French Workers Continue to Resist

by Richard Wagman, Paris, 7/11/10

Since the beginning of September the French labour movement has been mobilized in a series of strike actions and demonstrations, demanding the withdrawal of legislation modifying the national pension plan. This reform enacted by Sarkozy’s right-wing government is part and parcel of the neo-liberal agenda drawing back on social acquisitions and making the workers (and only the workers) pay for those social rights which still remain.

Sarkozy’s law increases the legal retirement age in France from 60 to 62 years, for those who have paid into the national pension fund with 40 years of employment, allowing them to retire with full benefits. This is not the case for those who haven’t worked for that length of time, that is millions of French people who have been jobless at some point in their career and especially women, the first victims of unemployment, as well as parents (usually mothers) who have taken years off their career to raise children at home. For this part of the population, the legal retirement age allowing them to draw full benefits is increased from 65 to 67 years of age. Statistically, most blue collar workers who have difficult or dangerous jobs don’t live much longer than that.

On the basis of demographic trends (families with fewer children, increase in overall life expectancy, a larger proportion of the elderly as opposed to the active working population with full-time jobs), the government proposes to finance the national pension plan by increasing the contributions and/or the number of years on the job required, but only for employees. Employers are not asked to make an equivalent effort — all in the name of keeping French companies competitive. This is on top of Sarkozy’s unpopular “tax shield”, guaranteeing that the very wealthy will not have to pay more than one half of their income in taxes (one of the lowest rates in industrialized countries for the most privileged sectors of the population). In France, increases in social deductions – notably for Medicare, welfare and the national retirement fund – come from employee pay checks but not from capital gains. Not only is financial income exempted from such expenditures, but the current government has multiplied discretionary exemptions for the business community (often to the benefit of the biggest companies, not the smallest ones), resulting in increased deficits in social budgets and the public treasury. But that’s not all. The Minister of Labour mandated to pilot this reform – Eric Woerth – was also the treasurer of UMP, the party in power. He was forced to resign from this position due to criticism for conflict of interest. His wife was hired by the firm managing the fortune of Liliane Bettancourt, the inheritor of the cosmetics giant L’Oréal and the wealthiest woman in France. Mrs. Woerth helped Bettancourt expatriate part of her fortune to Swiss bank accounts where it is sheltered from French tax obligations. All this started years ago when Eric Woerth was Minister of the Budget. As such, part of his job was to… fight against tax fraud! As if that wasn’t enough, Eric Woerth decorated his wife’s boss with the Légion d’Honneur, France’s most prestigious distinction. All this financier did to merit such an award was to make generous donations to UMP, of which Eric Woerth was the treasurer.

Enough is enough. The sense of injustice got people’s blood boiling in these times of high unemployment, low wages and heavy tax bills for low-income families. This scandal came to a head after years of neo-liberal reforms across the board, rolling back acquisitions which were won in epic struggles throughout the twentieth century (1936 general strike, anti-Nazi insurrection during the Second World War and the biggest strike action in French history triggered off by the student revolt in May 1968). All of these acquisitions are going down the drain and the reform on pension rights was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

The eighth major day of action since the beginning of this struggle took place on November 6 with 1,200,000 demonstrators taking to the streets in 245 cities and towns across the country. Although these figures may appear impressive, they’re down from former days of action, some of which drew over twice that number in the streets. This was foreseeable, as this reform was voted in parliament on October 27, a step which discouraged a number of people, although it failed to convince them of the government’s position. The Socialist opposition in the National Assembly initiated recourse before the Constitutional Council concerning the legality of the reform and the President of the Republic has yet to promulgate it. And there are precedents in forcing governments to rescind unpopular laws. Youth and the workers’ movement succeeded in doing so in 2006 in the case of previous anti-labour legislation, even though the right had a parliamentary majority. This experience is on everybody’s mind in the current showdown on retirement rights. Sarkozy’s UMP has a majority in the National Assembly but opponents to the reform have a 70% majority in the population, according to numerous opinion polls which attest to the unpopularity of the law.

Some of the mass demonstrations – like the one on November 6 – were held on a weekend to allow more people to participate. Others have taken place during the week, counting on the participation of striking workers. Aside from the eight days of mass mobilization so far, numerous local labour actions have been launched in different sectors. Strategic sectors such as the oil industry (refineries and storage depots), dockers in Marseilles – the country’s biggest harbour – truck drivers and railway workers were accompanied in strike action by Air France employees, postal workers, garbage collectors, teachers and support staff in schools. Not to mention university and high school students who shut down their schools to join the demonstrators. Truck drivers conducted snail operations on highways, railroad tracks were occupied thus stopping trains and striking workers visited neighbouring factories, inciting their fellow workers to join them, thus creating a domino effect in certain industrial zones. Workers are angry and have made that known in no uncertain terms.

France’s six major trade union federations have remained united in their opposition to the reform, although labour’s united front on this issue is starting to show signs of disagreement on tactics and objectives (withdrawal of the law or negotiating modifications thereto). Another period of action is called for the week starting November 22. This tactic is not uncommon in French labour practises (isolated days or weeks of action, followed by a return to work with a series of rotating strikes). The efficiency of this tactic – orchestrated by the top union leadership – has been strongly put into question with calls from the rank and file for an ongoing general strike.

Predictably, the CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail, the largest trade union federation, close to the Communist Party) has been amongst the most combative. Surprisingly, it has shared this vanguard role with FO (Force Ouvrière), which usually has the reputation of being a more passive, apolitical organization. The CFDT (Conférdération Française Démocratique du Travail, close to the Socialist Party) has for many years played the role of a class collaborationist business union and its national leadership has not disavowed that posture in the current struggle. But so far, rank and file pressure for unity has kept the union leadership marching together.

Political observers have been practically unanimous in saying that this showdown could turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory for the government. Even if the parliament and Sarkozy’s cabinet get the last word on maintaining and applying this law, it will not be forgotten overnight. Certainly not before the next presidential election in 2012. Sarkozy wanted to comfort his conservative base in society by showing a tough stand when confronted by the unions. However the unpopularity of the measure has galvanized public opinion in its belief that the current government is a regime that rules for the rich. This leaves a very bitter resentment which will not dissipate soon.