Anti-Sarkozy anger still runs high

Submitted by martin on 3 November, 2010 - 9:44 Author: Ed Maltby

Under the pressure of school holidays, the passing of the pensions reform into law, and loss of wages, the French strike movement is faltering, but not at an end.

Click here for much more on the movement
Over the last month or so, days of action have regularly brought over three million workers regularly take to the streets; and continuous strikes have multiplied in many different sectors, leading to transport shut-downs and hundreds of petrol stations running out of fuel. Hundreds of high schools have been blockaded by students, and university students have struck too.

The movement’s major goal was the defeat of Sarkozy’s pension reform (finally confirmed by the National Assembly on 27 October, and due to be signed into law mid-November), which would see the age at which most workers could receive a full pension raised to 67, and cut back early pension provision for specially arduous jobs.

There is also a broad feeling in France, especially among workers, that Sarkozy has to go. In polls, 70% have supported the strikes, and Sarkozy’s approval ratings have fallen to 31%. Sarkozy’s confrontational political style; his pro-religion stance; his brutal and racist programme of systematic deportation of Roma, gypsies and travelers from France; the constant stream of round-ups of migrant workers, including children – these factors have combined to create a general feeling that Sarkozy has to go.

The movement gained momentum from 12 October when it made the jump from a series of isolated one-day strikes, into a movement of open-ended "reconductible" strikes in many sectors, in which the strike was renewed each day following a discussion and vote at a workplace meeting.

Since late October, the movement has been losing momentum. Strikes in transport and oil refineries have been called off. Those two sectors were the "motor" for the movement, the areas where the strikes lasted longest, were most solid, and had greatest impact.

Turn-out for the day of action on 28 October was two million, down on previous days which had seen 3.5 million.

There are several reasons for the loss of momentum. Firstly, there were school holidays from 23 October to 3 November. Many high school and university blockades were lifted for this period and many workers were holidaying too.

The National Assembly finally confirmed the new pensions law on 27 October. Workers in France are well aware that the last law that was undone by a strike movement, the CPE, was passed into law before being repealed. But the passage of the bill is a psychological blow nevertheless.

Strikers in the core industries have lost a lot of money. French trade unions rarely offer strike pay or even hardship funds. French rail-workers I spoke to said that they were hesitating about setting up a fund because they were worried that it "wouldn’t look serious" to ask for money!

On top of these difficulties, there has been a change of tack by the trade union leaderships. On Sunday 24 October, the leader of the un-militant CFDT union federation made a new call for negotiations and the leadership of the French bosses’ union MEDEF agreed.

Since then, the CFDT has been tacking visibly away from strikes and towards lobbying and what it euphemistically calls "other means". The historically more left-wing CGT still advocates continued strike action, and both union federations have endorsed another one-day action on 6 November – but it is routine for French union leaderships to quietly, tacitly let action dwindle rather than ostentatiously call it off.

The unions played a role in leading French workers into action this time. In several sectors, most workers initially lacked confidence, and they were given a push by initiatives by intermediate layers of union activists, licensed and encouraged by the top union leaders.

Still, the new one-day strike set for 6 November may provide activists with opportunities to re-launch the movement. In some universities a strike or blockade is ongoing, and the schools come back on 3 November. Actions such as blockades of road intersections, railways and infrastructure by large groups of demonstrators are still a daily occurrence. Certain sectors are still on strike, such as municipal workers in French suburbs, and some large private sector workplaces.

It is not impossible that another sector will become the new "motor" for the mobilisation, or that energy and transport workers will return to strike action after they have earned enough money to recover from the worst of the financial hurt of the last three weeks.

In his most recent radio interview, Olivier Besancenot, spokesman of the French revolutionary New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) declared that "the movement has not blown over, it is just catching its breath".

As the next chapter in the French strike movement is resolved, the work of the French revolutionary left in building rank-and-file co-ordinations remains critical, and our work, as British labour movement activists, of keeping a close watch on the situation and offering solidarity to those sectors in struggle and those who re-join the action, remains urgent.

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