French workers move into action against Raffarin

On Tuesday, May 13, two million workers in more than 120 different towns demonstrated against the right-wing government in France. The public sector workers were massively represented, but tens of thousands of private sector workers were also on the demonstrations. The demonstrations on May 13 were a magnificent show of the strength and determination of workers and youth throughout France.

On Tuesday, May 13, two million workers in more than 120 different towns demonstrated against the right-wing government in France. The public sector workers were massively represented, but tens of thousands of private sector workers were also on the demonstrations. Public transport was paralysed. Approximately 250 schools were already on indefinite strike, and their number is increasing daily. The policy of axing public sector jobs, privatisations, cuts in public expenditure, wage restraint, and, in particular, the savage attack being made on pension rights, has led to a rapid escalation of anger and militancy among working people. Today, May 19, will see another huge wave of mass demonstrations and a national strike in schools, universities, hospitals and many other branches of the public services. On Sunday, May 25, a further day of mass demonstrations is planned, involving both public and private sector workers against the pension reform.

The Raffarin government came into power last June. It was a victory "by default", only made possible because of massive abstentions and disillusionment with the socialist-communist government under Jospin. The French economy has been slowing down since the spring of 2001, and is now on the brink of negative growth. Industrial production is falling. Investment is falling. Sackings and "downsizing" are a daily occurrence. Raffarin, a particularly cynical representative of the wealthy and powerful, is now insisting that throughout the entire state sector, for every two retiring employees, only one will be replaced. These vicious attacks against workers' rights and living conditions have taken place against a background of steadily rising unemployment and a tangible increase in the desperation and poverty of a growing section of the population. At the same time as the present government attacks workers and the poorest sections of society, it has made lavish tax concessions and financial handouts to the rich. The pension reform, if it goes ahead, will mean losses of up to 60% in pensions, a shortfall which it will only be possible to significantly reduce by postponing the retirement age by anything up to 8 or 9 years. As things stand, real pension levels have been steadily falling over the last 10 years, as a result of a previous "reform", carried out by the right-wing Balladur government in 1993.

The demonstrations on May 13 were a magnificent show of the strength and determination of workers and youth throughout France. In Paris, where around 400,000 marchers pushed their way through the boulevards from Place de la République, across the eastern sector and on to Denfert-Rochereau, it seemed as if the demonstration would never end. The first demonstrators were already gathering at 8 o'clock in the morning, and the march, which got underway at 11 o'clock, was still moving through the streets of the south-eastern arrondissements at 8 o'clock in the evening. The most common slogan was the call for a general strike of all public and private sector workers. A few days before, teachers meeting in a labour hall drowned the voices of the speakers on the platform by chanting "General strike! General strike!" The mood was a mixture of deep-seated anger and exuberance. "Juppé, we got you! Raffarin, we'll get you too!" was heard all along the march. This was in reference to the defeat of the Juppé government by the general strike of public sector transport workers in 1995. The Juppé government failed to impose a pension reform in the face of massive resistance on the part of the workers. In 1997, Président Jacques Chirac, seeing the political tide was turning against the right, dissolved the National Assembly before its mandate expired, but this did not save the Juppé government, which was defeated in the elections. Clearly, these events have left an indelible mark on the consciousness of trade union activists and of wide layers of the population as a whole.

The situation has changed since May 13, and the anger which was shown on that day against the government is now also directed against the leadership of one of the biggest trade union confederations, the CFDT. This confederation is under the control of right-wing bureaucrats who are completely divorced from the concerns of ordinary workers. The General Secretary of the CFDT is François Chérèque, a mealy-mouthed and smug representative of all that is unworthy of the labour movement in its top circles of the trade union organisations. Chérèque was "dubbed" as her successor by the former CFDT General Secretary, Nicole Notat, who, incidentally, was a candidate for a ministry in the present right-wing government.

Immediately after the demonstration of the 13th, Chérèque was in discussions with the government, trying to get a few minor concessions to cover what was to be one of the most blatant betrayals of rank-and-file interests in recent trade union history. On Thursday, he announced to the press that he was in favour of the government policy on pensions, and would not be supporting any further action against the reform. This was a stab in the back for CFDT members and supporters under threat from the reform, and also for the entire labour movement, since it was clearly an attempt to break trade union unity and strengthen the hand of the government. This scandalous behaviour brings to mind that of Notat back in 1995, when she gave her support to the infamous "Juppé plan". Already, the metalworkers federation of the CFDT, together with those federations which organise workers in education and in the transport sector, have dissociated themselves from the confederation leadership. In the SGEN-CFDT (teachers and educational staff) opposition to Chérèque took the form of a call for a general strike of the entire education system. Bitter protests from the ranks of the CFDT have been pouring into the confederation headquarters since Thursday, and tens of thousands of CFDT workers are expected to be on the demonstrations planned for this coming week.

The CGT and FO confederations have been generally more responsive to pressure from below, but what is clearly lacking is a bold call for a total general strike, starting with a full 24-hour stoppage, of all workers in both the public and the private sectors. Bernard Thibault, General Secretary of the CGT, interviewed on television about the possibility of a general strike, was typically ambiguous. He would go no further than saying that "if, after the 25th, the government has still not responded, I would not exclude any particular form of action". Clearly, this is "leading" from behind, at a time when tens of thousands of workers have already been on strike, and many of them for over three weeks. These workers cannot be expected to carry out this struggle in isolation. A seriously organised general strike is necessary, backed up by a massive campaign in schools and workplaces to explain to even the most passive workers the extreme gravity of the measures being pushed through by the Raffarin government. Nothing can function without the consent of the working people. A mass general strike of this character would deal a serious blow to the government, and, in particular, it would demonstrate to the working people as a whole the enormous power they possess once they act decisively as a class in defence of their own vital interests.