Revolt in France

by Andrew Pollack
(from the November 2010 issue of Socialist Action newspaper)

France has been in the grip of a spreading wave of strikes, which at the end of October shows no evidence of subsiding. Throughout the month, factories and schools have been shut down in increasing numbers, with a severe impact on oil refining and distribution and rail and truck transport.

The strikes grew out of repeated “Days of Action” called by the official union bureaucracies against the proposed pension “reform” of President Nicolas Sarkozy. But the turnout of millions on each day convinced workers that more militant action was both necessary and possible. Two more “Days of Action” have been called for Oct. 28 and Nov. 6.

Shutdowns of oil, transport, garbage pickup and other services have been enforced by roving pickets. At one point all 12 of the country’s oil refineries were shut, and commercial and passenger rail and road transport has been severely reduced, which in turn means factories are being gradually starved of material for production. When police reopened some refineries, strikers often shut them down again as soon as the police had departed.

The French bosses began sending tank trucks to Belgium to ferry oil supplies back over the border. But their effort was frustrated on Oct. 26 by Belgian trade unionists who—in a tremendous act of working-class solidarity—blockaded some fuel depots in their country against the French trucks.

In addition to violent police attacks on picketers, the government has threatened strikers with five-year jail terms. Such repressive measures, coming in the midst of a mass upsurge, and in a context where workers from many industries are staffing the picket lines, can just as easily lead to spreading of strikes to new industries and to new self-defense measures by workers to protect themselves and their pickets.

An inspiring feel for the day-to-day dynamics of the revolt can be seen in the daily posts on the Marxism e-mail list by self-described “council communist” Daniel Koechlin, an English teacher in France. Koechlin described the nightly gatherings of workers from various industries at roadblocks and refinery gates, and the gathering of hundreds of strikers from various industries to establish or reinforce such choke points.

According to the railway companies, he reports, less than 10 percent of freight trains reached their intended destination in mid-October. France has started importing refined petrol from neighboring countries.

Roadblocks were repeatedly set up in the early morning, sometimes to shut important transit routes, in other cases to try to lure police away from other targets. Local unions called upon their members to join these roadblocks, and students provided reinforcements.

A typical incident from his posts: “This morning, at 4:30 a.m., we were dislodged from the fuel depot we had been blockading by 700 riot police. The workers from the neighboring Renault factory night shift came rushing out but were repulsed by the police and confined to the factory. Attempts are currently underway to re-establish road blocks on the main roads, but the riot police are playing ‘cat and mouse’ with us.

“We block a point for two hours, the heavily armored cars arrive. We disperse and block another point, etc. Several groups (made up of railway workers, local council workers, truckers, energy workers, students, teachers and auto-workers) are operating in this manner. … Today, we got the main teachers’ union to call on striking teachers to come and help block all the remaining fuel depots.”

Part of this cat-and-mouse game also involved choosing alternative chokepoints: “The police can’t intervene, because the truckers have established road blocks on the major roads leading to the oil depot.”

Koechlin also described the desire of workers from various industries to meet together in order to plan and coordinate actions: “Many workers agree to setting up a General Meeting of all the strikers from every industry every day, to collectively decide on matters of strategy and tactics. Some local union leaders too.

“And yes, we have to really start talking about the logical implications of what we’ve been doing, i.e. refusing to obey and actively fighting the government and the bosses. Although everybody is saying that the bourgeois-backed government is illegitimate, few are actually saying that workers should start taking steps towards managing things themselves. At the moment, the aim is to force Sarkozy to back down, and yet we all know that the anger and frustration that is fueling this strike runs far deeper than a simple political exercise.

“The problem is exactly the lack of workers’ councils. Even though locally strikers are coordinating their activities, a lot of strategic decisions are made by the unions at the local and national level. But many workers are pushing for decisions involving all the workers in the municipality to be taken in general assemblies and then passed on to the local unions. …

“What is incredible is that despite the fact that there is no more oil available, and therefore that people are blocked at home, a resounding 71% of the population approves of the strike. … When we block a freeway, drivers honk to support us, give us money, hand us daily newspapers, even though we are effectively blocking them.”

Yet, as Koechlin correctly pointed out, a situation where one part of the working class seems to be striking on behalf of the rest can’t last. And the cross-industry democratic structures proposed by all revolutionary currents in France are intended precisely so the working class as a whole can assess how to spread the strikes, what new demands to raise, and decide what are the obstacles both objective and subjective to doing so.

The upsurge has also been swelled by youth, first from the lycées (high schools) and then the universities. A BBC report on youth participation was typical both in its mocking of students supposedly just wanting to have their own May ’68 (when mass student and worker strikes grew into a prerevolutionary situation), but also unintentionally revealing the seriousness of these youth: “Every morning for the last 10 days, the headmaster at the Lycée Sophie-Germain in the desirable Marais district of Paris has arrived to find a pyramid of rubbish containers piled up against the entrance to the building. Student leaders take it in turns to climb to the top of the pyramid and harangue their friends with talk of strikes and blockades. Those wishing to attend school are turned away.”

Karim Boursali, 17, a student at another Paris lycée, expressed the material necessity inspiring their admitted—and appropriate—joy in their newfound collective strength: “If older people have to work for longer, there won’t be any jobs left, and we will end up unemployed at the age of 25 and we won’t be able to contribute long enough to be able to get a pension.”

Youths have fought running battles with riot police. Police in Lyon fired tear gas when hundreds of high school students tried to join a workers’ rally. Police have arrested children as young as 10.

The strikes are about much more than the widely quoted “raising the retirement age from 60 to 62.” The figure of 62 is only when one would qualify for a partial pension. To get a full pension workers would have to work until 67, and down the road perhaps even longer, as the government also wants to raise the number of years in which workers must pay into the system before getting full pension. Working for that long is becoming increasingly difficult given the unemployment crisis, and becoming increasingly stressful as job pressures have escalated.

Said one teacher: “I still have to work for another 18 years, and in my industry, I don’t think I will be able to work much longer.” (That’s a sentiment that could be heard from any teacher in the U.S., suffering from the productivity squeezing, speed-up inducing regime of standardized testing!)

Yet progressive economist Mark Weisbrot has pointed out that since the current retirement age was last set in 1983, GDP per person in France has increased by 45percent, far outstripping the pension payouts required by the increase in population size and life expectancy.

In an interview in the Oct. 19 Le Monde, New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) leader Olivier Besancenot called for “indefinite general strikes” (i.e. bound neither by time nor industry). The expansion in scope of the strike would match its potential for expanding in substance: “The discontent goes beyond the retirement issue. … Many workers and many young people are truly fed up with the government’s double standards.”

In response to a question about an NPA alternative to the “reform,” he called for “its abandonment pure and simple. We propose retirement at 60 with full benefits and the return to the contribution length of 37.5 years, for all. To finance this project, we propose to increase the share of employers’ contributions to Social Security.”

He also called for a shorter workweek to eliminate unemployment. And he concluded that because “what we have is a crisis of overproduction in the Marxist sense of the term throughout the major capitalist economies, one day we’ll have to invent a new mode of production and consumption that can meet the needs of humanity.”

There is a strong fear that union leaders will try to use the Senate’s approval of the retirement reform on Oct. 22 to try to end the strikes. This is true even though 59 percent of respondents told pollsters on Oct. 20 that they were in favor of strikes continuing regardless of whether parliament approved of the bill. Reformist parties have also been playing their traditional role of trying to weaken or derail the movement. The Socialist Party, while supporting retention of the 60-year benchmark, approved the government’s attempt to require more years of work before qualifying for the full pension.

Sandra Demarcq, a leader of the NPA, wrote in the Fourth International’s on-line journal: “The SP is also asking the movement to stop mobilizations and wait for the next presidential elections in 2012, while the Communist Party and Parti de gauche (Left Party) and other political forces demand a referendum, turning the class struggle into an institutional question” (see The same type of compromise and maneuvering, combined with the absence of a sufficiently large revolutionary party, allowed the reformist parties in 1968 to end a mobilization that had reached a pre-revolutionary stage.

While fighting diversion from its right, the movement must also devote special attention to maximizing the participation of the most revolutionary element of the class: the Arab and African immigrant workers and youth clustered in France’s cities. It must not be forgotten that Sarkozy’s rise to national fame came as a result of his openly racist policy of police repression against them. And on the flip side, their repeated broad and militant revolts against such policies, as well as against the underlying super-exploitation on the job, higher unemployment rates, and discrimination in service provision showed the revolutionary potential of the Arab and African communities.

Such alliances against racism are even more needed given the attempt by Sarkozy in September to divert the labor movement with his racist propaganda against Roma residents—which the government followed by mass deportations. The spreading anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe, the growing Islamophobia, and the increase in vote totals of right-wing parties in several European countries all show that the rulers of the continent will rely increasingly on racist and fascist policies and movements to split the working class.

As the French revolt was spreading in mid-October, the British government announced a huge package of cuts, including elimination of half a million public-sector jobs and raising the retirement age from 65 to 67. Through his handpicked commission, Obama hopes to make cuts to Social Security at the same time that public workers in the U.S. are facing calls for massive job and benefit cuts.

Workers throughout Europe know, after months of business and government demands for austerity to reduce public debts and deficits, that the fight to save French pensions is only a precursor to fights to save health care, education, housing, and jobs throughout the continent. They know too that today’s revolt in France follows on the heels of massive strikes and huge demonstrations in Spain, Greece, Belgium, and elsewhere—and that the French revolt could inspire a renewal of these actions, with coordination on a continent-wide basis.

Perhaps such a revolt across Europe could even break through the bipartisan deficit-reduction scaremongering of U.S. politicians, aided and abetted by the Tea Party-promoting media! All of this makes support for French workers and youth—and, most of all, learning from their example—an immediate and concrete necessity for workers worldwide.

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