Friday, November 12, 2010

France: Sarkozy Enacts Pensions Law as Mass Mobilisations Continue

Lisbeth Latham

President Nicolas Sarkozy, on November 10, enacted new legislation which increases the retirement age of French workers just days after more than a million workers and students mobilised across France against the law. The protests held on November 6, were the eighth, and smallest, national strike since September 7 against increases to the retirement age. The protest highlighted both the continuing depth of popular anger over the changes which were pushed through parliament on October 27. However the decline in the size of the mobilisations reflect growing divisions in the movement over how the movement should have responded to the counter reforms and the direction for the campaign now the legislation has been passed.

Sarkozy enacted the law just hours after it had been approved by the Constitutional Council. There had been hope by sections of the union leaderships and the plural left that the council would reject the legislation.

According to the inter-union coordinating committee the day attracted some 1.2 million people to protests in 243 cities and towns. This was down 40% on the size of the last day of action on October 28 and a decline of 65% on the largest protests of 3.5 million of October 12 and 19. While numbers were down across France the largest declines occurred in cities such as Paris (90, 000 compared with 170, 000 on October 28).

The government and its supporters have sort to convince people that the decline in size, the interior ministry estimated that 375, 000 participated compared to 560, 000 on October 12 a peak of 1.2 million, reflects that the movement in defence of pensions is effectively over. Sarkozy and government ministers have

For a number of reasons this appears to be wishful thinking on the part of the government. President Nicolas Sarkozy’s support in the polls has fallen below 30%, the lowest level ever for a president. Popular sentiment against the reform remains high with 70% of people opposed to the counter reform and 74% of young people. It is unclear whether government will be in a position to push through any further major attacks prior to the next elections in 2012, however it is likely that they will attempt smaller attacks against marginalised sections of the population, aimed at paving the way for broader attacks and to win support of more reactionary sections of society.

While there has undoubtedly been a sharp decline in the size of the movement, as Sandra Demarcq, of the Nouveau parti anticapitaliste (New Anticapitalist Party) argued in Tous est à nous! on November 3 the struggle has brought a large new layer of militants into the struggle – who she argues will not be easily discouraged by the ballot. This is reflected in the fact that the size of the November 6 mobilisation is larger than the three mobilisations that occurred against the reform in March and May.

Moreover there are additional explanations for the decline in the movement beyond public acceptance of the laws. A central factor was the decision by the inter-union to slow the pace of mobilisations and withdraw support from the indefinite strikes that had affected a wide range of industries prior to the Senate passing the legislation on October 22. These decisions clearly helped to sap confidence from the movement. Then in the lead-up to the November 6 strike, the inter-union when it met on November 4, failed to make a clear call for a new mobilisation to come out of November 6, instead stating that there would be more action in the week beginning November 22. While the lack of clear direction has undermined the movement in defence of pensions, it hasn’t undermined the combativeness of French workers, with localised struggles continuing around wages and conditions such as the four day strike, which began November 5, called by pilots and other airline staff over plans to tax allowances and benefits.

The indecisiveness of the inter-union has lead to growing public disagreements as to the direction of the campaign. Liberation on November 6, reported the views of a range of union leaders. François Chérèque, Secretary Geneeral of the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (French Democratic Confederation of Labour -CFDT), argued that it was a “dream” to believe that Sarkozy could be forced to back down, and that the movement would slowly away from a focus on pensions and onto other demands. The leadership of Union nationale des syndicats autonomes (National Union of Autonomous Unions) warned other unions against “forms of action that do not correspond to the situation” and might cause a collapse of investment. Jean-Claude Mailly, Force Ouvrière (Workers Force - FO) General Secretary, said that the decline in the movement was a sign that the conduct of the movement was a mess. Bernard Thibault, Confédération Générale du Travail (Genderal Confederation of Labour - CGT) General Secretary, told the November 6 l’Humanite, “that if it proved impossible to continue the battle over pensions with a unified effort of all unions, the CGT would continue the fight with those who want continue”, including being willing to continue alone. The primary focus for Thibault was positioning the movement to conduct negotiations over the implementation of pension changes when they come into effect on July 1 2011.

The inter-union met on November 8 and called a new day of multi-facetted actions for November 23. This call was not signed by either Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens (French Confederation of Christian Workers - CFTC) or Confédération française de l'encadrement - Confédération générale des cadres (French Confederation of Management – General Confederation of Executives). FO released a statement on November 8, in which it criticised other unions of not supporting argument at the November 4 meeting, for a 24-hour strike in the public and private sectors aimed at expanding the movement and that it could not engage in a strategy of forgetfulness, distraction and exhaustion and so could not participate in the inter-union meeting, but that it reaffirmed its availability and commitment to build the balances of forces through a process of resistance and reconquest. The CFTC issued a statement on November 9 that with the law being close to being enacted the time for demonstrations is over. Instead the CFTC will look to engage with government over its concerns with the legislation specifically in 2013, which has been specified in the law as a new period for reviewing pensions.

In contrast to these positions the militant union Solidaires in a statement issued on November 10, in which it outlined its view of the dynamic of the movement. Solidaires argued that early days of action in March, May and June were too far apart, yet despite this they had a growing resonance. However it was only in the indefinite strikes, which Solidaires had argued for from the outset, which had the opportunity to knock the employers by blocking the economy. The workers in refineries, rail, road transport, officials from the state and the hospital, local authorities, waste, energy, and many other sectors initiated indefinite strikes, and held several weeks hoping for a generalisation of the movement. However only Solidaires and the Fédération syndicale unitaire (United Union Federation) supported extending these strikes to other sectors and it was necessary for the strikes to be suspended. The Solidaires statement expressed its support for continuing collective action at the local level and for workers to “seize November 23 as a day to make their voices heard again”.

With the moderate unions shifting the terrain of struggle to modifying the impact of the law and hoping that the laws will be repealed if there is a change of government following the 2012 elections, the far-left parties have attempted to warn the movement from a reliance on elections rather than the mobilisation of members. Demarcq argued on November 3, that the movement can rebound in other forms, other struggles”, but warned “Many of us know that the solution to our problems is not the perspective of a plural left government in 2012, headed by the Parti socialiste that votes in the National Assembly lengthening the contribution period or the requisitioning of the municipal employees strike in Marseille, with the "left" who, when they have a majority, implement de facto right-wing policies, such as in Greece or Spain. It is in our struggles to make those have caused the crisis to pay for it, that we can forge the power capable of challenging capitalism”.

While the debate that has emerged robs the movement of the appearance unity, it reveals the real disagreements that made it impossible for the movement to build the momentum \to a sufficient level to allow victory. The hope must be that through an ongoing open discussion real unity in action can be achieved.


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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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