french workers fight for their futures

On 7th and 23rd September there were mass demonstrations across France in protest at planned attacks on pensions. The government wants to increase the retirement age by two years. The cross-union days of action involved as many as 3 million people, and were accompanied with strike action in public transport, municipal services, schools, post and utilities. This article from Rebetiko explains the public anger at the government’s attacks.

“French people’s tolerance of the crisis is over”. Public opinion watchers could make their predictions a few days before the 7th September strike without having to stick their necks out too much.

But this was not without risk of being exploited for a sort of subversive propaganda: the “French people” can be allowed a little moan from time to time, some gaps in that great French value of “tolerance”, but the important thing is that the alarm bells rung by the opinion surveys are quickly calmed with the necessary medicine. A dose of strike action, once every three months. If the symptoms persist, organise a national day of action without a strike call.

Three million demonstrators – a big number for the public-opinion-watchers to take down, while it’s the unions’ job to notice, given that’s how they source their funds. The government has its figures too – only 1.1 million, they say, meaning that almost 60 million did not demonstrate: what a referendum.

The number three million would really mean something if it was, say, 30,000 pickets of 100 people holding every street corner in France. But here it was 3,000,000 x 1, hundreds of thousands of individuals who normally do not demonstrate but came out into the streets this time. The unions say it’s to defend pensions; the left parties say it’s to oppose the UMP, [Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative party] the surveys say, ‘faced with the crisis’. The one thing we do know about all the individuals among the three million, is that other people are keen to tell us what they wanted on their behalf.

Even those who have made “we won’t pay” an art form can feel their modest budget being dragged down by gas price hikes and an increase for a kilo of pasta. So for whoever hasn’t worked out all sorts of schemes, “paying more” = a means of survival.

It makes it more difficult to rely on the old concept of tightening your belt so that later on you can enjoy a well-deserved and passable retirement. You will be required to reach 62 years of age and fulfil 42 years of paying contributions – in an economy where you enter working life at 25 and they want you out by 55, not to mention the periods on temporary contracts – to get your hands on a basic pension.

“Retirement should mean being free”, the ad agency hired by the Communist Party tell us: with a picture of the bars on a cell. Meaning: “work is prison”. The idea must be catching on, if even the Communist Party are going this far!

The minimum of old age, working ‘til you die: capitalism in crisis is no longer too embarrassed by such promises. The most unbearable thing is that they are destroying all reason for hope, the so-common and so-reasonable dreams of a place in the country, time finally freed from the demands of work, trips abroad (even if already these dreams are largely illusory for retired people even today). It is surely not by chance that the largest social movements in recent years (1995 and 2003), apart from youth struggles, concerned the ‘reform’ of pensions. Casualisation does not mean poverty, the lowest of the low, no, there’s always someone worse off: but rather a precarious position in society, decomposition of the class – from the restaurant to the canteen at work, from the canteen to getting charity food parcels – and your aspirations go down the plughole with it.

What’s unbearable, what makes us go out into the street, even more than the material effects – getting a hard time from the bank manager, the human resources director, the bailiffs, the cops – is the feeling of being cheated. The economy has gone back on its word, broken the contract before it was up, like a fly-by-night insurance company. We have worked, made our pensions contributions, not made too much noise about where the profits went, only to realise that the ideal of some modest happiness promised us in return has, ultimately, been taken from under our noses.

The demos are an angry society on the march, the future plans they had kept to one side no longer guaranteed. The government thinks it can get out of this by renegotiating a new pension policy, on the cheap, with the blackmail of bankruptcy. It is no sure thing it will succeed: being the first to break the rules is a dangerous game.