Sunday, February 1, 2009

French workers demand that capital pay the price of the crisis

Lisbeth Latham

French cities and towns were filled with protesting workers on January 29 as unions called a general strike to demand that the government of President Nicholas Sarkozy protect workers rights. The protests were in response to a new €26 billion financial bailout package aimed at increasing infrastructure investment, but doing nothing for workers faced with job losses and falling buying power. It was the first joint action by France's eight union confederations since Sarkozy was elected in 2007.

Both police and media have attempted to down play the strikes, the CGT and Force Ouvriere claim that 2.5 million people participated in the mobilisations. The Strike involved a quarter of the public sector; more than half France's education sector participated in the strike. Striking transport workers forced cancellation of services across France including the cancellation of 40 percent of high speed train services; 60 percent of regional train services, 25 percent of Paris metro trains and 10 percent of flights from Charles-de-Gaul airport. Strikes also occurred at Renault and Peugeot Citroen factories.

The general strike reflects widespread anger at the failure of the government to act to protect people from the impact of the economic crisis as France moves towards recession and unemployment is expected to exceed 10 percent. Despite insisting at the beginning of its term that the coffers were empty and social spending had to be cut back, the French government has delivered three large bailout packages, in October the banks were bailed out with €320 billion ($424 billion) in loan guarantees. Two months later, in December, the government announced it would provide €22 billion in aid to small- and medium-sized businesses hit by the downturn and approved a €26 billion economic stimulus package focused mostly on infrastructural investments. Unions are calling for an end to public sector job losses, increased wages and greater efforts to both protect and create jobs. Sarkozy's total failure to respond to the social impact of the crisis meant that the strike received widespread support, with a poll conducted on January 25 indicating 69 percent support for the strike including 54 percent of voters for Sarkozy's Right Wing government.

Following Thursday's strikes the government indicated that while it had heard the message, there would be, as Raymond Soubie, Sarkozy's social affairs adviser, told RTL radio, "No change of direction, Sarkozy will maintain his economic and social policies". However Labour Minister Brice Hortefeux did attempt to provide a sop, indicating that there would be a further response, "but not in an immediate, inarticulate way".

The leaderships of France's unions are expected to meet on February 2 to discuss the direction of the campaign. They have called for a concrete response from the government within 10 days. The French left is pushing to unite the growing struggles in France. Olivier Besancenot, a spokesperson for the Revolutionary Communist League which is moving to disolve itself to form New Anti-Capitalist Party on February 4-6, said on January 29, "there is a torrent of industrial disputes and social protests, but they all remain separate from each other. What we need to do is bring all this together in one massive movement of dissent." In the lead up to the general strike, at the initiative of the NPA, 10 French left parties including the French Communist Party issued a joint statement which declared "the various plans for here and around the world, have only one objective: to maintain the profits of major capitalists. The crisis is a crisis in Europe and worldwide. In this context, we need to mobilize for a social Europe, which is ecological, democratic and feminist".


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Revitalising Labour attempts to reflect on efforts to rebuild the labour movement internationally, emphasising the role that left-wing political currents can play in this process. It welcomes contributions on union struggles, internal renewal processes within the labour movement and the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

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