French Workers Strike Back — How the Movement Was Built From Below


In May and June, massive strikes against the government’s attacks on public sector workers’ pensions rocked France. Teachers played a leading role in this struggle, after continuously striking throughout the school year against the right-wing Chirac government’s assault on education.

Coming on the heels of this powerful workers’ movement in France, a similar wave of strikes in Austria and throughout Europe, and the tremendous global anti-war movement, the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) held its annual European Summer School in July. (The CWI is the international organization with which Socialist Alternative is in political solidarity.)

This year’s school was an enormous success. Over 300 people attended, which made the school the largest since the mid-1980’s. Workers, young people, and socialist activists from 16 countries attended the school in Belgium from throughout Europe and places as far away as Kazakhstan, Israel, Kashmir, Australia, and the US.

Participants discussed the lessons of the CWI’s role in building and intervening in the recent mass struggles of workers and young people across the globe.

Over $20,000 was raised during the financial appeal to continue the successful work of the CWI and to develop new groups in other countries.

Members of Socialist Alternative who attended the school were able to discuss with GENEVIÉVE FAVRE, a teacher from Cléon and member of Gauche Révolutionnaire, the CWI’s section in France, about the teachers’ movement.

How did the movement begin?
The first thing that made the teachers angry was the “decentralization” of education. This is a government project that aims to transfer education financing, management, and recruitment from the state to the regions. But there are big inequalities between the different regions – some are rich, some are poor, so there wouldn’t be the same quality of education.

The government also wanted school support staff to no longer be state employees, but transferred from the state to the regions and local councils. This would mean losing rights, having their conditions and wages worsened – the first step towards privatization.

How did teachers organize in your area?
We started by holding meetings of teachers in each school to explain what was involved with these proposals. There were meetings in the local schools, as well as sector meetings involving teachers from all the schools and colleges in the same town.

This movement definitely came from below, not from the tops of the unions. In my school I was the only union member. Rank-and-file teachers were involved in taking the movement forward. It was so strong that the union leaders had no choice but to follow.

We saw the importance of involving parents in our struggle. We put out a leaflet explaining what decentralization would mean for their children. Our first victory was against government propaganda which tried to divide parents from strikers.

We also saw the need to link up the public and private sectors. We met delegates from the CGT union in Renault and Sud Aventis, explaining that this strike was also their strike.

What do you think will happen next?
The government has given some crumbs to some education support staff, but it doesn’t amount to a great deal. They’ve also deferred the implementation of decentralization until 2004.

Students were really frustrated that they couldn’t join in the movement because they were doing their exams. And there are attacks against the universities, which would mean more involvement of private companies. So we could see a big student movement developing.

Whatever happens, we intend to continue the work of linking up the public and private sectors. We need to maintain a strong movement from below to keep the pressure on the trade union leaders. But we also need a political alternative. Workers went on strike to defeat government attacks, on education and on pensions, but many realize that what was needed was a change in society.