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France: millions strike and march against Sarkozy and capitalism

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2.5 million French workers have struck in opposition to a whole host of "reforms" being pushed through by President Sarkozy. Marc Lassalle reports from Paris.

Today 2.5 million workers struck and huge numbers marched in 200 towns and cities right across France to protest against the consequences of the economic crisis and against the “reforms” being imposed by President Nicolas Sarkozy. Called by all the trade union federations, with an unusual degree of unity, the general strike has been a clear success and has put the working class, its anger, and its demands to the centre of the political life

In Paris 300 000 workers marched from the historical Bastille square. The contingents were very diverse. Huge demos also took place in Marseille, Toulouse and Bordeaux. While the main forces came from the public sector (teachers, health workers, postal workers, transports, public services), many private sector workers joined the demo, some of them for the first time in their life. Unusual sectors like helicopter pilots, Paris stock exchange workers, ski-lift operators also joined the strike, proving the breadth of the discontent. Thousands of youth from the banlieues joined the demonstrations.

According to opinion polls, more than two thirds of the public supported the strike. Anger against Sarkozy and its government, but also more generally against capitalism were palpable in the demonstrations. A few months ago, Sarkozy had declared, “today, when there is a strike, nobody notices it”. Today, millions have given him his answer.

What are the reasons of this powerful day of strikes and street mobilisations? The first reason is the fact that million of workers are extremely worried about the effect of the economic crises. While technically France has avoided sliding into a recession in the last quarter of 2008 by a few tenth of a point, the unemployment figures have soared by 100 000 in the last months. Production in several automobile plants has been suspended for several weeks, sometimes for over a month,. Others factories are simply being shut down and the workers sacked. However this is simply the tip of the iceberg. All over, the companies have been cutting the temporary contracts thereby increasing the “precarité” (insecurity) for hundred of thousands of workers

The second reason lies in the politics of the government. Since his election two years ago, Sarkozy has been attacking the working class and imposing his “reforms”, which amount to the destruction of the public services and workers rights. He has done this whilst promising that workers will be able to “work more to earn more”, that he will be the “president of the purchasing power” (pouvoir d'achat). He has also promised to preserve full employment. Today all these promises are exposed for what they were: gigantic lies. While for years the official argument was that there is no money for any social projects, the governments has found on the spot € 360 billions to rescue the banks, and many billions more to help the major corporations. In what sounds like the sheerest provocation, the privatisation of the Post service will continue unabated.

More than 10 000 jobs will be cut in the schools. Yet another reorganization of the health system is in the works, involving closures of hospitals and job cuts. All this comes on top of a situation that is already difficult for millions of workers. Low salaries and insecure jobs make life intolerably difficult for many of them. In one of the richest countries in the world basic necessities like food, health, decent accommodation are often too expensive for those on the minimum wage of €1200 per month.

Today workers have shown that they do not want to continue in this way. Today many think that it is high time the other side feels the fear. And indeed for several months, the fear of a social explosion has been the major worry of the government. In December, after several weeks of a mounting movement in the lycées, it suddenly postponed the education reform for fear of a “Greek scenario” (i.e. the December uprising of youth and trade unionists in Athens, Saloniki, Patras and many other cities). The most recent speeches of Sarkozy outside Paris were either interrupted by chanting demonstrators or had to take place behind massive police phalanxes.

While the major union federations will meet next week to discuss their next actions, very little is to be expected from them, since in all major crises in the past the bosses and the state could always count on the assistance of these bureaucrats to save its neck by dividing the workers forces, stringing out the struggle inro isolated and irregular days of action. In fact the hope must lie in building coordinations of delegates from all the unions and from the lycées and universities to take over the promotion of a massive social movement, culminating in an all out general strike. Vital too is to recognise that political leadership is needed in any major struggle with the bosses and their state. The traditional reformist parties of the working class, the Socialist Party and the Communist Party are in chaos and confusion.

However next week will also be marked by the founding congress of the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (the New Anticapitalist Party), a project launched by the far-left LCR. NPA has attracted more than 10 000 activists organized in more than 300 local committees. Clearly, NPA could be the key factor to change the balance of forces in the class struggle. To do so, it will have to organize itself around an action programme of transitional demands, which strike at the heart of capitalism, making the bosses pay the cost of their crisis not the workers.

On this basis the NPA must intervene strongly on this base in the class struggle during the next months. Thus the self-organization of the movement and a clear-cut action programme should be the two pillars of the NPA intervention. The 60 000 people in Bordeaux marching behind the banner which said “la crise c’est eux, la solution c’est nous” (they are the crisis, we are the solution) had the right idea. Today is a step towards the solution, that is revolution in France, provided the French working class rearms itself with a new political leadership equal to the tasks of the struggle, aiming at overthrowing the power of the capitalists and smashing their state machine.