By MARTY GOODMAN
In a massive display of working-class power, workers throughout France walked off the job on March 22 and on April 3, launching a long-term series of one-day strikes. The strike wave is aimed at the anti-working-class attacks of the neoliberal French president, Emanuel Macron.
The strike action gained tremendous force on March 22, when over 500,000 demonstrators marched in the streets—65,000 in Paris alone. Thousands upon thousands of teachers, nurses, and other workers joined rail staff on strike.
Some are comparing the attacks on workers in France today with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s war on coal miners in 1984—meant to seriously cripple the entire labor movement. “We need to rid this country of its strike culture,” said a very nervous Gabriel Attal, a spokesman for French President Emmanuel Macron’s neoliberal political party, Republic on the Move.
Phillippe Martinez, head of the CGT (General Confederation of Labor), said, “they’ve decided to break the Code du Travail [the massive French labor rights code]. There will be fewer rights for workers.”
In recent weeks, an amazingly wide array of the French working class has mobilized against the attacks. In addition to the powerful rail, airline, and postal workers’ unions, others have struck too—nurses, students, refuse workers, energy, supermarket employees facing layoffs, and lawyers angry over the centralization and “streamlining” of the court system. Students have gone on strike at a dozen university campuses and have joined with workers in mass demonstrations.
Rail unions have projected a series of 36 rail strikes beginning April 3 and lasting through June 28. The strategy calls for striking two days out of every five during that period. Thousands of rail workers met in a spontaneous rank-and-file general assembly in Paris on March 22, where they discussed further steps to deepen their struggle.
Four of the unions on the SNCF rail system observed the April 3 strike. Some 77% of SNCF drivers and 34% of its staff were striking, but unions gave a higher figure of 60% or more striking on the first day. Only 40% of high-speed TGV trains and only around a third of commuter trains were running. One in five regional trains were operating. About 30% of short-haul to medium haul flights out of Paris airports were canceled on April 3. In Nice, up to 50% of flights were scrapped. Airline workers, fighting for a 6% raise, are scheduled to strike April 7, April 10, and April 11. Air France workers have not received a raise since 2011. Two company executives had their shirts ripped-off during protests in 2015 against cutting 3000 airline workers.
Several unions, more conservative, have targeted April 19 for a massive strike, while withholding—for now, at least—support for the larger 36 strike strategy. Airline and rail workers are preparing to go out together on that date, along with many public and private unions.
President Macron: a yuppie on steroids
Stoking working-class rage is French president and former investment banker Emmanuel Macron, 40, elected in May 2017. Macron, dubbed “the president of the rich,” has championed frontal attacks on unions and students, masking them as “reform.”
Macron and his new party, La République en Marche (Republic on the Move), are a real horror show for French workers. For Macron, it’s mean and lean—120,000 public worker jobs are to be cut out of 5 million public workers by 2020; wages are to be frozen, at least for some; bosses are emboldened to fire or lay off workers more easily or to downsize the workforce; pensions will be slashed and the retirement age rolled back. For students, the “reforms” mean limiting access to France’s free college system.
Macron’s pronouncements were followed by large-scale layoffs. Unemployment in France is about 9% overall and for youth 25%, higher than the Eurozone average.
France is a member of the European Union, an alliance of mainly imperialist countries dominated by German capitalism, and must comply with the profit-driven agenda of the European banks. The watchword is ‘cost-cutting’ across the board, that is, cutting wages, health care, pensions and implementing anti-worker measures by 2020. In addition, France must face “competition” from private transportation firms, where the goal is greed, not service.
Macron and the French rulers are particularly keen on bashing mass transit, the state-owned French National Railways, SNCF. Macron portrays SNCF workers as being paid too much and with pensions that are too high. He says that their retirement is too early—for what is often a dangerous job. Legal safeguards against layoffs are too strict, says the president. Based on manipulated data in the “Spinetta Report,” the bosses say that the public transportation system is too expensive and its fares “uncompetitive” with that of other countries.
One Macron tactic is to divide and conquer the unions—particularly the more conservative ones—with closed-door “negotiations” in which each union’s bureaucrats are unaware of what Macron promised the others. After “negotiations,” to the surprise of dumbfounded union officials, Macron publically unveiled a detailed anti-worker program that had been apparently kept under wraps all along.
Moreover, Macron has used his parliamentary majority to rule essentially by decree, drawing criticism for an authoritarian style not unlike that of U.S. President Donald Trump.
With little doubt, the French authorities will resort to repression and violence if they feel it is necessary to break the labor movement. A harbinger of this tactic was seen on March 22 when students were attacked after they had occupied a college auditorium in Montpellier, a city in the south of France. A school dean allowed a group of masked men—armed with bats, Tasers, and reinforced punching gloves—to beat up the students and evict them from the auditorium. Security guards at the university stood idly by and watched the beatings, according to one account. Several students were hospitalized. Some of the goons were revealed to have been professors and teachers at the university, eyewitnesses said.
Debate on union strategy
Sebastien Menesplier, head of CGT Energy, said, “We haven’t been this close to an unprecedented social revolt for years.” Nevertheless, top union officials have failed to try to mobilize all sectors of the working class in a unified and massive strike protest. Laurent Berger of the CFDT union federation, aligned with the timid Socialist Party, said he was not interested in building a united front with other forces against austerity and cuts: “the convergence of struggles is not the CFDT’s cup of tea.” Jean-Claude Mailly, general secretary of the Force Ouvriere (FO) union federation, also opposes any convergence.
But one union is seeking a more aggressive strategy. In an interview in the March issue of Jacobin magazine, Bruno Poncet, federal secretary for SUD Rail, an independent left-wing union affiliated with the national labor organization Solidaires, explained it this way:
“The method of two days of strikes every five days, it allows for the preservation of unity between the four labor unions. For us, SUD Rail, we think we need a tough movement. That is to say a full and long-lasting work stoppage, right away. And even for that, it’s not SUD Rail that will decide, it’s not the other unions. What will happen is that in general assemblies that will take place every day during the strike, people will decide for themselves the conduct of the strike.”
Many in the French left and beyond see the possibility of the return of the mass militancy of 50 years ago, during the epic May-June 1968 revolt in France, which threatened the capitalist order with over nine million workers on strike and giant student mobilizations. Today’s rulers are trembling at the thought! The first wave of current strikes began on March 22, the 50th anniversary of the first protest that ignited the 1968 rebellion.
The last time the French capitalists made a frontal assault on public workers, particularly SNCF workers, was in 1995 by Prime Minister Alain Juppe. Then too, unions struck and mobilized massive protests. Juppe, after a fierce battle, threw in the towel in the face of sustained working class anger.
Striking by public employees in France is not illegal and not outlawed as it is many U.S. cities, such as for workers in New York City’s transit system. Striking is a constitutional right in France. However, in France, strikers must notify management in advance of strikes. Moreover, public workers must maintain a minimum of public service.
Unfortunately, French unions comprise only about 9% of the workforce, similar in size to the U.S. labor movement. But French unions, particularly rail, can still deliver big blows against the rulers—especially when unions are united, willing to fight, and resolved to work with other social forces around common demands.
The broad resistance in France gives the international workers’ struggle more power and reveals the depth of the crisis that capitalism has spawned worldwide as a reactionary, destructive force. Our ability and willingness to strike will be key to rolling back the agenda of the capitalist rulers and building a movement that can ultimately replace their destructive system with socialism.