European economic crisis

France: An impressive one-day strike and mobilization

July 08, 2010

The one-day strike on June 24 against Sarkozy’s pension reform had big repercussions. Although it was not as big as last year’s day-long strikes, it was the biggest strike since September, with around 2 million demonstrators in the streets, according to the unions. Like the strikes on June 25 in Italy and June 29 in Greece, the strike in France, beyond its specifics, shows two fundamental elements of the current political and social situation in Europe.

On the one hand, cornered by the second phase of the economic crisis, that has turned into a public debt crisis and that has Europe as its epicenter, the governments of the old continent are implementing a brutal policy of Draconian reductions in public spending and reforming the labor market, unloading the cost of the crisis on the working class.

On the other hand, these one-day strikes show the explosive potential of the social situation, as well as the narrow limits to the protests, imposed by the union bureaucracy, that up to now has succeeded in completely containing the workers’ anger.

In the case of France, protest has grown in recent months, in view of the announcements by the government of the reform of the retirement system that reduces pensions for future retirees. However, the June 24 strike also show the limits of this type of days without continuity (that, at best, are held once a month).

The logic of the union leaderships consists in negotiating secondary modifications with the government, or even, as in the case of the French CFDT, going along with the government’s reform (at its last Congress, 60% of the delegates voted in favor of raising the retirement age, the same thing the government is hawking). However, considering the workers’ real dissatisfaction and anxiety, they know they have to avoid letting the situation slip out of their hands, by calling episodic one-day strikes to blow off steam. In fact, compliance with the strike and participation in the marches is growing, even among the rank and file of those unions that negotiate most with the government. This could be seen with the large rank and file contingents of the CFDT in the Paris demonstration, from private sector industries like metalworking and retail.

Meanwhile, the French extreme left is incapable of proposing a different mobilizing perspective among those more advanced groups that demonstrated on June 24. Both Lutte Ouvrière and Belsancenot’s New Anti-Capitalist Party (NPA) were talking, on May 27, the second most recent day-long strike, about the need for a different orientation to make the government back down. However, they did not, in fact, try to coordinate the most advanced mobilized groups from below, nor explain concretely how it would be possible to go as far as making the government give in. In fact, as an intermediate program, they contented themselves with demanding, once again, that the bureaucracy call another one-day strike after that of May 27 (which it ended up making June 26), taking into account the latent anger that exists among the workers, without its being able, obviously, to culminate in a bigger test of strength, considering that the summer break is looming in Europe.

Although Sarkozy is hurrying to present the counter-reform before his ministers in the middle of July, so that it can be discussed in parliament at the beginning of September, it is more than likely that the autumn will be hot in France, in the image and likeness of what could happen in other countries in Europe. This is what explains the nervousness of the bourgeoisie in the context of a multiplication of scandals that are tainting Sarkozy’s government. These range from a case of corruption in the Pakistani navy in 1994 (in which the current French President is implicated), to the case of Woerth, the minister in charge of the budget and labor relations, complicit in the tax evasion of Liliane Bettencourt, the richest woman in Europe and the main stockholder in L’Oreal.

Like the hysteria of the European governments, which Germany is trying to discipline, by imposing a policy of brutal austerity on them, to reassure the European markets (which, up to now has scarcely borne fruit, as the fall of the European stock markets in recent days has again shown), the French bourgeoisie knows that it must strike harshly at the subordinate classes. However, in view of the social situation, the ruling class appears split among different groups over the manner and speed with which it would be necessary to carry out this offensive. This is the situation that revolutionaries in France would have to consider, in order to discuss, together with the advanced workers, who led the most recent struggles in industry and in the public sector, how to make concrete the perspective of "tous ensemble!" ("everyone together!") of the general strike, that is on the agenda, as they were already chanting in the marches of November and December 1995, that managed to make the Juppé government back down and marked a turning point in the social situation of the old continent. All the unions are calling for a new strike day on September 7, without even asking the government to withdraw the pension reform. Far from being another day of mobilization, that day would have to be the beginning of the test of strength that it is necessary to start with the government, until the government backs down.