French pensions battle escalates

The French government has signified its intention to force through its full frontal assault on public sector pensions, in the face of overwhelming public opposition and the massive strike wave that has rocked the country. Peter Manson reports

Despite last weekend’s huge demonstrations and fresh walkouts involving hundreds of thousands of strikers in several sectors, the council of ministers agreed to place its pensions bill before the national assembly on June 10. In a statement that flies in the face of reality, social affairs minister François Fillon told reporters that the government was “keeping the promises it made to the French people” and ensuring that French pensions were the “most generous in Europe”.

In actual fact, the Fillon bill will force public sector workers to continue paying contributions for an extra two and a half years - the qualification period for a full pension is to be extended from 37.5 to 40 years. Either that or their pension will be cut. The period will be further extended to 42 years by 2020, if Fillon is allowed to get away with his ‘reform’. The effect would be to take the age of retirement well beyond 60 in practice.

On Sunday May 25 more than half a million workers descended on Paris, while tens of thousands simultaneously took to the streets in numerous towns and cities, the largest demonstration being in Marseilles, Lyons, Bordeaux and Toulouse. Then, in the days that followed, renewed strikes were launched affecting hospitals, government ministries, including employment and taxation, the post office and France Télécom, air traffic control and sewerage workers. (To add to the government’s problems, farmers called demonstrations against reform of the EU common agricultural policy in four provincial towns.)

Also highly significant were the walkouts in education on May 27. Here, in addition to the dispute over pensions, workers are fighting the government’s decentralisation plans - the first move in its attempts to break up and privatise the periphery, with the subsequent extension of casual and contractual working, involving thousands of job losses. There were mass rallies in all major cities and the port of Cherbourg was blockaded with burning barricades.

According to a poll in Le Parisien Dimanche, the May 25 demonstration enjoyed 65% support - giving the lie to the claim that the government is acting in the interests of the majority. “Eleven million voters approved the government’s programme,” minister Patrick Devedjian alleged, referring to the general elections of a year ago, when, in the aftermath of Jacques Chirac’s presidential victory with the support of most of the left, who voted ‘against Le Pen’, the right was swept to power and the revolutionary left marginalised.

However, the mass opposition to Fillon - irrespective of how workers voted in May 2002 - is much broader than the public sector itself. Thousands of workers employed by major transnational companies joined the big Paris demonstration despite the fact that Fillon-type ‘reforms’ had already been imposed upon the private sector in 1993. One Renault worker told Le Monde’s reporter that the government was “trying to exploit the inequalities between public and private to divide us, but this time we’re not having it” (May 26).

The four main union federations representing workers rebelling against Fillon had agreed that if the council of ministers gave the pensions bill the go-ahead they would immediately meet “to examine ways of escalating the movement”. However, the situation is not all plain-sailing. Firstly France’s second largest union centre, the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail, not only refused to call its members out, but actually signed an agreement with the government accepting the reforms. Thankfully thousands of CFDT members have ignored this treachery and joined the strikes and demonstrations.

Secondly, the main federation, the Confédération Générale du Travail, traditionally led by the Parti Communiste Français, has so far dragged its feet in attempting to coordinate union members across the various sectors. For example, while education has been out since May 27, the CGT told its transport workers to hold back until after Ascension Thursday (May 29)! So the unlimited national transport strike will not begin until next week (June 2 for trains and June 3 for the Paris metro). A “total stoppage” has also been called in inland revenue at the same time.

The workers’ resistance to the attacks fronted by Chirac, Fillon and prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin have clearly been hindered by the existence of so many rival union centres. Nevertheless, the anger is so widespread and deeply felt that there is every possibility that union bureaucrats - of left, right and centre - will be forced into line with their members’ wishes.

What is more, the workers’ determination has provoked deep divisions within ruling circles. On the one hand, former prime minister Alain Juppé, now president of Chirac’s UMP party (who was himself forced to back down by the mass strike wave of 1995, when he attempted to bring the public sector into line on pensions), called on Raffarin this time to “go all the way”. Speaking on Radio Europe 1 on May 25, he said: “I am convinced that good sense will return and that the darkest scenario will be avoided.”

On the other hand a section of the establishment has advised caution and compromise. Thus Le Monde wrings its hands over Raffarin’s dilemma: “If he retreats before ‘the street’ and withdraws his pensions bill, it will be disastrous for the spirit of reform, which is more necessary than ever in the difficult context of the European economy. If he holds firm, that by its nature will further worsen the relation between the French and politics” (ie, it will shatter the pro-Fifth Republic, cross-class consensus established in the second round of last year’s presidential elections).

The editorial considers, however, that on balance, “in order to reform - and she very much needs to, in every sphere and in the general interest - France needs a social pact. To refuse negotiation, to refuse to open a genuine dialogue with the trade unions … is to court danger. If the strikes do not become generalised the government will be very wrong to claim victory. Tomorrow the price to pay for its arrogance and obstinacy will be higher” (May 26).

For the moment, though, this advice is going unheeded. While French ministers have used conciliatory language, expressing empathy for workers’ concerns (just as Tony Blair expressed ‘understanding’ for the millions who opposed his warmongering stance against Iraq), they show no signs of letting up. According to Fillon, “The French are protesting in large numbers against the pension reform, but even more will attack the government if it doesn’t have the courage to carry it out.”

Of course, the right is strengthened in driving home its attacks on pensions by the fact that the Fillon bill is actually based on proposals that were drafted on the instructions of Parti Socialiste prime minister Lionel Jospin, who headed a PS-PCF-Green administration, in ‘cohabitation’ with the rightwing president Chirac, from 1997 to 2002. Thus the ‘common appeal’ - launched by the PS, Greens and PRG radicals - for the government to drop its bill cuts little ice.

Like the thoroughly discredited ‘official communist’ PCF, these establishment parties of the left are clearly no answer for workers. But what of the revolutionary left? The ultra-economistic Lutte Ouvrière seems content to offer militant advice that does not go beyond the sphere of trade union politics, urging workers to strike together and condemning the PCF and PS leadership. All very well, but what lessons are there for the way we are ruled? What democratic demands need to be posed, in a situation - just like in April 2002 - where the defenders of capital are able to take advantage of the democratic deficit in their political system to ride roughshod over the popular will? And where should workers turn for political representation?

The Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire makes some sort of attempt at answering that question: “… this movement poses the necessity of building a political force to lead the necessary social battles to face up to the neoliberal capitalist wave” (Rouge May 22). But what sort of “force” should it be? A loose, ‘anti-capitalist’, anti-fascist alliance or a Communist Party?

In the previous issue Rouge headlined its call for a general strike - a call also made by the revolutionary-democratic publishers of the communist La Lettre de Liaisons. These comrades note the divisions amongst the ruling class, but warn: “This does not mean they will give in easily, nor that they will not counterattack - with violence if necessary. Let us not lead people to believe that. Let us not lead people to believe that the game is to ‘make the government retreat’ … The stakes are higher. If we can dislodge the contrivance put in place on May 5 last year [second round of the presidential elections] to re-establish the Fifth Republic and Thatcherise social relations, we will open up a period of turbulence, by its nature revolutionary, where the real question will be that of power and thus of the real political representation of the immense social movement that has begun” (May 23).

Yes, in a situation of generalised, coordinated strike action, “the real question will be that of power”. That is why it is vital that the call for a general strike - in the sense of an indefinite, all-out battle of class against class, where the state may indeed use all the “violence” it considers necessary - should not be made lightly. Of course, Raffarin and Chirac may decide to take the advice of Le Monde. But if not …?

We urgently need to equip our class with the party and programme necessary to make the possibility of working class state power real.