France: Big Protests as Movement Debates Way Forward
By Chris Latham
Green Left Weekly
October 31, 2010
French workers and students have mobilised in large
numbers again to oppose changes in pension laws that
will raise the age at which workers are able to retire.
The seventh national strike in as many weeks took place
on October 28, as indefinite strikes in many industries
against the changes entered their third week.
The protests took place despite the government's
pension bill passing through France's parliament on
However, there are clear signs the movement against the
changes has begun to weaken. The passing of the pension
law, and signs the struggle against it is slowing, have
heightened debate over the direction of the campaign.
More than 2 million people took part in 270 protests in
cities and towns across France on October 28.
The turnout, while large, was down on preceding
national strike days, during which between 2.7 million
and 3.5 million people took to the streets.
Bernard Thibault, general secretary of the Genderal
Congress of Labour (CGT), told l'Humanite on October 28
that the mobilisations that day were "inferior" to the
previous ones, but still "large" and "impressive" given
the passage of the law.
He added: "What is impressive is that was probably the
first time that after the passage of a law, we have
events equally large . with popular support."
The size of the protests was undoubtedly affected by
the parliamentary vote, but the decline was also a
consequence of the decision of the inter-union
coordinating committee at its October 21 meeting to
slow the pace of protests and strikes.
The meeting also reduced support for the indefinite
strikes occurring across France.
The statement was not signed by one of the
participating national unions, the radical Solidaires
union, which argued for an intensification of the
The United Union Federation (FSU) supported Solidaires'
call for an indefinite general strike, but put its name
to the statement.
The October 21 committee statement set two new national
days of protests for October 28 and November 6. This
meant there were nine days between national strikes.
In that time, the bill was passed by the Senate on
October 22 and went through the final stages of
adoption of a common text between the National Assembly
and the Senate over October 25, 26 and 27.
Between October 12 and October 19, three national
strikes had involved between 3 million and 3.5 million
people. Given that the October 28 national strike was
supposed to provide a final show of defiance before the
bill becomes law, it was a significant loss of
This is especially the case considering opinion polls
continued to show huge opposition to the changes of
The October 21 statement also failed to endorse the
daily local actions by workers. This contrasted sharply
with the previous repeated calls by inter-union
committee statements for unions to hold discussions at
the regional and workplace level to determine
appropriate forms of action.
After the statement, there was a decline in the
indefinite strikes. Participation in the strike by
state rail workers, which management had said involved
40-50% of workers when the strike began on October 25,
fell to 4% by October 29.
Most significantly, workers at two oil refineries voted
to lift their strikes on October 25. The shutdown of
France's refineries had caused a severe fuel shortage.
By October 26, workers at four refineries had voted to
lift their indefinite strike.
Despite this dynamic of retreat, other developments
showed the movement still has considerable strength. At
the six large Total refineries, workers voted to
continue their strikes.
At those refineries where workers had voted to return
to work, it was difficult for production to restart
with strikes continuing at the ports in Le Havre and
This meant the refineries were only able to refine
previously stored crude product and allow the transport
of oil refined before the start of the strike.
The determination of a significant section of workers
to continue striking with no pay, especially in the oil
industry where the action resulted in more than a third
of petrol stations across France running out of
supplies, reflects a willingness to continue the
However, without the leadership and support of most
national union federations, those continuing the
struggle risk isolation. This is especially the case as
the government has begun issuing "requisitions orders"
forcing workers to return to work or face prosecution.
By October 29, other refinery workers and port workers
had voted to return to work. MidiLibre.com reported
that CGT representatives in the refineries expressed
regret their strikes had not been supported by workers
in other sectors.
However, since the inter-union committee's statement,
university students have increased the size and extent
of their mobilisations against the pension bill.
On October 25, Young New Anti-capitalist Party (JNPA)
reported that 37 universities were on strike and a
further 10 universities had been closed by their
A coordinating committee representing 40 universities
has called a national strike for November 4.
The differences expressed at the October 21 meeting of
the inter-union committee were not new. But the meeting
reflected a clearer expression of the differences that
had existed since the start of the campaign.
The more conservative union federations had previously
expressed support for an increase in the age for
receiving the pension. This wing includes the French
Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT), National
Union of Autonomous Unions (UNSA), the French
Confederation of Christian Workers (CFTC) and the
French Confederation of Management-General
Confederation of Executives (CFE-CGC).
The CFDT leadership had publicly supported the pension
changes attempted by the Jean-Paul Raffarin government
These unions were drawn into the campaign and the
inter-union committee largely due to the refusal of the
government to negotiate seriously with unions.
The focus of the leadership of these unions, along with
the leadership of the more militant CGT, has been on
forcing the government to reenter talks with unions.
However, among CGT ranks and some regional leaderships,
there has been a lot of support for an indefinite
general strike aimed at the total defeat of the pension
Popular support for the strikes has been high. In the
aftermath of the 3.5 million-strong national strike on
October 19, Sandra Demarcq wrote in International
Viewpoint that 61% of those polled supported prolonged
This dynamic has allowed alliances to be formed between
militants across unions for indefinite strikes in the
face of opposition from the more conservative national
Despite popular support for further strikes, CFDT
secretary general Francois Cheroquem was reported by
Bloomberg on October 29 as saying the CFDT would not
support further strikes once the legislation becomes
The bill has now been referred to the Constitutional
Council to determine whether it complies with France's
constitution. Given the pressure from right-wing
parties, it is unlikely to be blocked by the council
without an escalating mass movement.
At best, the council discussions will delay President
Nicolas Sarkozy from enacting the law.
With the changes likely to become law, there will be an
increased pressure within the social movements to
support the opposition Socialist Party (PS), which has
promised to repeal the law if it wins the 2012
The militant Solidaires federation and the far-left
parties continue to focus on pushing for further
mobilisations to defeat the changes.
In an October 28 statement, Solidaires noted the
movement still had strong public support. It said the
bill's passing made no difference "as democracy cannot
be reduced to the parliamentary vote".
Solidaires called for "a continuation of the engagement
process, through national and local actions determined
on a daily basis within individual units: support for
strikes, blockades, rallies, initiatives of solidarity
. It is responsibility of organisations to give this
process a new impetus."
The passage of the pension bill has significance beyond
the negative impact it will have in lengthening the
working life of French workers.
Solidaires pointed out in its daily strike bulletin on
October 11: "Defeat on this issue will open the door
for further challenges."
The huge French strike movement has given hope in the
ability of the working class to hold back the wave of
austerity programs being implemented by capitalist
governments across Europe.
In the latest of these attempts to make working people
pay for capitalism's economic crisis, the British
government announced severe cuts to public spending on
This austerity drive has been bitterly opposed, with
and big protests in Greece, but such resistance has so
far failed to stop any of the anti-worker measures.
The militancy of the French strike movement, and the
depth of public support for it, has held the
possibility of galvanising resistance across Europe.
This hope was reflected in the actions of Belgian
workers on October 26. They organised blockades to stop
oil being transported from Belgium to France to ease
the shortage caused by the French oil workers' strike.
The Sarkozy government recognises the importance of
this struggle and is determined not to back down in its
plans to raise the retirement age.
How the movement will play out remains unclear. The
growth of the student movement could give the broader
movement renewed energy.
However, its strength remains untested until high
school students return from school holidays on November
4 - coinciding with the national student strike.
A strong turnout for the student strike will strengthen
the hand of the militant unions when the inter-union
committee meets again that day. Its decisions will have
a big impact on the size of the national strike that
has been called for November 6.
Whatever the outcome, the revolt of French workers has
already reverberated across Europe. Even if defeated,
it could prove a sign of deeper resistance still to
[Chris Latham maintains
www.revisitalisinglabour.blogspot.com, which follows
the labour movement internationally and is following
the events in France.]
From GLW issue 859
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