french workers en masse against pension ‘reforms’

by David Broder

Early September in France means la rentrée, not just back to school but also the end of the holidays and no more long evenings in the sun. But in 2010 it also means a return to pitched battles between the right wing government of Nicolas Sarkozy and the working class.

This Saturday l’Humanité, semi-official daily of the French Communist Party, reported on the ‘summer school’ of the MEDEF, a bosses’ federation akin to our ‘own’ CBI. The rhetoric was of Thatcher, and the need to disenfranchise the ‘no longer
useful’ trade unions.

Moreover, mired in cabinet scandal, Sarkozy has tacked right with ‘dog whistle’ core vote policies designed to shore up his position within his own UMP party before presidential elections in eighteen months’ time.

Thus this month Sarkozy is pushing mass deportations of Roma people; the banning of the Islamic veil; and attacks on pension provision including a two-year increase in the retirement age. Of course, this last measure is not a populist posture but rather an assault on the working class to balance the capitalist state’s books: nonetheless the satirical Charlie Hebdo front cover suggested he would kill two birds with one stone by deporting the elderly to Romania.

But this has not gone unchallenged. Saturday saw 200,000 take part in anti-racist protests across France. A teachers’ strike against cuts on Monday apparently drew mediocre numbers, but on Tuesday this was followed by a cross-union day of action against pension cuts.

I was staying in Blois, a town of 50,000 in the central Loir-et-Cher department. I struggled to find the demo: but then heard a cacophony of drums reverberating around the walls of the medieval castle and surrounding streets. Guided only by the noise, chancing upon the march I was amazed by its scale. The papers reported at least 10,000 in Blois alone, even though it was just one of several demos in the region and 220 across the country. Try and remember a similarly sized protest in even a much larger English area like Bristol, Hackney or Sheffield.

The crowd was very white and middle-aged. The generation gap will surely be even
more acute in resistance to cuts in Britain, given that most young people have little experience of collective action nor memories of the major class battles of the past. Less the case in France, where 2006 saw a movement of 3 million against the CPE flexible contracts for young people, and the government was forced to cave in.

The protests yesterday were just as large as those of 2006 and 1995. Some unions rated attendance at protests as high as 3 million: even the government admitted it was over a million. In this region around a third of postworkers, bus drivers and teachers struck, along with bank staff and electricians.

This was not just a one day ‘let off some steam’ action so typical of UK unions. It followed a similar action on June 24th, and furthermore brought all sectors together in common cause. Slogans were not purely defensive, for instance a number of placards demanded a retirement age of 60 for all: Sarkozy intends a two-year increase, i.e. 62 for the right to retire and 67 for a full pension. The Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste propaganda on the day called for continuous and cross-sectional mobilisations to defeat the government, citing the CPE movement; l’Humanité seemed to suggest today was enough.

So what can we learn from all this? Although organised by the mainstream union confederations the numbers were far greater than at TUC demos.

Far from evidence of some timeless or natural French tendency to take to the streets – between May 1968 and the 1984-85 miners’ strike the British movement saw more strike days – the difference in the pitch of the struggle reflects the Thatcherism we have seen and that which Sarkozy promises. Basic notions of solidarity have been hit hard in Britain.

The coming Tory insurrection against the welfare state will test whether this blow to working-class confidence and organisation has become an
impenetrable barrier to mass resistance or merely a phase a reenergised movement will be forced to overcome.