On October 3, anything up to 100,000 workers demonstrated through the streets of Paris against the Raffarin government. The demonstration started out from Place de la Nation, in the east of the city, which was fully occupied by 10 am, and the last demonstrators did not arrive in the centrally located Boulevard Haussmann before 7 pm! Workers from the EDF-GDF (the publicly owned electrical and gas industry) were massively represented, together with workers from many other branches of the public sector, including Air France workers, métro workers, miners, and railway workers.
The main focus of the demands put forward on the demonstration was opposition to the privatisation of EDF-GDF planned by the Raffarin government, the defence of the 35 hour week, defence of pensions, together with demands for higher wages and job security.
Since the election of the right-wing government last June, Raffarin has been continually provoking workers by slashing state financing of the public sector, attacking social services, attacking the positive aspects of the legislation introduced by the Jospin government in relation to the 35 hour week, and launching a new round of privatisations. This demonstration was the first episode in what promises to be a whole series of struggles on the part of the unions in defence of public ownership and workers’ rights.
In the past, the leadership of the main trade union confederations only offered half-hearted opposition to privatisation, as did the leadership of the Communist Party. In 1997, Robert Hue, general secretary of the CP at the time, tried to reassure big business interests in France by stating that privatisation was no longer "taboo" for the party leadership, making it clear that the CP would not put up any serious opposition to the privatisation projects of Prime Minister Jospin. As things turned out, a number of privatisations were carried out under the direct authority of the "communist" Minister of Transport, Jean-Claude Gayssot. Under the Jospin government (1997-2002), 31 billion euros of public assets were transferred to the capitalist sector, compared to 17 billion under the right-wing Balladur government (1993-1995) and 9.4 billion under the right-wing Juppé government (1995-1997).
But now, the massive opposition from the workers themselves is clearly forcing a change in attitude in the left parties and in the leading circles of the trade union movement. The catastrophic consequences suffered by the giant France Télécom, in the wake of its transfer to the tender mercies of private capital, has further spurred opposition to privatisation. France Télécom is now the most indebted company in the entire world, and bankrupt in all but name. Without massive financial aid from the state, the company would completely collapse. For the first time in many years, the demand for nationalisation figured on the banners of many of the trade union organisations present. The CGT, which is the most powerful trade union confederation in France, has demanded the "complete renationalisation of France Télécom" and totally opposes the privatisation of EDF-GDF.
In the morning, a couple of hours before the demonstrators started to gather, Segolène Royal, former socialist minister and the wife of the Socialist Party leader, François Hollande, timidly suggested that it wasn't a good idea to privatise EDF-GDF "at a time when the Stock Exchange is falling", that is to say, when the sale of the company would not fetch a sufficiently high price! She added that she wouldn't be on the demonstration, in order to "leave room" for the unions! In point of fact, Madame Royal is quite a trim-figured lady, and could surely have found a spot to stand in somewhere on the demonstration! Significantly, however, just one hour after the demonstration, François Hollande, who had fully supported the previous government's plans to privatise the company, appeared on TV to declare his "firm opposition" to the privatisation if EDF-GDF, and even to any opening up whatsoever of EDF-GDF to private investment. This change of heart is not only due to the tremendous success of the demonstration. Hollande is also under pressure from within the Socialist Party, where a crisis has broken out since the defeat. Two left-wing tendencies, the Gauche Socialiste and that led by Henri Emmanuelli are in the process of merging in order to mount a challenge for the leadership of the party at the next congress (March 2003).
The teachers’ unions have announced a national strike and a demonstration for October 17, against staff shortages and cuts in the educational sector, and railway workers are organising a national demonstration which will take place on November 26. Meanwhile, the economic recession is deepening. The usually optimistic INSEE statistics institute has - for the third time - revised forecasts for economic growth in France, lowering them to less than 1% for this year. Since the beginning of the year 30,000 companies have closed down in France. Unemployment is rising sharply. French workers will not accept from the right-wing government the policies that they fought against under their "own" government. Clearly, France is once again on the eve of great events!