Tuesday November 26 saw the biggest mobilisation of workers since the victory of the right-wing in presidential and parliamentary elections six months ago. The main demonstration that took place in Paris saw 70-80,000 public sector workers on the streets following a call by the 3 main federations, CGT, CFDT and FO. This march took place in parallel to a number of similar strikes and rallies up and down the country. The movement was principally called in response to the government's plans to privatise and downsize large swathes of the public sector.
The main contingents were provided by workers from the Post Office, France Telecom, EDF-GDF (the nationalised power and gas utilities), Air France, French railways (SNCF), the Paris underground (RATP) as well from air traffic control, whose strike led to the cancellation of 78% of flights out of the main Charles-de-Gaulle airport. In Bordeaux, only five out of 100 municipal buses left their depots whilst in Toulouse, Lyons, Bordeaux and Marseilles, local public transport was seriously disrupted when workers downed tools to take part in local marches. There was also a presence of private sector workers in some towns and cities. For example, workers at the Auchan supermarket chain came out to protest against low wages and employees at the armaments manufacturer GIAT Industries joined in the local demonstration in Roanne.
Teachers and students also joined the protest in response to government cutbacks and counter-reforms in the education sector. The Education Ministry has stated that it wants to freeze all further teacher recruitment and cut 5,600 school supervisor and 20,000 educational assistant posts. This comes at the same time as hikes in spending on the military and the police. In parallel, university students have started a movement in Toulouse against the ECTS reform which plans to allow more private sector participation in the running of universities and higher education colleges whilst reducing state financing for the latter.
Tuesday's demonstration comes on the back of the short-lived truckers' strike of this weekend, which was undermined by a combination of police repression and union disunity. Last Friday, a major work stoppage by truck drivers was on the cards who were demanding a cut in their draconian working hours and a rise in their derisory wages. However, in order to intimidate these workers from exercising their democratic right to withhold their labour, the hard-line Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, decided to send in the police immediately to stop any truck barricades and threatened to suspend drivers' licences (therefore their livelihoods) and imprison them if they did set up barriers on the roads. In conjunction with this, government negotiators decided to ignore the two main drivers' unions, CFDT and CGT, and sign a separate agreement with the minority union FO. This led to confusion and disillusionment amongst strikers and thus weakened the movement even further. Nevertheless, the movement was not defeated, rather 'still-born'. Truckers still remain equally combative and it is only a question of time before another mobilisation will take place.
Since its election in May, the right-wing government has been very coy about its future strategy. However, for a number of weeks it has been slowly but surely revealing its reactionary plans for the public sector. Fearing a repetition of the massive public sector strike of November/December 1995 which defeated the last conservative government's attempts to radically downsize the public sector, Prime Minister Raffarin and President Chirac have been following a far more subtle and conciliatory approach. However, they could only go so far with this policy. Sooner or later they would have to reveal their true designs. Now the cat has finally come out of the bag: it is patently clear that they want to carry out a full scale Thatcherite attack on the public sector which will comprise privatisation of the gas and electricity utilities as well as the Post Office, further privatisation of France Telecom and Air France, repeal of the 35-hour working week and a freeze on wage demands. Many workers, particularly in the nationalised sector, fully expected this and therefore responded massively to the call to strike and demonstrate.
However, these are only the opening shots in the struggle to defend the public sector, jobs and working conditions. The government is treading carefully and will not want to provoke the working class too much. This is why Chirac chose Raffarin as prime minister as he is seen as a moderate. However, behind him stand a gaggle of hard line ministers intent on aping the Thatcherite model in France. However, the capitalists are pushing their government to act to defend their profit margins as the economic slowdown begins to bite. This inevitably means wage freezes, higher working hours and increased redundancies. By answering the call to mobilise on Tuesday, workers have clearly said "this far and no further!" to the privatisation plans and shown their willingness to struggle. Nevertheless, the trade unions cannot sit back and relax. A one-day national and unitary general strike must now be organised against these plans and indefinite action if they are still not repealed.