Workers' strike wave in France
jolts conservative government

(from Detroit Workers' Voice #8, Jan. 1, 1996,
reprinted in Communist Voice #6, Jan. 15, 1996)


. At the end of November, French workers began a massive wave of strikes and protests in response to the austerity measures announced by the government. The conservative government, led by President Chirac and Prime Minister Juppe, is leading a major assault on the conditions of the 5.5 million government-sector workers and gutting social programs in general. The strikes and protests shut down transport, many public services and other enterprises, crippling the capitalist economy. This forced the government to retract several parts of their program. Workers still have a long road ahead in this battle, however. As of mid-December, it appears strikes and demonstrations are receding while the government has not renounced their overall austerity program. But the French workers have shown they are a force to be reckoned with.

. The mass workers' strikes and other protests are an inspiring sight for workers everywhere.Only this past May, the arch-conservative Chirac, backed by an overwhelming rightist parliamentary majority, swept into power, replacing the more moderate capitalist government of the "socialist" Mitterrand. But in only a short time, a storm of protest has broken out against the new French rulers. French nuclear weapons tests in the South Pacific led to angry demonstrations. And now the austerity program has led to the biggest mass movement in France since the worker and student revolts which shook the French bourgeoisie in 1968. Of course, the neo-conservative assault on the workers and poor is not just a problem in France but has become all the rage of the capitalist rulers in the U.S. and much of the world. But by giving a glimpse of their potential might, the French workers show what latent power workers here and elsewhere possess.

The "Juppe plan"

. The strike wave took off soon after the austerity program of Prime Minister Juppe began making its way through the parliament in mid-November. This program included major attacks on the retirement system for government employees, who make up nearly a quarter of the French labor force. It would raise the general retirement age for government workers by 5 years, and raise the length of service for full pension benefits from 37.5 to 40 years. As well, Juppe wants a wage freeze for government workers. And the government was planning major cutbacks in the state rail service as well as preparing to privatize the railway system and other state entities such as Air France, telecommunications, the electric utility, etc.

. A key part of Juppe's plan was balancing the health care budget through such means as slashing medical care and raising the cost of insurance premiums. The social security system for all workers was also under siege. And a series of tax increases on the masses rounded out this plan. In short, the conservatives unleashed a broad assault that hit virtually all sections of the workers and poor.

. In order to ram through these measures, Juppe has gotten the conservative majority in parliament to give him power to reorganize the health and pension system by decree, suspending parliamentary votes on these matters.

The workers respond

. On November 24 the workers answered. Railway workers went on strike. That same day, a million workers joined in a one-day strike that brought public transport to a halt throughout France. Over the next couple of weeks, various other public sector workers joined the strike wave. Postal workers began shutting down nearly all the mail sorting centers. A large section of electrical utility workers walked out as well as telecommunications employees and hospital workers. Other transport workers joined in. In Bordeaux, where Juppe is also mayor, the city was brought to a halt by striking bus drivers, truckers and garbage collectors. Some private sector workers bolstered the strike movement. For example, truckers blocked highways and the dockworkers of Marseilles shut the port. Coal miners in the Lorraine region went on strike, waging pitched battles with police.

. The strike wave was punctuated with a series of massive national demonstrations in Paris and other major cities. The "smallest" of these protests involved over 700,000 demonstrators nationwide and some may have been well over a million. Students played an active role in these demonstrations. In fact, on November 30, students organized their own demonstrations throughout the country demanding more funds for education and the hiring of more teachers and other school employees. The strikes and protests even inspired a demonstration by about 2,000 doctors against the health system cutbacks.

. The strike waves and solidarity actions ground production to a crawl in a number of industries. A government institute estimated the first 15 days of the strike may have caused as much as $1.6 billion in lost production. The movement of people and goods was severely hampered. But despite the inconveniences the strike presented for the general population, even bourgeois pollsters reckoned that the strikers had the sympathies of 62% of the population.

Workers win some victories, but the big battles lie ahead

. After about two weeks of trying to stonewall the strikers, Juppe was forced to strike a more conciliatory stance. In the first days of December, the education minister granted some of the student movement's demands. Then, on December 10, Juppe announced that he was retracting his plan to raise the requirements for public sector workers to receive pensions. As well, the plan to close down and privatize parts of the state railways was put on hold. This was a significant victory. Meanwhile, Juppe agreed to union leaders demands for a "summit meeting" on December 21 to discuss the austerity plan. The meeting took place but produced nothing but a few vague words about some possible token measures to relieve unemployment. But by agreeing to some concessions and talks, Juppe has been able, for now at least, to take the steam out of the strike movement, which by late December had been reduced to a few local areas. The government has also proposed a further series of "summits" with the hopes of using them to talk the workers' movement to death.

. For the French workers and other oppressed to rid themselves of the bulk of the Juppe plan, new powerful waves of struggle will be necessary. Whether such actions break out soon or a lull sets in, workers are faced with the task of using the recent actions to break through the policy of the present trade union bureaucracies and develop their own fighting organizational forms. Although the big strike wave may give the appearance that the present French trade union leadership is just fine, a closer look shows that this is not the case.

. One of the largest trade union federations is the CFDT. These union leaders have long been a base of support for the pro-austerity "Socialist" Party of Mitterrand. Mitterrand and company carried out their own austerity measures when they ruled and are excited about European unity plans which require budget-slashing. Thus, it was no surprise that CFDT leader Nicole Notat openly supported various features of the austerity plan, such as the health system reform. And the CFDT leadership worked to end the strike movement as soon as possible. The CFDT leaders' orientation was that holding talks with the government was the primary goal of the workers struggle, not winning any basic demands, and called for an end to strikes before the government had even granted any concessions.

. The unions that called the bulk of strike and protest actions were the CGT and the FO. The CGT leadership is tied to the phony communists of the French Communist Party, long-time supporters of Soviet revisionism. They long ago gave up a revolutionary orientation against French capitalism and have for decades been subverting the radical motion of the workers. For many years they have also spread illusions in Mitterrand's "socialists" as the alleged alternative to the right-wing.

. The CGT leaders talk about continuing strikes and actions until the whole Juppe plan is discarded. They left the December 21 meeting with Juppe promising new worker mobilizations.However, little has come of these threats to date. But if the CGT leaders' are really in a position to quickly resume the mass strike wave, then it was treachery to wind down the struggle with the bulk of the austerity measures still poised to go forward. In fact, once the key sectors of the protest, like the striking railway workers are back on the job, it is not likely that they can simply be called back out at will. But whether or not the CGT was responsible for toning down the strike wave, then it certainly doesn't seem very concerned about the ramifications of the return to work of the key sectors of the strike wave.

. For its part in this strike wave, the most visible public spokesman for the FO, Marc Blondel, is basically echoing the policy of the CGT. Traditionally, FO has been to the right of both the CGT and CFDT and more openly collaborationist in dealing with the employers. This is not surprising since it has its beginnings in a CIA-financed split from the CGT in the late 1940s. In recent years, some Trotskyites have moved into the FO officialdom, giving the FO hierarchy a somewhat more militant image than in the past.

. The CFDT, CGT and FO are hardly forces that the workers can rely on to defend their interests. As long as such forces are dominant in the workers movement, the workers will face the danger of having their struggles subverted outright, or stopped half-way. If the workers struggles is to break out in full force, the constraints of the present union hierarchies must be overcome.

The "free market" cure

. Behind the severe measures of Chirac and Juppe lies the crisis of French capitalism. Unemployment in France is heading toward 12%. Indeed, the unemployment rate in the European Union (EU) countries as a whole is around 11%. The growing poverty has increased the strains on the social welfare systems and contributed to budget deficits. Of course, if it was merely a matter of balancing budgets, the taxes on the wealthy elite could be raised. But the capitalist governments aren't interested in taxing the rich. The bourgeoisies in each European country claim the way out the crisis is to make Europe more competitive in the world market. Why if only the European capitalists conquer more of the market, then there will be jobs and happiness for the workers, they assert. Under the banner of competitiveness, there has been an assault on the social-welfare system that had temporarily provided a relatively high amount of security for sections of workers in Britain, Germany, France, Sweden, etc. So the first step of the plan that was to supposedly provide jobs and happiness for the workers, is not to provide jobs, but dismantle the safety net for the jobless. It's trick-down economics, European-style. The Juppe plan is simply a means of making the bourgeoisie wealthier by driving down the living standards of the masses.

. Austerity measures against the masses are also part of the plans of the European Union's Maastricht treaty, an effort to further the integration of the capitalist economies of the EU to make them a more formidable force in capturing the world market. The roots of the French budget crisis are not to be found in Maastricht. With or without Maastricht, the French bourgeoisie faced a severe economic crisis and would have felt compelled to bleed the masses to extricate itself from the crisis. But the plans for economic integration have played a role in bringing the recent budget crisis in France to a head. At present, for instance, the plans to abolish national currencies in favor of an all-EU "euro" currency have added another reason for the French rulers to lash out at the workers and poor. The plan for merging the present national currencies calls for maintaining stable exchange-rates between the participants. In order to achieve this stability, strict requirements have been imposed, including limits on public deficits and the ratio of government debt to total economic output. Many EU countries aren't yet close to reaching these requirements, France being the most significant. As the date for deciding who will qualify for entry into the new "euro" currency system approaches, the French government has another incentive to solve its budget woes by slashing its social welfare system.

. The unified currency plan will not change the basic problems the masses already face from capitalism. Rather it will provide the capitalists with new mechanisms and excuses for continuing to shove austerity programs down the throats of the workers and poor. For example, in order for the single currency to be maintained, the budget requirements for a unified currency must be maintained. And even EU countries that do not initially qualify for joint currency will be financially penalized for exceeding budgetary restrictions. While the Maastricht plan is intended to reduce budget deficits on the backs of the masses, some plans being considered to enforce budgetary discipline will accelerate the budget crisis for countries that don't meet the EU budget criterion. For instance, according to The Economist of December 9, German Finance Minister Waigel is calling for penalties equal to 0.25% of a countries' GDP for each percentage point their budget deficits exceed 3% of GDP. Had such penalties been applied in 1991, The Economist estimates they would have cost France a whopping 2.25% of its GDP. Even if the actual penalties are not quite as stiff, clearly they will only create further pressure for cutting the social budget.

. As the unified budget policies show, Maastricht's provisions move Europe in the direction of political union. How far this process will go, and how long unity would last, is far from certain, however. Nevertheless, if political union develops, it also provides further opportunities for European workers to unite across national lines for a fight against the onslaught of capital. This is important not only for the immediate fight. As the European bourgeoisie, united or otherwise, blows up whatever bit of security that had existed for the workers, it's more apparent that the capitalist system itself must go. If workers seize new opportunities to unite, they will be better situated for the future socialist revolution.

Workers around the world stand up to capitalist austerity

. As capitalism approaches the 21st century, the results of its "free market" frenzy have further exposed its bankruptcy. But this common assault of capital is creating a common response.While France was shut down, a strike wave also swept Belgium. Major strikes recently broke out in Italy. Spanish workers took to the streets in militant protests against job losses earlier this year. Canadian workers in Ontario province recently held massive protests against axing social programs. These struggles not only show what workers can do when they rise up en masse. They also show the universal problem that workers in all these countries suffer from being dominated by class-collaborationist trade union leaderships and face the task of establishing independent class organization. U.S. workers should be inspired by these actions of our class brothers and sisters to build up the fight against our own employers and our own Juppe Plans, the Contract for America and Clinton's "Contract Lite." Likewise, for this struggle to advance, workers will have to overcome our domestic class traitors, the AFL-CIO bureaucracy.

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Last changed on October 19, 2001.