Monday, March 23, 2009

French Unions Plan Campaign Against Financial Crisis Following 3 Million Strong General Strike

Lisbeth Latham

More than three million people joined in the second day of strikes and mobilisations called by France’s eight main union confederations against the Sarkozy Government’s response to the financial crisis and in support of policies to defend jobs and the purchasing power of French workers and unemployed. The protests on March 19 reflected a significant growth on the size of the previous day of action on January 29 which mobilised 2.5 million people. With the government showing no interest in changing course, the debate over what the direction the campaign should take is deepening.

Unions are demanding actions to counter the impact of the economic crisis and to make capital rather than workers pay for the cost of the crisis. Central demands have included:

  • Increases in the minimum wage and payments to the unemployed and pensioners;
  • Increased social spending on public housing;
  • Action to reduce job losses including bans on redundancies at profitable companies;
  • Reversal of the tax cuts given to the rich at the start of the crisis;
  • Reversal of job losses and restructuring of the public sector
The growth in size of the demonstrations and extent of strike action reflects widespread and growing public support for the strike. Recent opinion polls indicate that 78% of France believes the strike is justified, up from 69% in January. This growth in support has lead to increasingly desperate attempts to delegitimize the movement. Many media reports quoted police estimates of 1.2 million participating in the protests, however the Confédération Générale du Travail, (General Confederation of Labour - CGT), France’s largest union confederation, reported that the police estimate was issued at 8.15 am well before the protests actually started. The President of France’s largest employer federation MEDEF described protestors as “demagogues”.

The growing anger reflects a number of factors including the rapid growth of unemployment as companies shed jobs to improve their bottom lines. More than 100, 000 private sector jobs were shed in the last three months of 2008, a further 350, 000 expected to be destroyed in the first half of this year. The highest profile example is the French Oil Company Total, which announced in early March that it would shed more than 500 hundreds of jobs despite posting record profits in 2008 of 13.9 billion Euros.

At the same time the government is persevering with attacks on the public sector based on claims on having no money to sustain spending – but it has had little trouble finding the billions to fund its corporate bailout. In response to these attacks public sector workers have been involved in broader industrial action including university staff who have been conducting a seven-week strike.

Adding to the confidence and combativity of workers have been the militant general strikes conducted in France’s Colonies of Guadalupe; Reunion and Martinique. The Guadalupe and Martinique strikes were victorious following 44 and 38 day general strikes.

Despite the growth militancy – the government remains unmoved. On March 20, Sarkozy while acknowledging that the strikes reflected “how worried workers are by the economic crisis”, he ruled out any further spending.

Sarkozy’s refusal to meet the strikes demands is increasing the tension over the direction for the movement. In a joint media statement, the eight union confederations stated that the magnatude of the mobilisation says loud and clear that workers "do not want to pay for a crisis they did not cause". The statement indicated that the leaderships of the eight union confederations would meet on March 30 to discuss the next steps in the campaign.

On March 20, Jean-Claude Mailly, head of Force Ouvrière (Workers Force – FO) said they were “determined to keep up the pressure” and were considering calling new protests on May 1.

In a March 19 statement, radical union confederation Union Syndicale Solidaires (Trade Union Solidarity – Solidaires) called for the momentum of the day’s protests and strikes to be extended. The statement argued that struggle facing workers was who would pay for the crisis – the rich or workers, unemployed and pensioners. The statement continued “In order to deal with the social crisis and the need for alternative policies” required the building of a movement to build a general strike.

Solidaires call for an ongoing general strike has been supported by a statement issued by Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (New Anti-Capitalist Party – NPA) Olivier Besancenot on March 19. Besacenot said “The general strike on Thursday, 19 March was an even more significant success than that of 29 January”. Besacenot continued “that very evening, [French Prime Minister] François Fillon gave the finger to 3 million demonstrators, by staying the course on the policy of finding tens of billions only for those responsible for the crisis while telling the strikers and protesters that the coffers are empty when it comes to jobs or wages.

“Such a success and such a government provocation deserve better than the announcement of a new meeting of trade unions on 30 March.

“Twentyfour hours of strikes and demos are not enough to make the government and employers bend. Only by a prolonged general strike can we make them meet our demands: prohibit layoffs, increase wages, and lower prices”.

MRZine have provided English Language Translations of both the CGT’s and Olivier Besancenot’s statements.
Solidaires' Statement is available in French.


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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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