Saturday, June 5, 2010

French workers mobilise to defend pensions

Lisbeth Latham

Thousands of workers across France protested on May 27 against the President Nicholas Sarkozy’s planned attacked on the French pension system. The protests were called by a inter-union coalition including the General Confederation of Labour (CGT); French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT); United Union Federation (FSU); National Union of Autonomous Unions and Solidaires. They follow the failure of the government to withdraw or modify the planned changes to the pension system following mobilisations on March 23 and May 1.

The Sarkozy government is pushing for the age that workers can receive their pensions, currently set at 60, by two or three years. The plan will also require that the period that a person must work to qualify for a full pension from 40 to 41 years. These increases are being motivated based on the aging French population, however unions believe that the changes will have significant impact on working people. This push has been given additional impetus with the ongoing budgetry crisis in Europe. With the government and business claiming that workers should accept the changes in the pension system as they are not as severe as the reduction in social spending that has occurred in Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain. The government has also sort to undermine public anger by indicating that the draft legislation that will made available on June 20 would exclude workers in both the energy and transport industries.

Unions have rejected government and employer arguments in support of changes to the pension system. Agence France on May 27, reported Bernard Thibault, CGT Secretary, as saying “only a show of force on the streets can defend the 60-year retirement age and the social achievements that Nicolas Sarkozy is methodically attacking”. A statement issued by Solidaires, Unitaire et Democratic Rail (Solidarity, Unity and Democracy Rail – Solidaires affiliate in France’s rail system) on May 27 said that like the governments of Greece, Spain, Italy and Britain, the French government is trying to make the people and employees pay for the crisis of capitalism but “it is not our crisis to pay”.

According to the CGT, the unions’ call for mobilisation drew more than a million workers into the streets in 176 protests, an increase a significant increase from the 600-800, 000 estimated for the March protests. Both the police and conservative media have attempted to down play the size of the mobilisations, with the police estimating the numbers at 395, 000. The impact of strikes was varied across different sectors of the economy. All trains to Spain were cancelled, along with about half of high speed trains between provincial cities. A May 28 joint statement from unions estimated that 30% of workers in France Telecom participated in the protests.

Despite the growth in the movement in defence of pensions, the Sarkozy government is moving forward with its attacks. In response the Inter-Union coalition on met on May 31 to discuss the campaign in defence of pensions, and issued a joint statement. This statement argued that the government had failed to take any action to secure the economic situation, beyond targeting workers, ignoring the demands that had been made by unions, the government had treated unions with contempt ignoring the protests and refusing a genuine debate of its policies – which was “unacceptable!” The statement called for another day of action for June 24, which will coincide with debate on legislation in parliament.


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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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