BY MICHEL PRAIRIE
PARIS - "Winners (Rail Unions) and Losers (Juppé) in France" headlined the December 18 edition of the International Herald Tribune. That was the assessment of this big-business paper as tens of thousands of rail, bus and metro, gas, electricity, postal, and other government workers began returning to work after Prime Minister Alain Juppé backed down on some aspects of his attacks on workers' rights.
The rail workers have been the backbone of the protest movement. "All together we won," said a large banner at the entrance of the rail station in the southern city of Nice, in one of the many strike celebrations workers held before going back to work in organized and fighting contingents.
The protests, which have drawn in massive numbers from throughout society in the past two weeks, were spurred by Juppé's November 15 announcement of a package of austerity measures aimed at gutting the social security system, extending by two and a half years the retirement age for government employees, and privatizing sectors of the nationalized rail, gas, electricity, and telephone enterprises - likely to result in thousands of layoffs.
This sweeping attack blew up in the French rulers' faces. On November 24 rail workers joined students already on strike across the country demanding a substantial increase in the national university budget. They were followed over the next couple of weeks by millions of other government workers. Public transportation came to a grinding halt in France, especially in Paris.
Eight national days of protest have taken place called by three of the main trade union federations whose members were involved in the fight - the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), Workers' Force (FO), and the teachers' United Trade Union Federation (FSU). Working people began referring to the mobilizations as the "Juppéthon" because of the escalating number of participants. The last two protests went over the 2 million mark.
The officialdom of the French Confederation of Democratic Labor (CFDT) did not support the mobilizations, even though thousands of their members participated.
On December 10, Juppé announced he would indefinitely suspend his austerity plan for the railroads, maintain the current retirement system for public workers, and hold a tripartite "social summit" involving himself and top representatives of labor and the bosses. This summit will begin December 21 and is to center on youth unemployment and the reduction of the workweek. The "Juppé Plan" will not be on the agenda. The prime minister maintains that he will not back down on his overall goal of tearing up major portions of the social security system.
"Did we win?" a rail worker shouted to the crowd gathered for a victory celebration at the Austerlitz train station in Paris on Monday, December 18. "Yeah, a bit... no, a lot!" another shouted back.
That morning, some 60 rail workers at this station had successfully "negotiated" with the rail manager that 19 temporary conductors will become permanent as of January 1, and that the next 20 people to be hired will also get permanent jobs. Because of the strength of the workers' mobilizations, the nationalized rail company SNCF has agreed to negotiate paying workers for the days lost during the strike. Teachers will also be paid for the days they struck in December.
"The rail workers were the engine of the strike, carrying the others," said Eric Thomas. "The government gave us a bit to stop the engine." Catherine Pencolé' explained how the Austerlitz rail workers conducted their strike. "When we went out," she said, "we went to the postal workers nearby, the metro, the hospital, and the teachers. The students were already out. Then we saw we weren't alone. We went on talking to other public sector workers. So the [next] demonstration was bigger than the first one."
Many workers had a sober assessment of their victory, with Juppé still pressing for his plan to dismantle social security. "We couldn't continue without the private sector," stressed Claude Villard, in a reference to the fact that the strike wave didn't expand to workers in private industry. "Workers in both the public and private sectors have to take up the torch. If they come, we'll go on. We are still vigilant. Juppé is quiet now, but he is hiding something," Villard added.
Mario Nascimbene, of the CGT Federal Sector in the 13th Region, addressed the rail workers' meeting. "What you have won is huge," he said. "In 25 years rail workers haven't won such a victory." In response, Christine Boydenis, a young controller and CGT delegate, shouted back, "That's because you didn't have us!" referring to the many younger workers who have helped to lead the strikes.
This same determination and fighting spirit characterized the December 18 demonstration in Paris. According to the organizers, some 300,000 participated here, with more than 2 million altogether in various demonstrations held that day across the country.
"This is not a victory as long as the Juppé Plan is not withdrawn," said a driver from the Lilas subway center.
The huge demonstration was headed by a large contingent of rail workers with their drums, whistles, colorful banners, chants, and spectacular red emergency flares - the symbol of this struggle. They were followed by sizable groups of bus and subway workers, teachers, gas and electricity workers, and by student contingents. Also present were large groups of demonstrators defending the rights of the homeless and unemployed.
Hand-made placards, signs, and banners dominated the action, denouncing the Juppé Plan, unemployment, or simply capitalism. Some youth bore red flags with the portrait of Cuban revolutionary leader Ernesto Che Guevara. Others were dressed up with hats, masks, and clown costumes making a political statement against the French government.
Several times there was spontaneous singing of the "Internationale," the revolutionary song of the world working class.
Hundreds of people lined the route waving, watching the demonstration, and applauding the banners and the contingents. I was wearing a sign that read, "Worker from Quebec in solidarity," and heard again and again from the sidewalks, "Long live free Quebec."
At the end of the march, some of the biggest applause from the crowd went to international contingents from Britain, Belgium, and Germany.
Derek Jeffers from Paris and Pamela Holmes from London, contributed
to this article.
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