A massive wave of strikes and protests has gripped France, as workers battle to stop the raising of the retirement age. Workers showed their potential power to defeat the changes, but with the bill passed in parliament union leaders appear to have succeeded in winding down the movement.
Between two and 3.5 million people have taken to the streets nine times since the reforms were announced. Strikes have involved workers from the civil service, post, hospitals, education and transport sector, to metal and dock workers and the private sector.
Public support for the struggle to defend pensions has grown to 71 per cent since the strikes began, despite the widespread disruption. President Sarkozy’s popularity has plummeted reaching just 29 per cent, the lowest since his 2007 election.
Sarkozy’s reforms are typical of austerity measures being imposed across Europe to deal with the deepening economic crisis.
They include privatisations and job cuts, including 7000 sackings in the education sector. But most controversial are efforts to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62, and delay access to a full state funded pension until the age of 67.
In addition to the massive general strike days, key sectors such as petrol, transport, electricity and dockworkers have voted for continuous strikes. Twelve oil refineries were shut down for nearly two weeks with workers blockading and occupying the premises to prevent them from functioning.
Strikers at France’s largest fuel refinery; Fos-Lavera oil port in Marseille, struck for 15 days before the strike action was broken up by riot police with tear gas and truncheons. The government responded brutally, sending in the riot police and even the army to break up the strikers, threatening them with imprisonment of up to five years if they didn’t return to work.
The oil industry was paralysed with a quarter of France’s 12,500 fuel stations running out of fuel.
Workers at two fuel depots in Belgium even struck in solidarity with French workers, blocking trucks from entering to make up for fuel shortages in France.
“We are not prepared to see our livelihoods taken away for profit. We do a hard and physical job and are not going to work until we drop”, said Pierre Brossat, representative of the dockworkers union. “[Union members] want action to win. That means continuous strikes, and a general strike that closes down the economy and hits the bosses.”
Students joined the demonstrations en masse on the October 12 with thousands across the country protesting in solidarity against the reforms and to express hostility to “Sarkozism”, his austerity measures and his racist expulsion of Roma. High-school and university students built barricades to blockade their schools. One thousand of France’s 4300 secondary schools went on strike, with 600 of them blockaded shut.
Djamila, a school student from Paris said, “It’s about pensions, it’s about young people not getting jobs because workers are kept on into their old age, it’s about Sarkozy’s dirty government. We have a slogan—‘Unemployed at 25, exploited at 67. No! No! No!’”
But the strikes at refineries have now ended and garbage collectors have returned to work in Marseille to begin removing 10,000 tonnes of rubbish piled in the streets after two weeks on strike. Another two million people took to the streets on October 28, but for the first time since the movement began numbers were smaller than the week before.
From the beginning union leaders had to be pushed into escalating the days of strike action. As Patrice, a health worker, told Socialist Worker (UK), “It felt like they were doing it without much heart. They expected to have a few stage-managed protests and then it would end.” They refused to extend the action into indefinite strikes between the one-day strike protests.
A further day of protests is planned for Saturday November 6. But as Marcel Grignard, a senior union leader at the CFDT confederation, put it, “the closure of parliamentary debate and the promulgation of the law will create a new situation”.
The pensions reform will not be introduced until 2018. And big business has taken a bruising—the one-day general strikes alone cost French bosses $564 million each—and this does not even begin to include the cost of the indefinite strikes in some industries.
As governments continue to step up their austerity measures, rank-and-file workers will need to organise from below to force their union leaders to call the kind of all out workers’ action that began to be glimpsed in France.