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French workers rock Juppé

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For three weeks in December French workers took to the streets in mass protests, strikes and occupations. Paul Morris explains the events and their aftermath. Mathieu Roux of Pouvoir Ouvrier (French section of the LRCI) examines the response of the French left. We also print translations taken from the bulletins and newspapers issued by Pouvoir Ouvrier during the strikes.

The three weeks of strikes and demonstrations that raged across France at the end of 1995 marked a new stage in the European workers’ resistance to austerity plans. The swiftness and scale of the public sector response to planned cuts in welfare and pension rights rocked the government, forced it to concede and re-think its attacks.

The Juppé plan

The strike wave began in response to the Juppé Plan. The core of this plan was the attack on the “Sécu”. This is the system of payment for health, welfare and pensions whose budget is bigger than the rest of government spending put together. As part of the concessions won by French workers in previous struggles the Sécu is not under direct government control but run by elected boards, in which the unions, and in particular Force Ouvrière, have a decisive influence.

The Juppé Plan proposed:

• a new 1% tax on wages to pay for the Sécu’s debts;

• an increase of 2.5 years in the time public sector workers have to work before drawing a pension;

• a freeze on child benefit;

• increased contributions to the Sécu from workers’ pay packets;

• £400 million a year cut from health spending for the next two years;

• removal of union control over the Sécu;

For good measure, Juppé brought forward a plan for massive cuts in the railway system, handing local lines over to local councils and forcing them to slash services. And he introduced a specific attack on the pension and retirement rights of railway workers.

The unions’ response

French workers are amongst the most poorly unionised in Europe, with less than 6% of workers in a union. The unions themselves are divided, not according to occupation, or sector, but along political lines.

The CFDT is led by Social Democrats and Liberals. The CGT is led by and historically linked to the Communist Party. Force Ouvrière (FO) is led by a combination of Socialists and Gaullists, and its bureaucracy has important links with a “Trotskyist” group, Pierre Lambert’s “Workers Party” (PT).

This exclusion of the great mass of workers from union membership and the rivalries between several bureaucracies keep the unions weak and divided. But the French tradition of unionism also has a strong side. Most union members are union activists. They have already had to make a political choice when they join a union. To mobilise the mass of the workers they cannot rely on “orders from head office” as is all too often the case in Germany or even in Britain.

They have to call mass meetings, to involve the mass of workers on a regular if not daily basis. They have to agitate, to concentrate on winning over and keeping the mass of workers with them. Hence the need for mass demonstrations. The stay-at-home strike, so beloved of the British union bureaucracy, is not an option for them.

The trade union bureaucracy

Only the CFDT leaders took an overtly hostile response to the strikes. Its leader, Nicole Notat, proclaimed herself “85% in agreement” with the Plan

It was the FO bureaucrats, headed by Marc Blondel, who needed some show of militancy to frighten Juppé. Without control of the Sécu they would lose prestige, bargaining power, and the massive perks that go with the job of running the system. As for the CGT, the highly unionised railways are their main bastion. And their pressure, as well as that of the power and post workers, forced the bureaucrats to fight.

Still, the FO and CGT bureaucracies’ initial response to the Juppé Plan was to play their usual game of “you strike Wednesday, we’ll strike Thursday”. Each federation called days of action and demonstrations on different days.

But the anger of the rank and file burst through these bureaucratic obstacles. First the railway workers, then the post and electricity workers, brought key workers on all-out strikes which, because picket-line observance was 100%, shut down the entire service. They sent delegations to other sectors of workers to bring them out either on the one-day strikes or, if possible, indefinitely.

By the end of November the bureaucrats’ attempts to stage a series of limited “days of action” had been superseded by an indefinite mass strike of the rail, tube and bus workers, mass strikes in the electricity industry and the post, and widespread occupations.

Railworkers take the lead

The railway workers have been waging a virtual guerrilla war against the bosses for the last three years. They have the highest strike figures, higher than average unionisation and possess a clear consciousness of their own strategic importance. On 24 November, along with a million other workers, they went on strike. But unlike the others they did not go back.

The initial call was for three days of strike action. But the rank and file railway workers extended this right through to late December by seizing control from day one.

Every day massive “general assemblies” would take place in the depots, stations and sidings, with a vote at the end on whether to continue the strike. As well as a display of strength, the French railway workers gave the workers of the whole world a lesson in what real workers’ democracy means.

The task now was to extend the action into a real, indefinite general strike, drawing in all public sector workers and, crucially, the private sector.

In the end this never happened. The actual course of events demonstrates the crisis of working class leadership and holds important lessons for the next round of struggle.

By the first week in December the question “is it a revolution?” was in no way a stupid one. The railway workers were solid. Along with the tube and bus strikes this served to paralyse Paris. In most big cities the mass of the population were forced to walk to and from work. This meant that nobody could forget, for a single moment, the strike and the questions it raised. The vast mass of the working class was sympathetic to the railway workers. One of Lenin’s famous “conditions” for a pre-revolutionary situation is that “the masses don’t want to go on living in the old way”. Clearly, many of them didn’t.

The bosses could not give in either. The credibility of Juppé and Chirac in Europe rests on cutting government spending. And the attack on the Sécu was only the start.

The union leaders called a series of one day strikes and demonstrations. Since Juppé had said, “with two million people on the streets my government will fall”, the rank and file set about the task of building each one-day strike to meet that figure.

It was reached on Tuesday 12 December, when 2.2 million people demonstrated across France. There was no question of holding one concerted national demonstration because of the transport strikes. In the end the local character of the demos only underlined the level of support for the strikers. On 12 December 300,000 demonstrated in Paris alone, 120,000 in Marseilles and 100,000 in Toulouse.

Even small towns, rural and industrial, had big demos. In the strongest centres an estimated one in three people demonstrated: i.e. the whole of the economically active population. And these were not passive demos. They were loud, militant protests from which the police, in general, had to stay away.

More could have been won

The government’s initial response was to ignore the strikes. But the massive demos on the 9, 12 and 16 of December, each bigger than the last, forced Juppé to act. In a partial climbdown he cancelled all the attacks on the railway workers, and promised the union leaders a “Social Summit” to discuss improvements in benefits in exchange for agreement on the Sécu.

While the rank and file were not fooled by the social summit, the railway workers clearly decided that they had won. The CGT bureaucrats faxed all their branches with an instruction for a return to work. Realising they, as a section, had won important concessions from Juppé, and that they could not beat the attack on the Sécu on their own, the railway workers went back to work.

The strike did not, as the press reported, “crumble”. The local and workplace union committees at first hesitated when they received the unions’ orders. Those who had important local grievances continued the dispute. But after the last great mobilisations on Saturday, which saw an even bigger demo with an estimated 2.5 million on the streets, the rail workers went back and the national crisis was over. The general assemblies of strikers, which had been meeting every day, met and voted to return to work.

This was an orderly return to work by an unbeaten, confident, vanguard section of the working class. Nevertheless, it did bring the first round of the struggle to a close. The strike failed to spread in the public sector. Post and power workers came out solidly on the days of action but it was only minorities or certain regions which carried out full all out strike action in between. The rest of the public sector came out only on strike days.

The private sector was even more difficult to mobilise. Private sector workers had already conceded an extension of 2.5 years to pre-pension work time two years ago. The tax and contribution increases in the Juppé Plan did not provoke an immediate mass response. The best organised private sector workers are in the stable, skilled manufacturing sector and probably reckoned they could win this back through pay increases. The hardest hit by the attack on the Sécu—low paid workers—thought they did not have the power to fight.

Both of these problems, the failure to strike in the public and private sectors, could have been overcome by a determined rank and file initiative from below—one which was armed with demands for the private sector too and which could have represented a viable alternative leadership to the bureaucrats when they sold out. But this did not take place, and was one of the biggest weaknesses of the movement.

Only in Rouen was a fully blown co-ordination built which united the different sectors of strikers. Instead of trying to mass picket other sectors to bring them onto all out strike, the railway workers restricted themselves to delegations. This had some effect in Paris and other regions but it did not bring any significant numbers of private sector workers onto all out strike. This left the direction and fundamental control of the strike in the hands of the union leaders. True, some of these leaders were forced to call for the “generalisation” of the strike, but they did nothing to bring that about.

Thus the mass movement of December never became a real general strike, and that was why Juppé was able to demobilise it with important concessions to a key sector.

Political Lessons

The eruption and development of the strike wave was mainly the work of the rank and file. The rank and file fought for unity and momentarily broke down the barriers between the different unions.

They pushed for the extension of the action to other parts of the public sector. But, unlike in 1986, the self-organisation of the strikers remained at the level of mass assemblés generales meeting daily to renew the strike vote.

There were few newly elected strike committees beyond the joint union committees in the workplaces.

The union leaderships were thus able to maintain their influence, despite the low level of unionisation.

As in May ‘68, more general questions about the organisation of society and the workplace were inevitably raised by the recent movement, though obviously not to the same degree as they would have been by a general strike.

There were widespread discussions about “the future”, “the place of youth in our society”, “a decent humane life for retired workers” and so on. The strike wave was a sharp rebuff to those who, for the last ten years, have proclaimed the class struggle, Marxism and the very idea of an alternative to capitalism to be utopian and outmoded.

But it remains true that the Mitterrand years have taken a heavy toll; the demoralisation and depoliticisation of this experience cannot be overcome in one month.

This legacy affects not so much the spontaneous combativity of young workers but the ageing leaders and middle cadres of the “far left” organisations. It explains the low horizons with which they entered the struggle and the lack of a fighting perspective with which they participated in it.

In France today, faced with the inevitable return to the offensive by Chirac and Juppé, the working class needs clear answers to the following questions.

What demands will unite the whole working class to totally defeat the offensive of the ruling class?

What political goals must the movement set itself; that is, not just concessions from Juppé and Chirac which they will promise today but withdraw tomorrow when the movement has abated, but what is the alternative to the current government?

The millions of demonstrators sympathised with and raised slogans to kick out both Juppé and Chirac, spontaneously understanding that only thus could they be prevented from returning to the attack.

But, of course, this immediately raises the question of who or what will replace them? An SP-CP government, the traditional “left alternative”? Led by Jospin who cannot even bring himself to oppose the Juppé plan or Robert Hue who proposes a “radical reform of the Sécu”?

Will such “socialists”, such “communists”, be able to form a government that resolutely defends the workers’ interests and realises their demands?

Should parliamentary and presidential elections be binding on the working class when the media is in the hands of the government and the millionaires?

If Chirac calls elections or a referendum to defeat the movement, as De Gaulle did in 1968, should the working class participate, should it call off the strikes to let “democracy” take its course?

Each of these questions needs a clear and concrete answer and these answers have to be put to strikers and the demonstrators in language they understand. In short, the working class needs an action programme and it needs a revolutionary party to fight for it.

It has to develop workers’ democracy, taking it forward to the creation of workers’ councils, with a focused programme of demands.

Through transitional demands, such as workers’ control of production and distribution, it must demonstrate to the working class as a whole the need to take power and smash the whole semi-bonapartist machinery of the Fifth Republic, replacing it with a workers’ republic based on workers’ councils with a workers’ government answerable to them.

• For the unconditional, total and permanent scrapping of the entire Plan Juppé.

• Total abandonment of privatisation or regionalisation of any SNCF lines.

• Workers’ control of the Sécu! Increase the bosses’ contributions to pay for a major increase in pensions!

• Restoration of the right of private sector workers to their pension after 37.5 years.

• Permanent contracts, job security and real union rights for all private sector workers.

• Work or the SMIC (raised to 7500 francs) for the unemployed and a plan of socially useful public works, under workers’ control and paid for by the bosses.

• Halt the police victimisation of Arab and other immigrant workers—full citizenship rights and their integration into the labour movement. Smash the racist intimidation and attacks on immigrants by the Front National and the fascist grouplets.