The French government’s attacks on public sector workers’ pensions and efforts to weaken the education workers’ union provoked a massive wave of strikes and protests across France. The right-wing government of President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin proposed to increase the number of years public sector workers would have to work to receive a full pension from 37.5 to 40. But the movement quickly went beyond the specific attacks that triggered it into a generalized opposition to the capitalists’ neo-liberal agenda.
Protests began in February and April and escalated into a 300,000-strong May Day demonstration. By May 13 two million workers in 115 cities organized a day of strikes and demonstrations, with another 2 million marching in Paris on May 25. On June 3, 1.5 million poured into the streets, including private sector workers whose pensions are not even directly threatened. Another major day of action took place on June 10. Polls showed 60% of the population supporting the strikers.
Daily strikes continued in many sectors like education, healthcare, and transit along with demonstrations outside town halls and the offices of the bosses’ organization, Medef. On June 3, militant industrial workers in the chemical, metal, and transit industries were joined by new sectors from the financial industry, call centers, and small businesses. Workers utilized a variety of tactics including workplace occupations and blockades of roads, railroads, and transit depots.
For over two months teachers and staff in schools and colleges were continuously on strike. 3,000 schools and colleges struck on June 5 alone. Education workers forced the government to partially retreat by withdrawing its plan to decentralize education and take away national collective bargaining rights for non-teaching staff.
Unfortunately, the leaders of the CFDT union signed on to the pension “reform,” provoking mass outrage among their members.
Labor leaders have been struggling to keep themselves at the head of the mass movement but they fear its developing along the lines of the 1968 general strike that threatened capitalism’s existence.
The intense pressure the union leaders feel from below forced them to back or call periodic days of mobilization – while also trying to make sure that there are gaps of days in between to disrupt the movement’s continuity and momentum.
Marc Blondel, the Force Ouvriere (FO) leader, was quoted in Le Monde as dismissing a general strike, saying it would be of a “political, insurrectionary nature”! Finally, growing anger from the rank-and-file forced two main unions, the FO and SUD, to call for a united private and public sector general strike.
Workers rapidly organized Assemblées Generales (new rank-and-file strike committees) to organize daily actions. Some are based on one workplace while others involve different industries and/or public and private sectors. These important new formations could link up city, regional, and national actions to organize a general strike, and later, a new workers’ party to challenge the corporations’ agenda on the political level.
A general strike systematically organized by rank-and-file members and their leaders is needed to force Raffarin to abandon his “reforms.” Widespread strikes and protests stopped similar attacks on pensions and led to the ouster of Prime Minister Juppe in 1995.
The CWI in the French Strikes
The Rouen Assemblée Generale invited CWI member Bob Sulatycki from Britian’s Socialist Party to address a meeting of 450 activists. He was applauded as he expressed solidarity with the French demonstrators and stressed the common nature of the struggles faced by the French and British working class.
Gauche Révolutionaire, the CWI section in France, was the first to argue that the Assemblées should be established across France and that delegations of workers should be sent to workplaces which had not yet been out on strike, explaining the need for a general strike to defeat the government’s assault. The meeting in Rouen overwhelmingly voted to put the CWI proposal into action.