The following article appears in Proletarian Revolution No. 83 (Fall 2010).
A version of this report was written in late October for Revolutionary Transit Worker. Since then the pension “reform” law has been passed by the French Senate, and the strike momentum has been slowed, thanks to the efforts of the pro-capitalist union leaders. But the report’s insights into the strengths and weakness of the struggle, as well as its strategic conclusions, remain valid.
For almost two months, millions of French workers and youth have been rising up against government attacks on their state retirement benefits. The conservative capitalist president, Nicolas Sarkozy and his ruling party, the UMP, are adopting a law to raise the retirement age and otherwise reduce pension rights.
The French capitalists and their parties mounted similar attacks before, in 1995, 2005 and 2006. Massive strikes and worker and youth uprisings pushed the government part-way back. The current struggle, however, is the most massive and powerful working-class and youth revolt in any economically advanced country since the great French general strike of 1968. On six separate “Days of Action,” from September 7 through October 19, workers shut down most major government and private-sector workplaces. Three million or more marched in protest in big and medium-size cities and even small towns.
Between the Days of Action, called by the six main labor union federations, strikes and pickets continued in several industries. Postal workers, dockworkers, oil refinery and depot workers, railroad workers, bus and subway workers, some auto manufacturing workers – all these categories and more were on strike, sometimes at the same time. Truck drivers carried out “Opérations Escargot” (snail-paced driving) on the main highways, keeping traffic at a crawl. The oil workers strike and pickets so effectively cut supplies that over a quarter of gas stations all over the country had little gasoline and no diesel fuel. The riot police broke up the picket line at a few major refineries. No use: No shipments went in or out, and dozens of tanker ships anchored offshore, waiting.
With every day, new sectors of workers went into struggle, and those already fighting became “radicalized,” as worried pro-capitalist journalists say. From the first week of October, high school students and other youth joined the fight. Their pickets shut down almost a quarter of the high schools in the country. In the immigrant suburbs of Paris and other cities, thousands of young people of Black African, Caribbean and Northern African background bravely fought the viciously racist CRS (national riot police).
The workers’ and youth movement caused great inconvenience for most of the population: on many days no subway, no gas for their cars, no motion on the roads, interruptions in food supply, center cities locked down by mass marches. And yet every opinion poll showed that between 59 and 70 percent of the population supported the workers’ movement.
That’s because other workers and many middle-class people understand that the workers’ struggle is for their interests, too. They see that job productivity has more than doubled in the past 40 years, allowing the same number of workers to produce the same amount of goods in half the time. Logically, workers should be able to retire much earlier than before! The young people see that if the current workforce has to work longer, fewer jobs will open up for them – at a time of high youth unemployment, especially for Black and Arab-background youth.
The French workers and middle class see the arrogant President Sarkozy standing above them, sending out regiments of cops against workers, while shoveling hundreds of billions of euros to the bankers and insurance company executives who caused the economic depression. They see Sarkozy’s Labor Minister Woerth lecturing the workers on sacrifice. That’s the guy who got the billionaire chairwoman of the giant L’Oréal cosmetics company to hire his wife – while he decided on L’Oréal’s taxes. Sarkozy says that the law has already passed, so everyone should just give up. But the workers know that “What parliament passes, the street can overturn!” French working people are saying, “Enough! Don’t make workers pay for the bosses’ crisis!”
Workers are increasingly calling for an indefinite general strike: that is, everyone go out at once, and stay out till the government completely withdraws its pension “reform.” General Assemblies of workers’ delegates from one or several industries in various cities are meeting to plan and vote democratically on the next steps.
Unfortunately, labor union leaders in France, like those in the U.S., don’t want militant mass struggle against the bosses. They want a “place at the table” with the employers and politicians. There are big political parties in France which call themselves Socialist, Communist, Left or Anti-Capitalist. The leaders of these parties and the unions close to them have either already voted for parts of the pension “reform” (Socialist Party, CFDT unions), or are begging Sarkozy for more negotiations (Communist Party, CGT unions), or talk radical while tailing behind the others (New Anti-capitalist Party, SUD-Solidaire unions.)
These misleaders called for two more Days of Action, on October 28 and November 6 (a Saturday!), instead of one big general strike. They wore the workers out in one-shot actions, while the bosses waited them out. The union bureaucrats ignored the democratic decisions of the General Assemblies and decided the next steps in top-level union leadership meetings. And when the workers and youth had to defend their marches and pickets from police attacks, the top union leaders often disappeared or told the workers to disperse. They secretly met with government ministers to reassure them that they could end the movement. Over the last week, the bureaucrats repeatedly announced that the movement was petering out, in a self-fulfilling prediction, and said that the workers had “made their point:” it was time to take the fight to another level, i.e., the coming elections. Disgusted workers started returning to work.
If U.S. workers did one-tenth of what French workers have done, it would be a big step forward for us. Because French workers and youth are so militant, they force their bureaucratic misleaders to act – and pretend – more militantly. But French workers need a new strategy and a new leadership, as we do. The growing number of revolutionary-minded French workers can start by pushing in every union, every meeting, picket and demonstration for a general strike. They can elect General Assemblies in each city and a national General Assembly to wage the general strike. They can organize picket lines so formidable and well-defended that the CRS and Gendarmes will lose any confrontations. This is the bare bones of a strategy to defeat the bosses’ pension reform.
But the bosses, in France and elsewhere, will return to the offensive after licking their wounds. They have to: the capitalist system is in deep and irreversible crisis. No matter how high productivity rises, profits fall. The capitalists can only – temporarily – arrest this fall in profits by laying off masses of workers and making the rest work harder and longer, and for less. When the workers protest, especially workers of color, the capitalists send in their cops and soldiers. The capitalists can only use the huge technological gains of their own system to drive the working class and all toilers down. Only the working class can use those advances for the betterment of humanity – by overthrowing the capitalist system and the murderous capitalist state and replacing it with their own revolutionary workers’ state. That’s called socialist revolution, and it won’t happen spontaneously. Revolutionary-minded workers and youth must consciously build an organization which fights openly within every workers’ struggle for socialist revolution and sharply criticizes and challenges existing workers’ misleaders. That organization is the revolutionary party.
In France, there are a number of organizations which claim to be revolutionary socialist. In past years, they could print literature, march and occasionally strike together with their co-workers and maintain a reputation as revolutionaries. Now they are facing the test of hard class struggle. As we have said, many so-called socialist leaders are failing the test. The most advanced French workers and youth will draw the lessons of this struggle and cast aside their misleaders. We in the U.S. hope to help our sisters and brothers in France to build the workers’ communist party we need in France, the U.S. and everywhere.