The Internationalist  
October 2010  

Students and Workers Strike
France: May in October?
The Spectre of a New ’68

Striking workers block fuel in Donges, October 15. (Photo: Stéphane Mahe/Reuters)

The Big Obstacle: Pro-Capitalist Union Misleaders and the Now-Reformist “Far Left”

OCTOBER 18 A national “day of action” on Tuesday, October 12, brought 3.5 million French workers and youth into the streets to protest the conservative government’s bill to push back eligibility for retirement and pension benefits. It was the fourth day of nationwide strikes and marches against the pension law since the beginning of September. Although even more came into the streets this time, President Nicolas Sarkozy and his cabinet figured the demonstrations had run out of steam and they could go on to their next anti-working-class “reform.” Big mistake. Instead, worker-student protests continue to mount, along with some heavy-handed repression by the cops. By Friday, after several days of roiling student protests, a police “union” complained (with some exaggeration) of “scenes of urban guerrilla warfare” in cities around the country.

Strikes have continued on the railroads and at the country’s oil refineries. On Friday, riot police dispersed pickets at several fuel depots, only to see the last two refineries walk out in response. Several hundred service stations have run out of gas, while long lines of motorists are forming to fill up their tanks. The pipeline servicing the Orly and Roissy airports outside Paris closed down and then reopened, although where the aviation fuel is to come from is unclear. Meanwhile, the government is telling airlines to fill up their planes outside France. Ferries to the Mediterranean island of Corsica are not running. And starting Sunday night, the French truckers union called on its members to stage “operations escargot” (driving at a snail’s pace to tie up traffic on the main highways), blocking intersections with their rigs and other actions against the pension law everywhere.

A fifth mass mobilization was called for Saturday, October 16. The unions reported that 3 million people participated in 264 marches around France (325,000 in Paris), roughly the same as in the October 2 mobilization. Police estimates claimed that the numbers were slightly less than two weeks ago, but in any case it’s clear the mass protests have not let up. A sixth day of action has been called for Tuesday, October 19, the day before the Senate is scheduled to vote on the pension “reform.” This will likely be as large or larger than previous protests, as new sectors join in. So far, despite the radicalization of the protests, media propaganda about “violent” youth and tough talk from government ministers about forcing the law through no matter what, a large majority of the population “support” the strike action (52 percent in a recent poll) or “sympathize” with it (19 percent). But the key question is, what happens next? Some unions are hinting that they will pull out once the law is approved, in order to look “responsible.”

One “day of action” after another will not stop Sarkozy, nor will a few walkouts here and there. By endlessly repeating these tactics, union leaders are actually aiding the government in wearing down protest. What’s urgently needed is to mobilize the entire working class, private and public, in militant strike action to shut the country down, beginning with key sectors and leading quickly to a nationwide general strike until the anti-worker pension “reform” is dropped. But the attack on pensions is only part of the ruling-class offensive against working people. Students and youth are going into the streets as well to protest the unpaid internships, low wages, precarious jobs and massive unemployment they face. Hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants are demanding legalization, and the government’s racist attacks against the Romany people and French “travelers,” shutting down their camps and carrying out mass deportations, are a taste of the police-state repression it has in store for everyone. The power of the workers movement must be brought out to defend all the exploited and oppressed.

Students Unite with Workers in Struggle

High school students march in Paris against pension "reform" law, October 12. (Photo: Boris Horvat/AFP)

The last week marked a significant change in the protests as the struggle entered its decisive phase. Instead of one-day walkouts continuing strikes were called, notably on the rail system and at refineries. In additioin, students and youth mobilized for the first time in significant numbers. On October 12, there were walkouts at over 400 high schools and 90 were totally blockaded. More than 150,000 students participated in the demos. A popular sign read: “Youth toiling in the slave galleys, older people living in poverty, this isn’t the society we want.” In the universities there were assemblies of several hundred students to discuss what action to take. In succeeding days the number of schools “mobilized” rose to 1,000 as student protests spread around France.

“Carla, we’re like you, the head of state is screwing us too.” Paris, October 16.
(Photo: Libération)

The largest were in provincial cities including Toulouse (20,000 marchers), Rennes (7,000), Bordeaux (5,000), Orléans (2,000), Le Havre, Montpellier, Nîmes, Lens and elsewhere. In Paris, several thousand rallied outside the headquarters of the employers association (Medef). A lead banner said, “Neither kids nor puppets,” responding to government claims that they were too young to protest about a pension law and were being manipulated. Students’ signs read (in reference to Sarkozy’s model-wife Carla Bruni), “Carla, we’re like you, the head of state is screwing us too.” A favorite chant: “Sarkozy, you’re screwed, the youth are in the streets.” And: “Put youth to work, send oldsters to the cafés” (“Les jeunes au boulot, les vieux aux bistrots”). One protester’s sign put it personally: “Mom and Dad, I’ll get your right to retire at 60 for you.”

Government spokesmen complain about the “irresponsibility” of “bringing 15-year-olds into the streets” for “something that doesn’t concern them.” But students pointed out that as a result of the law, a million potential jobs will be eliminated, as older workers are forced to stay on, aggravating the astronomical (26 percent) youth unemployment. The government, media and trade unions all agree that if the students and youth go out, this fundamentally changes the battle, widening it into a general social conflict rather than a strictly union issue. They recall 2006, when after two months of student strikes, the right-wing government of Jacques Chirac was forced to withdraw the law for a lower minimum wage for youth (the CPE). Sarkozy remarked, “you have to watch them [the youth] like heating milk on the stove” (i.e., they may boil over). A Paris newspaper (Libération, 12 October) wrote: “Experience shows, when you say the youth are in the streets, you’re saying withdrawal of the law is in the cards.”

“Youth toiling in the slave galleys, older people living in poverty, this isn’t the society we want.” Youth demonstrate in Strasbourg, October 12.
(Photo: Frederick Florin/AFP)

Police responded to the youth mobilization with heavy-duty tactics in a number of cities. In Montreuil, in the working-class suburban district of Seine-St. Denis outside Paris, cops shot a 16-year-old high school student in the face with a flash-ball gun – a French anti-riot weapon that fires rubber bullets – breaking his cheekbones and detaching his eye from the retina. Several times in recent years, youths have lost an eye when cops shot them point-blank with flash-ball guns. This police provocation only angered the students more and spread the walkouts. A student leader pointed out that the more the government tells youths they don’t belong in the streets, the more they come out. The government poured oil on the fire by sending letters to parents telling them to keep their offspring from demonstrating. This, too, backfired. The main parent-teacher association, FCPE, issued a statement denouncing police running amok and calling for parents to join the student demonstrations to stand in the way of clashes with the “forces of order.”

Key to the Fight for Victory: Forge a Leninist-Trotskyst Workers Party

At present, “public opinion” is running heavily against Sarkozy. Three-quarters of the population is opposed to the pension “reform” and 54 percent said they wanted “the unions to organize a general strike as in 1995” to force the government to back down. On October 13, Le Monde headlined an article on its web site, “What’s needed is an insurrectional general strike,” quoting a retired woman trade-unionist. One recently publicized survey reported that a quarter of French youth agree that “it’s necessary to radically change the social order by revolutionary action” (up from 6 percent in 1990). So the “radicalization” of the struggle is not simply in terms of tactics. In the face of the most severe capitalist economic crisis since the 1930s – a new Depression, in fact – and the evident impotence of the usual trade-union protests, we are seeing renewed receptivity to calls for class struggle and even revolutionary agitation. This is what the ruling class and its labor lieutenants are deathly afraid of in the battle over pensions.

It will take more than massive strikes “like in 1995” to bring Sarkozy to his knees. In December of that year, a series of millions-strong mobilizations of public sector workers along with continuing walkouts by rail, metro, postal, gas, telephone and other public workers, brought France to the brink of a general strike. But the union tops were afraid to call it. Eventually, Prime Minister Alain Juppé dropped his “reform” of public sector pensions (which would raise the number of years service to 40) but not his attack on social security, which has led to years of cuts in France’s public health system. With its chants of “tous ensemble”  (all out together), the 1995 struggle infused new spirit in a trade-union movement shaken by counterrevolution in the Soviet Union and East Europe. But it did not provide a revolutionary program to combat the bourgeois offensive. In 2003, Chirac was able to push through the rest of the Juppé Plan on public sector pensions, aided by the defection of the leadership of the CFDT union federation.

If 1995 doesn’t provide a model, no one in France, least of all government and trade-union leaders, can help recalling 1968 – particularly since the entry of large numbers of student youth onto the scene. Last week, as high-school protests spread, Olivier Besancenot, the young postal worker who ran for president on the ticket of the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire and is now (since the LCR dissolved) the main spokesman for the “New Anti-Capitalist Party” (NPA), issued a statement calling “For a New May ’68.” The reference to the 1968 student-worker revolt that brought France to the brink of revolution and sent shock waves around the world produced a chorus of yelps from supporters of the conservative government. But while the so-called “far left” races to catch up with the student-youth protesters, there are problems with this call. First and foremost, the pro-capitalist union bureaucracy stands in the way of any serious radicalization of the struggle. They’re looking for the exit, for a way out without losing face.

Many union leaders are privately worrying to the press about the participation of youth. Libération (16 October) quoted the head of one labor federation saying, “It’s a real pain to manage the youth … it will take some time to separate them.” A CGT leader remarked, “We didn’t ask them to come out,” but said it’s probably better they are there, while worrying about “security.” Another union leader complained of “things getting out of hand and the violence discrediting the movement, turning off public opinion.” And the more right-wing union tops, notably of the CFDT and UNSA, have hinted that once the law is passed by the Senate, “other forms of action” will be called for – “in other words, the end of the movement,” as Le Monde (17 October) put it. They may hesitate to break ranks; Jean-Claude Mailly of Force Ouvrière may invite youth into FO contingents; Bernard Thibault of the CGT and François Chérèque of the CFDT may do their unity dance; but ultimately the union bureaucracy will bow to the pressure of the bourgeoisie, for they are all committed to working in the framework of capitalism.

Students join with workers outside Renault auto factory at Billancourt, 17 May 1968.
(Photo: AP)

Meanwhile, the once-upon-a-time far left that came out of May ’68 has long-since become thoroughly reformist. In the recent protests, groups like Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Struggle) and the NPA did not initially call for a general strike (LO still doesn’t), but only for massive participation in the marches. As students joined in this month, one of their main chants was for a “general strike until the law is withdrawn.” So now the NPA and unions it influences (notably Sud-Rail, Sud-Éducation and the Solidaires union federation) are calling for “extendable strikes until victory.” But what do they mean by “victory,” withdrawal of the law, or just some changes? When they’re feeling pressure from the students, they sometimes call for an “extendable general strike” (grève générale reconductible). In other words, one that isn’t limited to a single day, which amounts to a big parade combined with work stoppages in places where the unions are strong. But to call a general strike without a clear objective, voting daily on whether to continue, is to ask for defeat. Like the bureaucrats’ endless “days of action,” it’s a pressure tactic.

The kind of tame parades that have taken place repeatedly in the last year in France, Spain and particularly Greece are hardly general strikes, which as Leon Trotsky pointed out, pose the question of who is the master of the house, which class shall rule? Naturally, the reformists and pro-capitalist union bureaucrats have no desire to raise the struggle to that level, because they have no intention of fighting for power, for workers revolution. Thus everyone from the union tops to the “anti-capitalist” left are dead-set opposed to a real general strike, which they dismiss as “unrealistic,” “dreaming” (a “rêve générale,” a general dream) and the like. But the reformist ex-“far left” is caught in a bind: they are afraid to raise slogans too far out in front of what the CGT-FO-CFDT-UNSA union tops find acceptable, yet if they lag too far behind the students, they risk losing their potential recruits. So they try to find somewhere in between.

That hardly amounts to revolutionary leadership that can prepare people for the struggle that is posed. Instead, these tailist politics will “lead” protesters into a dead end. Even the bourgeois press knows perfectly well what should be, and isn’t being, done. An editorial in Libération (14 October) referred to the “phony strike,” pointing out that the union leaders are fighting against a bill but not calling for it to be withdrawn, that while the marches are huge the actual strikes are limited to a few sectors, not including some of the historically most militant. “One could imagine a ‘proxy’ strike, led by a minority but valiant vanguard” (meaning, militants could set up strike pickets that other workers would not cross). “Rail workers are ready, on paper, to open the way by blocking the rails. But they are not candidates to be kamikazes for the social movement.” (Rail workers are mainly organized in the CGT, influenced but no longer tightly controlled by the Communist Party, and the “far left” SUD-Rail.)

For this struggle to win a real and lasting victory, it is necessary to raise not just vague “anti-capitalist” demands but to put forward a transitional program leading toward socialist revolution. A serious struggle for a real general strike would call for the formation of elected strike committees, as a way to wrest control from the pro-capitalist union bureaucrats. Because of the division of the union movement into several competing labor federations, serious strikes often produce joint coordinating committees on the local or regional level. At the time of the last big truckers strike, Le Monde (5 November 1997) noted that in 1992, “the unions lost control of the movement to spontaneous coordinating committees and ‘jusque’au-boutists’” (those who want to “go all the way”). Strike committees elected by the ranks of all the federations as well as non-members would also be a real step toward industrial unionism.

To strengthen ties between labor and youth and mobilize the heavily immigrant working-class banlieues (suburbs), class-struggle trade-unionists should fight not only to stop the pension “reform” law, but also for a drastically shortened workweek, at no loss in pay, to provide jobs for all. They should fight the explosion of temporary jobs and “disposable” workers by demanding job security and equal rights for all workers, from the moment they begin working. And they should mobilize union power to demand an end to expulsions of the Roms; to block the destruction of their camps, including with workers defense guards; and to demand freedom of travel and full citizenship rights for all immigrants. A number of leaders of the CGT, CFDT and FO union federations as well as spokesmen for the NPA have signed a “citizens appeal” in defense of the Roms (which, however, upholds “republican security” and the “necessary respect for public order”). Yet on October 12, the same day that the National Assembly voted the racist Bresson immigration and nationality law , this was hardly (if at all) mentioned by the various union and far left groups in their leaflets and signs in the protest over the pension law.

A Libération article talked of elements of a “pre-revolutionary situation” today, and a quote from Lenin on the role of the youth in revolution was highlighted. But when a reformist like Besancenot of the NPA talks of a “new ’68,” in good part he is engaging in the old French sport of “épater le bourgeois” (throwing a scare into the bourgeoisie), as Baudelaire put it. In contrast, the former soixantehuitard (68er) Daniel Cohn-Bendit dumped cold water on talk of a new ’68, or even a general strike. Instead, “Danny the Green,” now a respectable deputy in the European parliament, called on the unions to organize “a Grenelle together with the left.” (In 1968, the Grenelle Agreement between the union tops and De Gaulle’s prime minister George Pompidou was massively rejected by the striking workers!) May 1968, when students joined with up to ten million workers in a general strike which went on for more than two weeks, is definitely a point of reference. The situation today is different in many ways, particularly coming in the middle of a deep capitalist economic crisis. But this only heightens the revolutionary potential. The real problem with this call is that May ’68 was defeated. The reformist Communist Party clambered on board the general strike, which it didnt call and didnt want, in order to put an end to the agitation, and the “far left” did not have the revolutionary program to fight them.

In 1968, rather than agitating for workers control and occupation of factories throughout the country, as Trotsky called for in the mid-1930s and as had already begun in mid-May, Ernest Mandel and his followers in the JCR (Revolutionary Communist Youth) joined with left social democrats in calling for “anti-capitalist structural reforms” and “self-management.” Other pseudo-Trotskyists such as the followers of Pierre Lambert abandoned the barricades at the height of struggle, and Lutte Ouvrière limited itself to the same-old, same-old of factory-based struggles, while lambasting students for “fighting in the streets”! (Today, LO’s main banner reads, “What a Parliament Decides Can Be Reversed in the Streets.” Yes, but how?) A genuinely communist leadership would be calling for a defensive general strike against the Sarkozy government’s attack while putting forward the perspective “a new May ’68 that goes all the way” to a struggle for power, for workers revolution. And key to that struggle is forging an authentically Leninist-Trotskyist workers party.

To contact the Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International, send e-mail to: internationalistgroup@msn.com