16 Oct 2010
France takes to the streets, eyewitness report here!
Richard Greenman from the Ecosocialist International Network reports from France
People ask me what’s it like living in France during these massive one-day
strikes and popular mobilizations against the conservative Sarkozy
government’s pension ‘reforms.’ These cuts would push the minimum retirement
age forward from age 60 to 62 and the minimum age for receiving full
benefits from 65 to 67. For details:
On the one hand, it is thrilling to see millions of citizens taking to the
streets as well as hundreds of thousands of workers striking in defense of
their hard-won social rights defying an increasingly reactionary government.
Indeed, what is most heartening is that the ‘troops’ seem to be more radical
than their official leaders, the union chiefs and Socialist Party
politicians. Recent polls showed the French public not only supports the
one-day strikes (which make life Hell for commuters and parents of
schoolchildren); nearly half are in favor of an open-ended general strike to
make the government yield -- a strategy advocated by the far-Left parties
like the *NPA *as well as by militant rank-and-file workers and local unions
who are chomping at the bit.
Once again I am reminded about what I love about France: a still-living
revolutionary tradition of popular mass mobilization and struggle that goes
back to the *sans-culottes *of 1789, the revolutions of 1830, 1848, and 1871
(the Paris Commune), the sit-down strikes of 1936, and in my own lifetime,
the nationwide student-worker uprising of May-June 1968 and the1995
nationwide strike of public employees that went ‘wildcat,’ paralyzed France
for two months (during which Parisians cheerfully commuted by bike and event
boat) and forced an earlier conservative government to withdrawn its
unpopular welfare ‘reforms.’ It’s also a great pleasure to see a nasty
right-wing s.o.b. like Sarkozy humiliated by millions of angry, jeering
citizens blocking the trains and taking over the streets.
On the other hand, I also have a disheartening feeling of *déjà vu. *Why?
Because the unions used the same dilatory tactics of spaced one-day work
public sector stoppages in 2009, and the government simply bided its time
until summer, when the French go on vacation, and rammed the cuts through
parliament late one August night. And this wasn’t the first time these
Indeed, ever since the runaway general strike of 1995, every time the French
have massively demonstrated and gone on national strikes in opposition to
government attacks on their labor and welfare rights (as in 2009, 2008 and
2003), the official leaders of the unions have imposed the delaying tactic
of spaced one-day national work-stoppages and demonstrations – marches and
counter-marches designed quite precisely to ‘demonstrate’ to the government
their ability to call out their troops (and thus presumably to reign them
in). These demonstrations are great for letting off steam, but inevitably
they run out of steam. Time is always on the side of the government and the
capitalists in the class struggle. The masses’ only strength is in numbers
and resoluteness, and their most effective tactic, once they are mobilized,
is to stay mobilized, spread the movement to all sectors of the economy, go
for broke and paralyze the country until the bosses give in. As they did in
1936, 1968 and 1995.
The apparent purpose of the leadership’s military-style maneuvers is to make
a show of force and induce the government to invite the union leaders to a
round table -- thus recognizing their legitimacy as the official
representatives of labor. This plays out in the media through competition
over how many demonstrators went into the streets in each successive
demonstration. Social struggle reduced to sports statistics. The unions
count 3.5 million people, the police count less than half. The union leaders
go on TV and call it a success: the government says it is not impressed and
won’t budge. Then the politicians get into the act. With presidential
elections looming and Sarkozy’s popularity at an all-time low, the
Socialists, who in power also imposed neo-liberal cuts, grandstand their
support for the movement. They, too, have an interest in prolonging the
struggle against Sarkozy as they hope of reaping the results of his
unpopularity at the polls. Former Socialist presidential candidate Segolène
Royale encourages the youth, specifically high schoolers, to join the
demonstrations. The Right (which has been cutting back teachers like mad)
cries ‘scandal.’ Another political horserace.
The goal of the mass movement quite different. The strikers and
demonstrators sincerely want to use their mass power to force the government
to rescind the cuts, as the Chirac-Juppé government was forced to do in
1995, when rank-and-file assemblies ignored the unions’ cautious tactics and
took matters into their own hands. Those 1995 strikes got out of hand and
continued for two weeks until they achieved complete victory and the cuts
were rescinded. Paradoxically, this victory was a stinging defeat not just
for the government but also for the unions, who were de-legitimized as
responsible ‘social partners’ unable to control of their troops.
This is worrisome for the brass at the CGT, CDFT and other federations,
since only about 23% of French workers belong to unions, which are supported
not by dues but by government allocations. Since 1995, the unions have
tightened their control over the movement to prevent another wildcat
breakaway. And you can’t cynically turn mass enthusiasm and anger on and off
like a water tap without exhausting it, so such tactics inevitably spell
defeat for working people whose dream of retiring keeps receding into the
future while they remain on the treadmill.
Similar masses struggles are happening all over Europe, where the same
neo-liberal cutbacks are being imposed in the name of paying ‘the debt’
(created by bailing out the banks). Yet here again, the Left politicians and
union leaders, far from seeking strength through international solidarity,
remain staunchly isolated within their national boundries, despite the
obvious fact that the European Union has created a common economic zone! But
the unions and left parties depend for their ‘franchise’ on the national
state, which subsidizes them directly.
One hopes the French people, who are always full of surprises, will find
some way out of this impasse in which their ‘representatives’ – the union
leaders and the official left parties – are apparently their worst enemies.
Hugs to all,
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