in France since that time.

Jospin is considered as being more left-wing than other European social-democratic leaders such as Blair or Schröder. In fact, his aims are no different. He supported the "Juppé plan" and since 1997 has tried to put it into effect. Jospin, however, unlike his counterparts in Britain, Germany, or Italy, came to power on the basis of a massive wave of social discontent and strike action. Since his election in 1997, he has had to deal with an aroused, militant and increasingly experienced labour movement. Recent strikes have involved lorry drivers, ticket collectors, hotel workers, prison guards, firemen, airline pilots and many other formerly inert layers of society.

The strike movement came to a head in March 2000, when Finance Ministry workers and teachers forced Jospin to abandon the counter-reforms he was trying to force through. The three ministers most closely associated with the unpopular measures (Zuccarelli, Sautter and Allègre) were sacked. In the new ministerial line-up, the Communist Party participation in the government was increased and the leader of the left tendency (Gauche Socialiste) in the Socialist Party was brought into the government.

The strikes and protests have not only involved workers. In December and January, a six week long strike of lawyers and court clerks over working conditions any pay took place. At the same time, policemen, who do not have the right to strike, instead of working, were giving out leaflets in the streets saying that they were "not on strike" against understaffing and poor working conditions. Judges organised demonstrations in a number of towns, for the first time since the years preceding the French Revolution of 1789! The very marked shift to the left in the thinking of the middle layers of society is also shown by the mass demonstrations of small farmers, by the sudden sprouting of the ATTAC organisation, with 25 000 members, which, although putting forward a very confused mixture of leftist and reactionary measures in its program, is nonetheless seen as an "anti-capitalist" lobby.

Another unmistakable sign of the radicalisation of the middle class is the swing in the voting patterns in Paris. Rents and the cost of living in general in the french capital are very expensive, and most the working class families have been forced to move out to the surrounding areas over the last 30 years. In the poorer quarters that remain, non-EEC workers who do not have French nationality have no voting rights. Ten years ago, all twenty arrondissements (administrative districts) in Paris were held by the right-wing parties. In the forthcoming elections in March, the left is poised to take sixteen or seventeen arrondissements, including those of the very wealthy central area, which includes Notre Dame cathedral, the police headquarters, and the high society snobs who live on the banks of the Seine.

All the right-wing parties have split over recent years, including the racist Front National. The ruling class is demoralised, with almost all of its main spokesmen, including president Chirac himself, implicated in corruption scandals. In the Socialist Party, the militant mood of the workers and the radicalisation of the middle layers of society has been reflected in a sharp increase in support for the left opposition tendencies, which increased their support from 10% to 27% over the last two years. The Communist Party (PCF), whose leaders have been unwilling to challenge the right-wing policies of the Jospin government, is now in crisis and in decline. Tens of thousands of former members have left the party over the last few years. Sales of the party paper, L'Humanité, have fallen dramatically. Dozens of workers on the staff of the paper have been sacked and the paper itself will no doubt cease to exist over the next year or so. In the presidential elections that will take place in 2002, the PCF is not likely to win more than 8% of the vote, some polls placing its score as low as 6%.

The French economy has been growing since the latter part of 1997, but all the signs point to a marked slow-down over the last six months. To a large extent, the economic upswing has taken place at the expense of the working class. Whilst it is true that unemployment has fallen, at least according to official figures, there has been a massive increase in the proportion of short-term, part-time and casual employment. Rather than solving any of the basic problems faced by working people, the upswing has only served to bring the various manifestations of poverty and social inequality into even sharper relief. With the "boom" now fading out, new and more stringent attacks on living standards are on the cards. However, in view of the developments of these last few years, it is clear that these attacks can only be made at the cost of a series of major confrontations with organised labour.