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Days of action in France: we need an indefinite general strike to win

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Marc Lasalle reports
A few weeks after the day of general strike in January, March 19 was another major day for class struggle in France. Indeed, while the government hoped for a decreasing mobilization, the raw figures show that the contrary is true: more than 3 millions marched in 213 demonstrations across the country. This is more than in January and indicates an unprecedented level of readiness to fight, higher even than that shown during the struggle against the CPE.

In a massive show of strength against the crisis, in Paris on March 19th 350,000 workers and youth marched in two huge parallel demonstrations in a one day general strike.

One was based on contingents from the CGT trade union federation from districts all across Paris. The second included all the other union federations (CFDT, FO, SUD) and various other organisations.

The SUD contingent, in itself a large demo, was particularly well organised, radical and combative. Most of the workers and youth were demonstrating against the whole of Sarkozy’s politics, including his attacks on the public sector (university, schools, health), his large tax gifts to the rich, his bailing out of the banks and major industries at the expense of ordinary taxpayers.

The main theme of this general strike was against the effects of the capitalist crisis. It is clear that the workers do not want to pay the costs of the failures of the bosses system; in particular they reject closures, sackings, low wages and increased precarité (insecure, low paid jobs).

In most other towns and cities, the composition of the contingents was even more diverse and showed that many workers from the private sector had joined the demo, many for the first time in their lives. The demo in Marseille was as large as that in Paris. In Compiègne, with a population of only 30,000, 10,000 marched behind the workers of Continental, now occupying their tyre factory. Two years ago they agreed to work longer hours in return for a promise that there would be no closure. Now they have discovered that the bosses plan to get rid of them and are determined to stop this. In various opinion polls, more than two thirds of people expressed their support for this movement.

The success of the strike in Guadeloupe – an island that is a French colonial possession and part of the French Republic - is also an important factor in the political situation. After 44 days of a general strike that paralysed the island, a large coalition comprising trade unions, political parties and other organizations won a huge victory victory. The gains include a €200 increase for low salaries, reduction in the prices for basic food items and more besides.

Guadeloupe proves to millions that victory can won but only with an indefinite general strike, not just one day actions. The strike won with massive support from the population, and opened a situation that was quickly escalating towards mass confrontation with the capitalist and colonial state apparatus. The threat of revolution produced, as Rosa Luxemburg once wrote, serious reforms as its by-product. Similar struggles have also been initiated in neighbouring Martinique and in La Réunion in the Indian Ocean.

In the last few months, various struggles have forced Sarkozy’s government onto the defensive. A ‘reform’ of the lycées (secondary schools) has been postponed. The active opposition of the teachers and the students has watered down an attack on universities. Sarkozy, who used to be present every night on the media, has suddenly become almost invisible.

However, it is clear to many that a series of one-day actions will not be enough to obtain any significant concession. Former presidential candidate Olivier Besancenot of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), and the SUD union federation have made this clear and criticised the main trade union federations for planning no further national actions until May Day. Until then the main union leaders want to have only actions at a local level. This is a recipe for dissipating this marvellous movement and going back to what the union bureaucrats want: negotiations with the bosses and the government without pressure from the workers. Sarkozy, who is no fool, will realise they have given him a breathing space and will be working overtime to split the united front of the unions and draw them into negotiations to accept parts of his plans.

The reformist parties, the Socialists (PS) and Communists (PCF), hope to gain from this movement by simply waiting for the European elections in June. Only the radical left, most notably SUD and the NPA, argue for an indefinite general strike.

The NPA – which is gaining significant support in the polls as a new and radical alternative - correctly points to the example of Guadeloupe, to the need for clear demands and an action programme against the crisis. They call for the general strike to come from below, around the workers in prolonged struggles like the school and university workers, and the health workers.

This is absolutely correct and could lead the NPA into a political confrontation with the leaders of the large union federations like the CFDT and CGT who support the PS and the PC. The question is whether the NPA leaders will pursue this. A right wing minority within the NPA is arguing for the new party to take the wrong path and form an electoral alliance with PCF and with a new split from PS. At this critical moment, this bureaucratic and backward policy would lead to delays and even paralysis in the NPA, preventing it from challenging the reformist union leaders effectively.

In addition to resisting this pressure, the NPA should make its programme even more concrete in the period ahead. It should add to the call for as general strike that in the struggle against sackings every workplace facing job cuts should be occupied and launch all out strikes with solidarity action from other sectors. Also, the NPA needs to make a very clear and unambiguous attack on the reactionary role of the trade union bureaucracy for holding back the struggle, and should begin to organise the rank and file in every union federation to struggle with the leaders if possible, without them or against their obstruction wherever necessary.

In the absence of a spontaneous strike by a particular sector that could serve as a trigger and a focusing point for the movement, only the most determined and clear action by the revolutionaries could initiate an indefinite general strike and an open struggle against the government. A clear action program for wage increase, against sackings, precarité and all the neoliberal reforms, should be at the centre of the agitation. Local and sectoral struggles should be used to mobilize other sectors and finally to generalize the movement independently or if necessary against the TU leadership. Self-organization and the democratic control over the struggle by the workers, coordinations, are the only means to retain control of the movement and should be implemented from the beginning. The NPA can play a critical role in all this and needs now to take concrete actions along these lines. If it does so – and if it avoids the trap of accommodating to reformism - it can begin to wrest leadership of the French working class movement from the hands of the reformists and open a struggle for working class power.