Monday, October 18, 2010

France: Millions march on October 16 to Defend Pensions

Lisbeth Latham

Millions of people attended protests across France, on October 16, as part the fifth national day of protests against the government’s attacks on pension rights. The protests and strikes demonstrate the widespread opposition within French society to changes to the Pension System that extend people’s working lives. With a final vote on the Bill scheduled for October 20, the government looks set to test the determination workers and students.

Unions are claiming that between 2.5 and 3 million people participated in more than 250 actions on Saturday. While the numbers are down at least 500, 000 people on the estimate for the October 12 protests, it is close to the size of the protests on September 7 and 23 and October 2. The Interior Ministry is claiming that the protests attracted 825, 000 people down from the Ministry’s estimate of 1.2 million for October 12.

Beyond the national strike significant sections of the French economy continue to be disrupted by ongoing strike action which began on October 12, and in the case of French Ports, September 27. Ongoing strikes continue in the SNCF (state rail), in Local Authorities, several academies of Education, industrial factories (such as for metallurgy and chemicals), the Finance Ministry, Postal Services, networks of urban transport and hospitals. All twelve of France’s fuel refineries have been affected by strikes, with eight closed completely. The closure of the refineries, along with a 21 day strike at Fos-Lavara Oil Port and blockades of fuel depots are causing major disruption to France’s Fuel supplies.

Coming out of October 16, indefinite strikes are set to spread. The Fédération Générale des Transports et de l'Equipement - Confédération française démocratique du travail’s (General Federation of Transport and Equipment - French Democratic Confederation of Labour - FGTE-CFDT) announced on October 16 that it would begin an indefinite strike action in France’s trucking industry beginning in the evening on October 17. Maxime Dumont, head of the FGTE-CFDT, told AFP on October 16, “Truckers are happy to join the action. Next week is going to be decisive, everybody knows that”. The Trade Union Solidaire’s (Solidarity) strike bulletin from October 17 also announced that the Departmental Unions of the Confédération générale du travail (General Confederation of Labour – CGT), CFDT, Force Ouvrière (Workers Force – FO), Union nationale des syndicats autonomes (National Union of Autonomous Unions UNSA), Fédération syndicale unitaire (United Union Federation –FSU) and Solidaires (Solidarity), in the Ardennes Region, have called for an indefinite strike in both the private and public sectors beginning October 18.

Students, who have only began mobilising in large numbers since October 12, are set to play an important role in the movement. More than 300, of France’s 4500 Lycées (the second stage of secondary school in the French Education system involving students from the ages of 15-18) have been blockaded since October 12. Police have attacked a number of student protests across France with dozens of students arrested. In response to student mobilisations – the government has raised concerns that students were being manipulated by the unions. The Syndicat Général des Lycéens (General Union of High School Students -SGL) has rejected the government’s criticism arguing “if students are not manipulated when they are commit crimes at 16 years-of-age why would they be manipulated by parties or teachers? No offense to the government, young people who demonstrate are responsible!” The SGL has called on all Lycéen students to take action on October 18 against the pension bill.

Despite the size of the movement, it is clear that the government and its supporters are hoping that passing the Pension Bill will demoralise and demobilise the movement. Labour Minister Eric Woerth told France24, on October 17 that “The turnout is clearly down, but there are still a lot of people in the street. I think the French people have understood that pension reform is essential”. The movement is building towards national strike on October 19 as the last opportunity to place pressure on the government to withdraw the Bill. The leaderships of both the CFDT and CGT have called for the Senate to suspend its debate and for a new dialogue to be initiated between unions, the government and the Mouvement des Entreprises de France (Movement of the French Enterprises – MEDEF). It is however unclear how the inter-union will react if the Bill is passed.

The two largest unions in France are the CFDT and the CGT. The CFDT nationally has resisted the call for intensifying the movement by initiating an indefinite general strike and it is unclear what the leadership would support once the legislation is passed. Bernard Thibault, CGT Secretary General, told Reuters on October 16 "The action is not going to stop because senators have voted. Today we have an even bigger encouragement to continue".

The current policy of the inter-union, which is to call on unions in the enterprise to allow a discussion of the memberships to determine what actions they deem appropriate, does allow space for more militant sections of the movement to push for more militant action – which has already been successful with the indefinite strikes spreading as they have. It will be how these two forces, the national leaderships within the inter-union and the membership in the enterprises, respond to the vote in the Senate that will play an important role in determining the future of France’s pension system.


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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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