BY DEREK JEFFERS
PARIS - "We have to see this through to the end. It's either them or us," said a striking worker from an airplane engine plant at a 70,000-strong demonstration in Paris protesting the government's plans to cut social welfare benefits.
The December 5 protest was part of a strike movement begun 12 days earlier against the government's planned "reform" of the social security system. An estimated 700,000 demonstrated across the country that day.
Like capitalist governments everywhere, Paris is attempting to cut deeply into the social wage. Under the banner of reducing the deficit and maintaining a strong currency, the rulers in France are moving to slash social benefits, lengthen the number of years before workers can retire, and cut jobs. And they are attempting to accomplish this rapidly, as they seek to catch up to their capitalist rivals abroad.
The rally in Paris took place despite the total absence of public transportation due to strikes. In freezing weather the demonstrators danced, chanted, sang, and shouted their demands. Wave after wave of striking rail, Metro, and postal workers and thousands of students poured into the demonstration. "We are more important than armaments," Arnaud, a 22-year-old student demanding more funding for the universities, told reporters.
Teachers and metal workers who were on strike for the day also joined the protest. Outside Paris 40,000 demonstrated in Bordeaux, and 30,000 rallied in Rouen, one- tenth of that city's population.
As of December 5, almost half of all telecommunications workers had joined the strike, along with workers in some 60 French hospitals, and increasing numbers of teachers.
In response to the workers' protests, Prime Minister Alain Juppé gave a major speech to the National Assembly reaffirming his reform plan. "France is at a crossroads between the road of reform and that of decline," he said. "That is why I will maintain my reform projects." The parliamentary majority gave a standing ovation.
At the same time Juppé offered to negotiate with the unions organizing the protest actions.
The General Confederation of Labor (CGT) and the Workers Force (FO) labor unions are backing the strike action. The French Confederation of Democratic Labor (CFDT) leadership has taken Juppé's proposal for talks as an opening to end the strikes and is urging workers to return to work.
Rail workers spearhead strike action
Rail workers have completely shut down rail transportation since November 24. Their special retirement system, which enables train crew workers to retire at age 50 after 25 years of service, is to be gutted under the "Juppé plan." Over decades of struggle, workers whose jobs carry a "particular risk or exceptional fatigue" have won special entitlements to retire earlier than age 60, which is the normal age when workers in France receive their pensions.
Rail workers spearhead strike action
A rail engineer at the deserted Saint Lazare train station in Paris explained to Militant reporters, "For those of us in our 30s, the only thing that keeps us going is retirement at age 50. And how are they going to hire any of the 3 million unemployed if we work until age 60?"
Currently, the entire French rail system is run by one state-owned company, the SNCF, employing 180,000 workers. The government plans to turn big hunks of it over to regional and local public authorities, who would likely privatize the system. Estimates are that 30,000 jobs will be cut.
Striking telecommunications workers are fighting against the government plan to put between 20 and 60 percent of France Télécom up for sale. Workers at the state-owned electric power company, EDF, are also fighting against privatization. Union officials report that over half of EDF workers were striking.
Workers in the Paris Metro system, who have shut down all subway and regional trains as well as most bus service, are also fighting to defend their pension system, as are postal workers in the mail sorting centers, who massively joined the strike wave November 30 and December 1.
Although the strike movement is centered among public workers, those in the private sector have also participated in demonstrations and protest strikes against Juppé's proposals to gut major features of the social security system. Truck drivers began to block highways December 4. Truckers are demanding not only the withdrawal of Juppé's plan, but the lowering of the retirement age for truck drivers from 60 to 55.
Students join action
Students are demanding 6,000 more teachers, 2,000 more university personnel and 4 billion francs (US$1=5francs) for students' educational needs. After meeting with representatives of the national student mobilizations December 3, Education Minister Francois Bayrou announced substantial concessions in an attempt to divide the students from striking workers.
Students join action
He promised 569 million francs in increased credits for the universities, 2 billion francs for building repairs and improved safety, and the hiring of 4,000 additional teachers and university personnel. During general assemblies at one campus after another, students voted to reject Bayrou's proposals and continue organizing the December 5 demonstrations with striking workers.
The massive strikes are seriously disrupting economic activity, particularly in the Paris region, which contains one-fifth of France's 58 million people and is heavily dependent on mass transportation. Many workers are simply unable to get to their jobs. Traffic jams have broken all records. Three to four hours commuting to and from work is not uncommon. Bicycle sales have skyrocketed.
The widening strikes here enjoy broad public support. An opinion poll published December 1 showed that, despite the enormous practical difficulties many workers and others face, 62 percent of people in France support the strikes. "The government hasn't explained anything," Frédéric Vivier, an accountant, told reporters. "I understand the strikers completely."
In an attempt to regain the initiative and win public support, the government announced December 3 that it was arranging for 1,700 private buses to begin transporting workers to and from the capital. The buses are free, but thus far have done very little to alleviate traffic jams.
The national leadership of striking students organized demonstrations throughout France No-vember 30 in support of their demands, mobilizing 160,000 high school and college students, according to the Agence France-Presse. In many cities rail workers joined the demonstrations, along with EDF strikers. Unemployed workers also figured prominently in many of the protests. While participation in the Paris action was limited to some 15,000 by transportation difficulties, many actions in the rest of the country were large - 30,000 marched in the southern city of Toulouse, for example.
Signs and slogans expressing, "Students, workers - solidarity!" dominated these actions. Other prominent slogans included, "French, Immigrants - Equal Rights!" and "Money for the campuses, not for Vigipirate!"
The Vigipirate plan, in effect since September 7, has mobilized 32,000 soldiers, riot police, regular cops, and customs officers to control and survey the population, particularly Arab immigrants. It has been an important factor in limiting immigrant participation in the demonstrations against the Juppé plan. The government maintains this is a necessity because of terrorist bombings that took place in France between July and November.
Unionists in France receive no strike pay. When workers strike, they quickly face difficulties paying off their mortgages and car loans. This gives a sense of urgency to the movement as workers quickly seek means to reinforce their struggle. In the current strikes, rail workers were instrumental in encouraging postal workers to take strike action by organizing delegations to fan out to different mail sorting centers.
All workers inspired
Rail workers are also organizing regular pickets to ensure that no trains move. Militant reporters witnessed one such action at the Saint Lazare train station as management tried to get a train moving. In the empty station, nine striking rail engineers stood on the track in front of the train, arguing with various supervisors who came to persuade them that they were merely "getting rust off the rails."
All workers inspired
After an hour-long confrontation, management backed off and shut the train down. Rail workers told Militant reporters that this was the fifth time that day they had to prevent a train from running. The workers hold general assemblies daily to vote on the continuation of the strike and organize actions.
In another blow to Prime Minister Juppé, Bordeaux, the city of which he is also mayor, was completely paralyzed December 4 by a strike of bus drivers, garbage collectors, and actions by truck drivers blocking the highways leading to the city.
Derek Jeffers is a member of the CGT at the GEC-Alsthom transformer plant in Saint Ouen.
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