Workers' movement must reorganise

For a social and democratic Sixth Republic. Peter Manson examines the issues

France is on the move once again, as workers across the country strike and take to the streets in a mass rejection of the government’s plans to downgrade their pensions.

A year ago, a million people demonstrated in Paris against Jean-Marie Le Pen, who had just won through to the second round of the presidential election. Hundreds of other spontaneous protests erupted.

As we know, the potential to channel this outrage into a movement against the undemocratic Fifth Republic and the exploitative system that hides behind it was squandered. Most of the left - reformist and ‘revolutionary’ alike - allied themselves with the establishment by calling for the main representative of French capital, Jacques Chirac, to be re-elected president. Not that Le Pen ever stood any chance whatsoever - the ‘lesser evil’ Chirac won an unprecedented 80% of the vote. Amazingly, in justification, the left argued that the bigger his majority, the more he was going to be their “prisoner”. Some argument! Some prisoner!

The revolutionary left was humiliatingly punished the following month in the legislative elections. Many working class voters decided to consistently follow the left’s craven logic and ‘play safe’. They backed the reformists of the Parti Socialiste and Parti Communiste Français - and even Chirac’s UMP - rather that than risk letting in the Front National.

The result? Both constitutional wings of the French republic are now controlled by the right. As the elected monarch, Chirac appointed Jean-Pierre Raffarin as his prime minister. The new right-right government immediately began to ape the FN by announcing a range of anti-immigrant measures and within months had stated its intention to abolish the 35-hour week, introduced by the PS-PCF-Green ‘pluralist left’ government of 1997-2002 (then in ‘cohabitation’ with the rightwing Chirac presidency).

Now it is pensions that are under attack. Under the Fillon bill, which is due to come before the council of ministers on May 28, public sector workers will be made to pay more contributions for longer - they will only qualify for the full entitlement after 40 years, as opposed to the current 37.5 years. In effect this means putting back the age of retirement from the age of 60 by two and a half years.

This comes on top of the insecurity felt in much of the public sector, which is already facing decentralisation (forerunner of privatisation and cuts), and extra workloads as a result of the non-replacement of staff lost through ‘natural wastage’.

But the anger is not restricted to the public services. In the private sector there is even greater uncertainty about jobs and future security - especially as the same pension ‘reform’ was in 1993 successfully imposed on its workers through the Balladur law under rightwing prime minister Alain Juppé. He was famously forced to retreat by the 1995 strike wave when he tried to repeat this in the public sector.

Back then opinion polls showed just over 50% support for the strikers, as the protests began. Today, according to the CSA institute, 64% either “support or have sympathy for” the strikes. Three out of four wage-earners believe they could eventually lose between a quarter and a third of their pensions.

The first strike was on Tuesday May 13, called by all the main union confederations. Up to two million took part in demonstrations on that day, including hundreds of thousands in Paris. The scale of the protests took the unions, as well as the government, by surprise. A further day of action was due on Thursday May 15, but many workers - with some union encouragement - decided to stay out on the Wednesday too. Just about every public service sector was affected - education, health, transport, customs, air traffic control … In addition, according to the government’s own figures, over a third of all civil servants (some 435,000 in all) joined the strike.

Monday May 19 saw a further ‘day of mobilisation’ of teachers and other education workers to “defend pensions and public services” - this time there were around 500,000 demonstrators across France, with almost 100,000 in Paris. A common slogan was: “Withdraw the Fillon plan. General strike!”

The parties of the ‘pluralist left’ have been pulled to the left as a result of this upsurge. Before the action began the PS leadership had been ambivalent - after all it had not lifted a finger to abolish the Balladur law in 1997-2002. By coincidence the PS congress was taking place in Dijon over May 15-18 - just as the first week of strikes was ending.

We are witnessing the “mobilisation of France from below”, said PS general secretary François Hollande. An emergency motion that announced “our full support for the current social movements” was passed unanimously, together with a call for the “broadest mobilisation” for the May 25 demonstration in Paris, which is likely to be huge.

Bernard Thibault, general secretary of the PCF-led Confédération Générale du Travail, was also forced to pose left. If the Fillon bill is still in place by May 28, the date it goes before the council of ministers, there will be “major social confrontation”, he warned.

The government was taken aback by the scale of the revolt. When the strikes were first announced, transport minister Gilles de Robien declared the railworkers’ action “illegal”, while Raffarin solemnly declared: “We will not be governed by the street.”

The prime minister told national television: “We must make economies, because we have to finance cuts in taxes and [national insurance] charges.” In 1960, he said, there were four workers for every pensioner; now the ratio is more like 2:1 - and by 2020 it could be 1:1!

However, after the massive May 13 protests, Raffarin changed his tune: “We live in a modern social democracy. There is nothing exceptional about the biggest reform since 1945 generating anxiety” (Le Monde May 15). But, surely though, everyone could see that what is needed is a “shared effort”?

Quite rightly this got the response it deserved: “The bosses must pay,” declared Lutte Ouvrière (May 16). But leaders of the establishment left as well as the unions were just as quick to point out the obvious: for all Raffarin’s statistics, the workers, who produce the wealth, have increased their productivity by a factor of four since 1960 - meeting the cost of their pensions is the employers’ problem, not ours.

Nevertheless the union bureaucracy may live to regret their encouragement of workers who took unofficial action between official strike days last week. The beginnings of workers’ self-organisation have been seen, particularly in the education sector, where general assemblies of workers have started electing delegates to cross-union strike committees.

Earlier this week rank and file delegates from seven union federations representing railworkers agreed to “put forward during their respective representations the principle of an indefinite strike after May 25”. The CGT seems to have reached an understanding with its railworkers that they should join the big national demo on Sunday and resume strike action on Monday. The communist La Lettre de Liaisons - which has the virtue of stressing democratic questions - appealed to railworkers: “Let the millions who want to go up to Paris on Sunday go for free!”

While Lutte Ouvrière has so far taken a more cautious approach, Rouge, the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire’s weekly, has come out with the blunt: “For a general strike!” This is leftist posturing. An indefinite general strike, as opposed to a generalised fixed-period protest strike, poses state power - point blank. And only just over a year ago, the LCR was calling on workers to cast their votes for Chirac - an imperialist politician whose project of “counterbalancing” US power relies on pursuing the class war at home at the expense of the working class.

A general strike should not be toyed with. Those raising the slogan should be prepared to see it through to its logical conclusion - an armed struggle of class against class. The Fillon bill can be seen off by mass action. Protest strike should be followed by protest strike. But the political aims of the working class must be widened to include the political system. The Fifth Republic is only quasi-democratic. Our class needs to be fighting for a social and democratic Sixth Republic.

However, if the stakes are to be successfully raised in the class war, this battle over the Fillon bill must be used to highlight the necessity of radically reorganising the working class itself. As Lenin rightly said, “Without organisation the working class is nothing.”

When our class is reorganised along such lines - in no small measure due to the educative effect of mass struggles - then it will at last be in a position to make working class power a reality.