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Vol. 74/No. 43      November 15, 2010

French gov’t passes
retirement age hike
Workers anticipate more attacks
(lead article)
PARIS—Claiming a victory for “the French people,” President Nicolas Sarkozy welcomed the adoption of the government’s anti-working class pension “reform” by both houses of parliament October 27.

The government and union leaders alike were startled when millions of workers took to the streets in recent weeks to oppose the proposal to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 for those who have worked 41.5 years. Those who have less time working will have to wait until they are 67 to get benefits. Besides hiking the retirement age, the new law includes a 2.7 percent increase in the retirement payroll tax for government employees, effectively a 2.7 percent wage cut.

Dock laborers, rail workers, garbage handlers, those in oil refineries, and others struck for weeks against government moves. Seven separate days of actions were called, which involved strikes by many workers who had never taken such action before.

Millions of workers took part in hundreds of demonstrations. They were joined by students and youth of Arab descent impacted by 50 percent unemployment. A 33-day walkout at Fos-Lavera—the world’s third largest oil terminal and port, near Marseille—and blockades of some 20 fuel depots were at the center of the opposition to the government’s measures.

The day after parliament approved the retirement law, hundreds of thousands of workers again went on strike October 28, with demonstrations in 269 cities. According to police estimates, 560,000 took part in those marches, the smallest day of action to date.

On October 29 workers voted to return to work at the last of the 12 oil refineries that had been shut down by strikes. Workers at Fos-Lavera, who had been on strike against both the retirement law and substantial changes in their work conditions, also voted to go back to work after port authorities made some concessions. Their strike had left 82 boats, including 38 oil tankers, stranded, many for weeks.

The government stood firm in the face of workers’ opposition. It ordered aggressive police action by specialized riot police to clear the blockaded fuel depots, and issued a legally binding order to striking refinery workers at Grandpuits, near Paris, to return to work. “If France had retreated from reforming [the retirement system] in the midst of social protests, this would have put it in a difficult position on the financial markets,” said Economy Minister Christine Lagarde.  
Attacks on workers’ social wage
Through massive class battles over decades, workers in France have established a social wage that they consider their right. Previous attempts to cut it have been repelled by strikes and protests, like in 1995 against the plan put forward by Socialist Party prime minister Alain Juppé. Many workers are assessing what is different this time around.

France has the second largest economy in Europe after Germany, and is a nuclear power with a significant military. To continue competing with its imperialist rivals, the French rulers must offload the effects of the economic crisis onto the backs of working people. France spends proportionately more on pensions and health than any other European country and faces an 8.2 percent budget deficit this year.

The government has been emboldened by the signals it received from trade union leaders. In negotiations at the Elysée Palace, union leaders indicated that they “understood the pensions quandary” and were “prepared for the usual French face-saving social kabuki: after some pre-planned tactical retreats, a bit of symbolic give and take on implementation, a few exceptions made for women and manual labourers, the bill would have been accepted,” reported the Daily Telegraph.

Instead, workers fed up with making concessions pushed union officials into sanctioning actions that went way beyond their intentions. Socialist Party leaders gave support to the protests in an effort to make gains in the 2012 presidential and legislative elections. But the SP endorses the government’s main arguments, while offering schemes to raise taxes and make workers stay on the job longer in hopes of eventually rolling back the retirement age to 60.  
‘Pensions not final attack’
Strikers at the Grandpuits refinery told Militant reporters that governments across Europe are today cutting payments on pensions, health, and welfare. “We had to stand firm on the pensions because we know it’s not the final attack,” said Rodolfe Avice. Many unionists here point out that actions taken by top union officials after the large October 19 strikes and demonstrations were aimed at limiting the strike movement. The next large action was delayed for nine days, and the joint statement by union leaders calling the October 28 mobilizations made no mention of support to ongoing strikes in the refineries, on the railroads, and elsewhere.

Véronique Letourmy, 34, an assembly line worker for the past six years at the Peugeot auto plant in Poissy, near Paris, participated in two strike days for the first time in her life. She explained how the anti-working class measures of the government fall especially hard on women. “When we are off work to have a child, none of that time counts fully towards a pension,” she said.

Unions have urged Sarkozy to not sign the bill and have called for demonstrations November 6.
Related articles:
France: Refinery strikers win solidarity  
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