The Militant (logo)  
   Vol. 67/No. 19           June 9, 2003  
France: workers protest
attacks on pensions
(front page)
MARSEILLE, France—Hundreds of thousands of workers demonstrated in Paris, Marseille, and other French cities May 25 to protest moves by the employers and the government to attack retirement pensions. Over the following two days, hospital workers and air traffic controllers went on strike.

These actions were part of a series of labor protests that have taken place in recent weeks, led by public employees who are facing the brunt of the French rulers’ drive against workers’ social wage. On May 13, more than one million workers demonstrated and many state employees walked off the job in cities throughout the country. Six days later, 400,000 workers joined demonstrations. Many teachers have been on strike since May 14. Union officials have threatened further nationwide strikes.

The angry mood of the demonstrators and the size of the mobilizations, the largest since the Chirac-Raffarin government took office a year ago, registered the desire by many workers to wage a fight in defense of their social gains.

In pressing their assault, however, the French employers are taking advantage of the class-collaborationist “national unity” course of the union officialdom and virtually all the parties in the workers movement, which backed bourgeois politician Jacques Chirac in last year’s presidential elections. Deepening that capitulation, those forces supported the anti-American, French nationalist stance of the Chirac government in its interimperialist conflict with Washington and London over control of Iraq and the Mideast oil wealth.

At the May 13 demonstration in Marseilles, dock workers, sailors, naval maintenance workers, and port authority employees joined in what one unionist said was the largest action on the docks since the 1995 strikes against a previous government assault on pensions. The port workers formed a 1,000-strong feeder march on the waterfront and marched to the assembly point in central Marseille. There they joined 100,000 other protesters, including steelworkers from Sollac, laid-off coal miners from Gardanne, postal workers, and rail workers.

The largest contingent came from public school employees. The government had just announced that 100,000 non-teaching staff will be transferred from the national system to local and regional administration, threatening their benefits and job security. Many of the banners and leaflets in this contingent, often hand-made, called on both state employees and workers at privately owned companies to join in a general strike against the attacks on the retirement system and other social benefits.

“Raffarin said on TV that the streets don’t rule the country, but in fact we do have the power to change government policies and stop their attack on our retirement pensions,” said Frédéric Romanetti, 26, a machinist at the SNCM naval repair and maintenance yards in Marseilles. “I was glad to see that the subway workers and teachers continued their strikes. We need to go out all together.”

Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin is proposing a “pension reform” that, over time, would make workers labor for 42 years in order to receive full benefits. Today, public employees must work 37.5 years, and workers at private companies 40 years, in order to retire with full benefits at age 60.

Some workers, including railroad workers, have early retirement programs allowing them to receive benefits starting at age 55 or in some cases 50, a gain the government has not yet attacked directly.

In 1995, similar plans to undermine the pension system sparked a wave of transportation strikes and other mass protests that forced the government of Chirac and then-prime minister Alain Juppé to back off.

But the worldwide capitalist economic decline—fueling competition between Paris, London, Berlin, Washington, and other imperialist powers—continues to push the French bosses to go after workers’ jobs, wages, and social benefits.

Statistics for the first quarter of this year show the economies of Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands shrank, and the entire 12-nation “euro zone” experienced zero growth. Germany is officially in a recession and other European capitalist countries are not far behind. Alongside this, the U.S. dollar has dropped in value by almost one third relative to the euro, sharply increasing the competitiveness of U.S. exports to the disadvantage of capitalists in Europe.

Raffarin has announced tighter austerity measures including a total freeze in spending by government ministries. The renewed attack on pensions is at the heart of these measures.

Working-class resistance to these measures has been hamstrung, however, by the labor misleadership. One year ago the French Communist Party, Socialist Party, and centrist groups such as the Revolutionary Communist League advocated a vote in the second round of the presidential elections for Jacques Chirac of the rightist Gaullist party, who outpolled ultrarightist politician Jean-Marie Le Pen. The lesser-evil argument for this wholesale capitulation was to “unite to defeat Le Pen” and “stop fascism.”

Over the past year, these forces have backed the French nationalist stance of the Chirac government in its opposition to Washington and London’s attacks on Paris’s imperialist interests in Iraq and elsewhere in the world. This course has allowed the French government to step up its attacks on workers’ rights at home, such as the Vigipirate “antiterrorist” program.

Vigipirate is the name given to measures the French rulers took in the mid-1980’s to beef up the police force with military personnel. Seizing on a series of bombings in Morocco, the Raffarin government recently strengthened Vigipirate, putting additional police and military forces onto the streets and other public places.

The French Communist Party (CP) and the CGT union federation have also vociferously joined the imperialist-promoted campaign to attack Cuba by falsely alleging human rights violations there. “The Communist Party condemns with the greatest firmness the repression carried out against Cuban dissidents,” read an April 8 statement from the French CP. “We demand that France and the European Union take action” to press Cuba around this question.

In this framework of “national consensus,” the officials of the various union federations have repeatedly stated that they accept the arguments of the government and the bosses’ association MEDEF that the pension system is “in trouble” and that an aging work force makes “reform of the system” necessary. They have argued for a “true reform,” with the employers “sharing” the burden “fairly.”

Two days after the May 13 demonstration, one of the union federations, the Socialist Party-led CFDT, broke ranks and signed an agreement with the government granting some minor concessions. The CGT and FO federations and the teachers union have continued their demand that the government “reopen negotiations” on the pension system.

Not all workers accept the government’s argument of an “age crunch” to justify the assault on retirement pensions. Akim Abdoul-Galil, a merchant seaman and on-ship engine mechanic at the SNCM, a state-owned French navigating company, insisted that “future generations need to have a decent retirement.” He told the Militant, “If people are living longer because of medical progress, then it should benefit workers and retirees—not be used against them. The government is trying to push back our social rights 60 years. They are aiming at our health-care system and want to turn welfare into workfare.”

Nat London is a retired auto worker in Paris. Marc Kinzel, a mechanic at the SNCM naval repair and maintenance shipyards in Marseilles and member of the CGT, and Jacques Salfati and Claude Bleton in Paris contributed to this article.  
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