Monday, March 29, 2010

Thousands of French workers march to defend pensions

Lisbeth Latham

Thousands of public sector workers mobilised against the Sarkozy governments push to reduce workers’ access to pensions. On March 23, more than 180 protests across France as part of the unions’ campaign against the assault on pensions. The protest has been seen as a reawakening of the movement against the Sarkozy government’s neo-liberal austerity drive, a movement that had collapsed over the latter half of 2009.

The Sarkozy government has proposed to lift the retirement age above its present level of 60 and to increase the minimum number of years which workers work in order to receive a full pension from 40 to 41 years. The full pension is 50% of salary over the best 25 years, this figure is capped by the social security ceiling. Below this pension there is a guaranteed minimum old age pension, which is 678 Euros a month. The government argues that the changes are necessary in order to offset the impact of France’s aging population. The push to increase the pension years was first made in 1985. The attempts to attack France’s pensions have been slowed through successive waves of worker mobilisations, the most spectacular being the massive public sector strikes in 1995. In 1993 the minimum number of years of work required to qualify was increased from 25 to 40. In order to add impetus to the attack, Sarkozy has moved Eric Woerth from the Budget Ministry to the Labour Ministry, as Budget Minister Woerth pushed through the sacking 100, 000 public servants between 2007 and 2010.

In a statement issued on March 23, the New Anti-Capitalist Party highlighted the impact that the proposed changes on those sections of the workforce who already struggle to achieve full pensions. Women in particular are expected to find it difficult to achieve a full pension due to the socially assigned role of women as carers. At present three quarters of retired women receive the minimum pension which is 40% of the average male pension. Opponents have also argued that in the context of rising unemployment, with 5 million unemployed, an increase in the pension age is criminal.

The mobilisations were supported by a coalition of five union confederations the General Confederation of Labour (CGT); French Democratic Confederation of Labour; United Union Federation; National Union of Autonomous Unions and the Trade Union Solidaires. The 2009 movement drew together eight confederations. The mobilisation size, unions estimate between 600-800 thousand, was also substantially down on the height of last year’s movement, which at its height drew more than 3 million people into the streets. However the protest is substantially larger than the last inter-union mobilisation of last year. The decline of last year’s movement has been seen as reflecting a contradiction between the widespread anger at Sarkozy’s response to the financial crisis, even as the movement decline opinion polls showed a large majority of French people supported the movement, there was also growing disillusionment with polls also indicating that people did not believe the movement would be successful. The renewal of the movement is seen as reflecting anger at the Sarkozy government’s determination to push on with their austerity measure despite being rejected at the regional elections. Bernard Thibault, CGT general secretary, told Reuter on March 23 “Ever since Sunday we have heard (the centre-right) say 'we are going to maintain course'. They aren't listening and that poses a real problem”.

In response to the attack, the union confederations will meet March 30 plan further actions. The CGT is calling for further coordinated mobilisations in April and on May 1. The radical trade union Solidaires in a statement issued on March 23, called for an amplification of the mobilisations. The statement argued that for the movement to win will require dynamic mobilisations and that the mobilisations of 2009 (during which no national strikes were called in support of the mobilisations) imposes a responsibility on the unions to propose a united plan of worker mobilisations aimed at achieving an inter union general strike. This perspective would guide Solidaires’ proposals at the inter-union meeting.


Sunday, March 28, 2010

Change in the Blog

Until recently I had been hoping to operate two blogs one on the labour movement (this one) and a second blog A Child of All Nations which would cover broader issues beyond the labour movement. I've decided that this would be too much work and that its more viable to incorporate these issues into this blog.


FRANCE: Elections a blow to Sarkozy

Lisbeth Latham

French voters have dealt a blow to President Nicolas Sarkozy following the first and second rounds of voting in regional elections. The Socialist Party (PS) expanded its control of regional presidencies to all but one of the 22 continental regions, based on a record voting percentage in the second round.

There were mixed results for parties to the left of the PS, and also a resurgence of the far-right National Front (FN). The elections have been marred by record-low voter turnout, with 46.5% and 51% participating in the two rounds.
During the election campaign, Sarkozy had told his right-wing Union for a Popular Movement (UMP): Its necessary to campaign on my record. He essentially turned the regional elections into a referendum on his governments policies since being elected in 2007.

The UMP-dominated Presidential Majority Lists received an average vote of 26.9%, down from 27.8% in the European elections and 33.73% in the last regional elections. As a result, the UMP lost control of Corsica and only managed to retain conservative stronghold Alsace.

Far from giving him the ringing endorsement he wanted, the result is a rebuff to Sarkozys neoliberal agenda.

The PS vote achieved a first round at 29.48%. This was up markedly from the European elections, where it scored only 16.48%, but down from its score in the previous regional elections 36.86% (these lists had included the French Communist Party PCF).
In the second round, the PS established Union of the Left (UdG) lists including the European Ecologie, which had experienced a major growth in support from 2.25-12.8%, and the Left Front (FdG). These lists achieved a national vote of 54.3%.
In Reunion, where the Communist Party of Reunion received the highest vote in the first round, the PS stood its own candidate in the second, round allowing the Presidential Majority List to win the region. In Limousin, the FdG stood a list in the second round.

The clearest outcome for the PS was not just a relative strengthening of its position in the regions, but also a realignment of the forces to its left, with its reliance shifting from the PCF to European Ecologie.

Far-right resurgence
The election appears to have signalled the resurgence of the far-right FN. It was a significant force in French politics during the 1990s and early part of the last decade, with FN leader Jean Marie Le Pen achieving 16.86%, the second-highest vote in the 2002 presidential election.

However, the partys star appeared to be waning. Its vote declined to 6.3% in the 2009 European elections.

In the current regional elections, the FN scored an average of 12%. In the second round, the FN averaged 8.7%, however it had candidates in only half the regions in those it averaged 17.5 percent.

The resurgence of the FN has been attributed not only to the dissatisfaction of UMP working-class voters, angry at Sarkozys failure to deliver on his promise of prosperity, but more importantly his focus in the lead-up and during the election on opening up a debate on national culture, which is said to have created a space for FNs racist politics.

Parties to the left of the PS had a mixed result. Understanding this means understanding the intricacies of realignment processes occurring since the lead-up to the 2007 presidential elections.

The three main left organisations (excluding the greens) the Left Party (PdG), PCF and New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) all stood independent lists as well united slates. In the majority of regions, the PdG and PCF stood joint lists as the FdG, which the NPA had been under pressure to participate in.

The NPA has argued for an electoral and political alliance of the left based on a principled refusal to participate in or support PS governments. But both the PCF and the PdG remain open to such participation.

In the European elections, the NPA lists failed to elect any candidates. When the PdG won two seats, the NPAs position was criticised from both within and without.
At its congress in December, the NPA had an intense but inconclusive debate on its electoral strategy. The final decision was leave decisions about alliances to its regional committees. In three regions, including Limousin, the NPA agreed to participate in the FdG.

In three of the five regions that the PCF did not participate in a FdG lists, the NPA joined with the PdG to form a joint list. In a further 11 regions, the NPA participated in joint lists with other smaller left currents.

The FdG achieved the highest average vote of the left with 5.84% nationally down from 6.0% in the European elections. This vote rose to up to 14.24% in Auvergne. In Limousin, the joint FdG list achieved 13.3%. In the only region where the FdG qualified to stand its own list in the second round, it scored19.10%.

NPA lists achieved an average national vote of 3.4%, down from its vote of 4.9% in the European elections. The poor voter turnout affected this vote, as it heavily impacted the participation of younger voters who were more likely to support the NPA.

The NPAs decision to include Ilham Moussaid, an active feminist who wears the hijab, on its Avignom list meant the NPA was criticised by the right-wing media. But it was also criticised by the PdG, PCF and PS, which all said they would never stand a candidate that wore the hijab.

The NPA has been called sectarian for refusing to participate in the FdG, and this also impacted on its election results.

The impact of the regional elections on French politics is unclear. On March 14, an NPA executive committee statement argued that the growth in support for both the PS and Europe Ecologie had been fuelled rejection of the Right and Sarkozy in government ... who have made the majority of the population pay the cost of the crisis and who are destroying public services and social gains.

The statement noted that PS majorities at the regional level had not been a defence against Sarkozys defence. The election results will continue to increase pressure on the NPA to fully participate in the FdG in the 2012 presidential and national elections. However with more than 100 represenatives in PS-controlled regional executives, the coming period will also be a test for the PdG and PCF over whether they will support PS fiscal responsibility.

In the wake of the elections, Sarkozy has announced he will slow the pace of his reform agenda. However, he is continuing his attacks on pensions this looms as an immediate and major test for the left.

[This articles will be published in Green Left Weekly #832]


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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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