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France: transport strikes and student occupations start fightback!

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France once again ground to a halt yesterday, less than a month after a highly successful rail strike paralysed the country. This time the strike was just as effective. Train drivers at the state-owned SNCF rail company stopped work on the night of Tuesday 13 November, and the shutdown was extended yesterday to the Paris Metro. 300 kilometres (190 miles) of traffic jams were reported on roads heading into Paris, twice the usual size.

Only 90 of 700 high-speed trains, one in 10 commuter trains, one in 15 subway trains and 15 per cent of buses were operating: even these only to meet the conditions of a new law, which compels a minimum service, and which the unions allowed to pass with little opposition during the summer.

Striking workers at the state gas and electricity companies, also cut 12 per cent of production capacity at EDF nuclear plants and blocked ships and gas input into the network at the Fos-sur-Mer gas terminal. Even singers at the Paris Opera and actors at the Comedie Francaise, who also have “special” pensions, forced the cancellation of performances.

SNCF unions gave notice of an open-ended strike, i.e. strikes can be repeated or extended. In fact today (15 November) two national trade union federations (there are at lest five “TUCs” in France) have done so, as have several rank and file assemblées générales (or AGs – mass meetings) of strikers. Militants have expressed the view that the stoppages could carry on at least until 20November, when a strike by telecommunications workers, civil servants and education workers is planned

Students mobilise
University students are already taking action in solidarity with the workers – as well as in pursuit of their own struggles against president Nicolas Sarkozy’s neoliberal “reforms”. In Rennes students, armed with metal bars, kept administrators from entering buildings on Tuesday and classes were suspended. The following day, strike police had to use truncheons and tear gas to break up a protest at Paris X University in Nanterre, west of the capital. Police succeeded in forcing open the doors of the university, but classes remained cancelled.

Since the last week of October AGs have been held at universities all over France. A national student coordination (delegate meeting with representatives from all the AGs) has also been formed. Most AGs voted for occupations and almost all supported a programme of direct action in support of the strikers. They announced they would attempt to block access to train stations.

Students themselves are demanding the repeal of a new law – the loi Pécresse or law on the autonomy of universities (LRU). This law, like the one prescribing a minimum service in public transport, was rushed through parliament by Sarkozy during the summer vacation with little or no resistance from the largest student union, UNEF, which although it supports the present student strikes, will not support “minority blockades” of the universities. The LRU aims at taking universities down the road of privatization, by giving their directors greater powers, including the right to hire and fire staff, to close university departments and research facilities, to raise tuition fees and to compete for private sector funding.

Students have already occupied or shut down some 28 of France’s 85 universities. The struggle needs to be extended to the lycées (secondary schools) and to the youth from the banlieues, who rose in rebellion against Sarkozy last year.

Sarkozy goes for broke
Over the last 12 years, several huge strike waves and mass demonstrations have rocked France –against previous pension reforms in 1995 and 2003, against the CRE “reforms”, making it easier to sack new employees, in 2006. On each occasion the government backed down and the union leaders did a deal that allowed the right to come back to the attack later. Sarkozy was elected after a campaign in which he promised to be a “French Thatcher” and break the power of the unions. Speaking in Washington, Sarkozy declared to the US capitalists: “I will hold firm. France has backed down too much in the past. She cannot back down anymore.”

In a speech to the EU parliament in Strasbourg he made the same pledge to the European bourgeoisie.

"I will carry out these reforms right to the end. Nothing will put me off my goal… The French people approved these reforms. I told them all about it before the elections, so that I would be able to do what was necessary afterwards.”

The right-wing daily, Le Figaro emphasised the point: “It is by vanquishing the street that Sarkozy will win or lose his ability to deepen reforms and put in place the clean break that he announced more than a year ago.” Indeed, Sarkozy’s party, the UMP, is preparing materials and leaflets to mobilise anti-strike demonstrations. This will undoubtedly attract far-right elements, including the UMP’s own jeunesse dorée, thus raising the necessity for the strike movement to organise its own defence guard.

Today there can be no doubt that Sarkozy is out to inflict a historic defeat on the French working class, one such as Thatcher inflicted in 1982-85. Thus it is highly unlikely for there to be any repetition of earlier conflicts, i.e. a quick government climb down and a compromise deal from the unions. For this reason the issue of the leadership of the working class and the students is even more critical than it was in 2006. French workers need a leadership as determined to defeat and smash Sarkozy as he is to crush the unions and abolish their social gains.
Further reactionary measures are already underway – weakening labour protection laws to strengthen the bosses right to hire and fire, increasing fees for access to medical care, slashing employment in the public sector, etc.

Lions led by jackals
It is already clear that this mass movement of resistance will meet with systematic sabotage from the leaders of the major trade union federations. Their old tactics will undoubtedly be tried once again: separating different sectors in different days of action, followed by weeks or months of inaction, refusing elementary solidarity, attempting to drive a wedge between students and the workers – all stock in trade of the union bureaucracy.

The most scandalous and open examples of this so far are statements by the leaders of the Confederation Française Democratique de Travaille (CFDT) and Force Ouvrière (FO). CFDT leader François Chérèque has said, “If there is a mixture of movements, between the régimes spéciaux, the public sector workers and god knows what else, we reserve the right to pull out [of the movement].” Jean-Louis Malys, also of the CFDT, said, “There is room for manoeuvre. A trial of strength is not going to help the workers.”

The general secretary of the Force Ouvrière (FO), Jean Claude Mailly, stated in Le Monde that they did not want any “a priori connection with the strike by state employees” on 21November, nor any connection with the direct action of the students. “We are not an anti-Sarkozy movement with a political character,” he insisted.

Though more wary of offending its own members’ militancy, the Confederation Générale du Travail (CGT) has also not excluded pulling its forces out of the struggle. The CGT on the eve of the strike announced its willingness to engage in sector-by-sector talks with the government on the future of the “special” pension systems. Prime Minister François Fillon declared himself “satisfied” with the CGT leader’s statement, and a spokesperson for the presidential Elysée Palace stated that CGT leader Bernard Thibault “had made it possible for the crisis to be resolved after the day of the first conflict”.

At the same time the government has said it could help the SNCF and other employers provide salary incentives to affected workers to get them to accept the principle of lengthening pension contribution periods. All this could give the CGT the pretext for defusing the movement, as would any more outright betrayal by the CFDT and FO.
More positively Christian Mahieux from the small Sud-Rail union stated, “Workers in this country understand that we are not only fighting to defend the pensions of rail workers but also the future of the pension system in this country.” The problem is that Sud-Rail is very small and generally never breaks with the lead given by the CGT.

Not only is there an acute crisis of leadership at the trade union level. The virtual collapse of the French Socialist Party and the confusion of the Parti Communiste Français (PCF) after its electoral drubbing mean that there is a gaping political vacuum in the workers’ movement. The Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR), French section of the Fourth International, has correctly called for a new anticapitalist working class party, though it is clear that the LCR (wrongly) believes such a party must not be a revolutionary one.

The life or death struggle with Sarkozy demonstrates that the French workers urgently need a fighting combat party comprising the vanguard of all struggles: not only those of the unionists and the students, but of the sans papiers (migrants without legal papers), the youth of the banlieues (working class suburbs, scarred by unemployment and police racism), the antiwar activists etc. Such a party alone can develop a strategy, an action programme not only to defeat and overthrow Sarkozy’s government, but to install a revolutionary workers’ government that can bring about an end of the system altogether.

Forward to a general strike!
Railwaymen and power workers striking against pension cuts, Air France workers fighting for higher wages, Airbus workers fighting against the loss of jobs and conditions, public sector workers striking against job cuts, students fighting the university autonomy law – all these can and must unite – into one mighty mass movement, a general strike, going all out to defeat Sarkozy and drive him and his government from office.

At the moment only one thing can ensure the unity and militancy of such a movement – the formation of coordinations at workplace and local level and their linking up into a national assembly of strikers’ delegates. The representatives of the students in occupation should be included in the local coordinations and in the national body too. Together, such coordinations can ensure control by the rank and file and prevent sabotage by the union leaders.

Next Tuesday, 20 November, will see yet another day of action that will probably link up with still striking railworkers and occupying students. This day of action will includes strikes by public service workers over wages and in defence of their jobs. In the education service too five unions (FAEN, FERC-CGT, FSU, SGEN-CFDT, UNSA-Education) have called a strike to “denounce the government’s policy of getting rid of 11,200 posts”. The student federations, including UNEF and l’Union National de Lycéennes (UNL), have called on students in higher and secondary education to join the day of action.

Also on the same day, the five main union federations (CGT, CFDT, Sud, FO et CFTC) have called on workers in the Post and France Télécom to strike over jobs, falling value of wages, in defence of public service, over conditions of work , and against restructuring.
On 29 November employees of the French judicial system plan to demonstrate against a planned judicial “reform.”

This indicates that once again France could be on the edge of a major social upheaval in which the stakes could not be higher. This struggle is of enormous importance to workers across Europe, indeed worldwide, since French workers have been in the vanguard of the resistance to neoliberalism. They deserve our full and active solidarity. Delegations of workers and youth from other countries – such as the striking German train drivers and British postal workers in dispute - should attend these days of action to express their solidarity and prepare to take action at home if Sarkozy launches repression on our brothers and sisters.
Victory to the French workers and youth!

Link up the struggles of the postal workers and other public sector workers with those across Europe!

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