Demonstration Against Pension

French Workers Show the Way

In Europe as in the US, workers are being told that austerity is the only way to deal with the crisis. In other words, workers are supposed to pay for the bosses’ mess! While the rich continue to get richer, the majority are supposed to tighten their belts further and “take one for the team.” But in Greece, Ireland, Italy, Romania, Ukraine, and above all in France, workers and youth are fighting back.

Demonstration Against Pension Despite all the anti-French jokes and “Freedom Fries” mania of the last few years, let’s give the French workers and youth their due: when their rights and quality of life is being threatened by the capitalists and their political representatives, they fight tenaciously to defend what is rightfully theirs. They pour onto the streets, organize strikes and paralyze society as a way of showing the power of the working class if it is organized and mobilized. With even worse attacks on US workers in the pipeline, their struggle is an example we can learn from!

The economic crisis of the last two years has increased France’s state debt to 80% of GDP and the ruling class wants to make the workers pay for it. After handing out billions of Euros to the banks, now the state hopes to “save” 70 billion Euros with an attack on workers’ pension rights. Sound familiar?

The pensions “reform” is seen as crucial for the ruling class in France. Under current legislation, French workers can choose to retire at 60 years of age if they have accumulated 41 years of Social Security contributions, and can draw a full state pension at 65. The right wing Sarkozy government wants to increase the minimum retirement age to 62, with 42 years of Social Security payments, and the full pension age to 67.

On Friday, October 22, the French government managed to get the pensions package passed through the Senate. The increasingly unpopular government of Sarkozy, faced with an unprecedented movement of strikes, demonstrations, road blockades, mass pickets and general assemblies, hoped that this, would bring the mass movement to a halt. This does not seem to be happening, however. Opinion polls showed that 59% of the population were in favor of the continuation of the movement even after the approval of the law. The government refers only to a “minority of radicals holding the country to ransom” and the media hide the real extent of the strike.

But the support for the movement has been broad indeed and there is a growing mood in the movement that isolated “days of action” are no longer enough to force the government to retreat. Since the beginning of September there have been six days of action, three of which saw the participation of more than three million people in demonstrations all over the country. After the national day of action on October 12, with 3.5 million people on the streets, a number of sectors started indefinite strikes, notably the refinery workers and the railway workers. Despite the stubborn refusal of the national trade union leaders to call a general strike, section after the section of workers have joined a growing national movement whose focus has become the idea that only by bringing the economy to a halt can the government be defeated.

“Given the mood of the rank and file we cannot put an end to the movement,” trade union leaders both from the CFDT and the CGT, explained, almost apologetically. However, instead of giving the movement a clear lead, calling for a general strike, the only step that would make the movement stronger   they called for yet another two “national days of action.” As a matter of fact the trade union leaders seemed to be more worried about “debordement” (being overtaken by the movement), than about giving the struggle a clear lead.

This left the movement without a clear direction, but despite that, stoppages, road blockades, strikes and all sorts of initiatives to maintain the movement strong developed at the initiative of the rank and file and local and regional trade union bodies. On the eve of the vote on the law, thousands of workers and students marched in Paris in two separate demonstrations, one called by the student organizations, the other at the initiative of General Assemblies of railway workers, postal workers, and others. Both demonstrations attempted to reach the Senate building, but were stopped by anti-riot police. The main problem was that, lacking a call on the part of the national leadership, they did not have the necessary numbers.

Police RepressionThe government has responded with violence and repression. There are now plenty of eyewitness reports and video evidence showing the presence of agent provocateurs at student demonstrations and orchestrating violence at demonstrations in general. The CGT union has denounced cases of plain-clothes police officers wearing CGT stickers or even CGT steward arm-bands playing a role in creating violent incidents during demonstrations. In order to defend their demonstration against provocateurs and anti-riot police, the last student demonstration was stewarded by trade unionists.

At the same time, realizing the key role in the movement played by the strike at the refineries, the government has used violent and legal means to attempt to break the resolve of the workers.

Using emergency laws which are supposed to deal with cases of “national emergency” the government moved to “conscript” all workers at the Grandpuits refinery on Friday 21, after violently breaking up the picket line. With 430 workers, Grandpuits is the smallest of the six Total refineries in the country, but supplies 70% of the Ile-de-France region. In effect this means that workers are ordered to go back to work or else they face jail sentences. This is an unprecedented attack on the right to strike, which shows the truth contained in the Marxist analysis that the capitalist state (police, the laws, etc) is, in the last analysis, “armed bodies of men in defence of private property.”

The movement of the French workers has captured the imagination of millions of workers, youth and trade union activists all over the world. They can see the French workers taking a firm stand against attacks which are very similar to the ones they are suffering.

It is an extraordinary confirmation of the power of the working class today. What is needed is a clear call for a general strike. If this does not come from above, the local and regional inter-professional general assemblies should link up at a departmental and also national level, through elected representatives, in order to give the movement a clear leadership. Despite all the obstacles that they face, the French workers have marvelous revolutionary traditions. This is the country of the General Strike of 1936 and the revolutionary events of May 1968.

But make no mistake about it: US workers also have magnificent, militant working class traditions. We at Socialist Appeal are confident that American workers will have a few surprises in store for the capitalists in the tumultuous battles of the class struggle that lie ahead.

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