On the Recent Workers’ Protests in France (Dessaux)

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Interview de Nicolas Dessaux, membre d’Initiative Communiste-Ouvrière et collaborateur de la Bataille socialiste, paru dans Forward, mensuel en anglais du Parti communiste-ouvrier d’Irak (N° de décembre 2010):

Nicolas Dessaux has been active since 2003 organising “Solidarité Irak”, a French association in support of the workers’ and women’s movements in Iraq. Nico has translated hundreds of pages of material, including some major texts from Mansoor Hekmat and published a book of interviews with WCPI comrades, in French, Greek and Turkish. He’s a member of Worker-communist Initiative, a group of Workercommunist activists in French-speaking Europe.

Q: Millions of workers have participated in protests which have been going on for weeks in France, mainly against an attempt by Sarkozy’s right wing  government to raise the legal pension age from 60 to 62. What is the background to this struggle? Is it this one measure by the government that has caused so much anger? Or is the pension age issue part of a wider attack on the gains of the working class? Are workers raising any other demands?

Nico: Up to 3.5 million workers demonstrated on one day in France. Demonstrations were organised in every city, including small towns which have not been active for decades. It all started two years ago with a demonstration every six weeks. But in September this year the movement accelerated, with strikes in many branches of industry and across many different types of enterprise. Right now the strike movement has slowed down. But there is another demonstration day due to take place soon. And the campaign of road blockades organised by local unions and/or general assemblies – to inflict economic damage on the capitalist class – is still happening.

The move to raise the retirement age is part of a wider plan to attack every right won by the working class over the past few decades. This plan was agreed to at European Union level and applies to every country in the EU, but implementation has been left to each government to work out. Sarkozy decided to confront the working class head on with a program of so-called
“reforms”, among which retirement is only one aspect, but a very sensitive one for workers. The policy itself was announced two years ago and since this time union leaders have been negotiating with the government. When it was clear that negotiations were going nowhere Sarkozy decided to have the law rushed through parliament. That’s why the movement suddenly grew… from demonstrations, to strikes, to road blockades and other forms of direct action.

Officially, the leaders of every union except two more or less went along with Sarkozy’s plan to raise the pension age. They did not demand it be rejected. Instead, these unions opted for the slogan “a just and fair reform”. But amongst workers themselves, the demand for Sarkozy’s plan to be scrapped spread very naturally. Workers don’t take to manoeuvres like this. They are clear about what they want: no-one over 60 should be made to work.

Q: Which trade unions and parties led, participated in and/or supported these protests?

N: The “intersyndicale”, a panel of the seven unions (Solidaires, CGT, FO, CFDT, UNSA, CFTC, CGC) is playing a key role in the protest leadership: both in calling for national days of demonstrations and in organising them at the local level. But their local practices and level of radicalism varies from town to town, enterprise to enterprise. The current union landscape
in France is very complicated and fragmentary. To grasp what is going on it is necessary to understand as much about local history as national policy.

Traditionally the workers’ movement in France is led by unions and supported by political parties. For example, during demonstrations the march order is always unions first, then parties and associations. But every left party claims to support this movement, at least for electoral reasons. For example, the Socialist Party is always represented on demonstrations, but their leaders have the same views on retirement as the goverrment. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a likely presidential candidate for the Socialist Party, is the President of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Yet the law being opposed on these demonstrations is the IMF’s retirement policy!

Young people have also played a major part of the movement. From the first days of the strikes they came out from schools and universities and demonstrated, blockaded some schools and universities and fought with the police. They are angry about this law because they know that if mature aged people have to work until they are 62, unemployment amongst the young will be higher. Currently students are on holidays, but some are still very involved along with the workers. It will be interesting to see if student activism builds again after the holidays are over. It is significant that these young people are acting as a part of the working-class, demonstrating in support of workers’ issues, not just improvements to the education system as they have done in recent years. This is a sign of change.

Q: Tell us about some of the forms of protest adopted by workers?

N: The basic form is the demonstration. Generally workers demonstrate behind the banner of their union, or the union they favour if they’re not a member. As the movement grew individuals came out with their own banners, but this social movement was largely dominated by unions. Demonstrations involve large number of workers. On demonstration days there is also to a call to strike. This means that while the demonstrations have been large the actual action is much larger when you take into account all of those on strike, not all of whom attend the demos.

Ongoing strikes i.e. strikes lasting longer than the demonstration days, have been called in many sectors: oil refineries, port, rail, some chemical, metallurgy and other industrial enterprises, teachers, municipal workers etc. with varying success. Some of these strikes went for over a month and put the country under a partial fuel shortage, forcing the Sarkozy government to use cops to take over the refineries and get fuel to petrol stations. For now, refinery and port workers have ended their strikes, which is a bad thing for the movement as they were considered the most powerful pole. But it won’t stop the movement.

In most sectors, the percentage of strikers was low, due partly to the burden of wage cuts. So activists searched for other ways to inflict economic damages on the bourgeoisie. Road blockades, a tactic imported from Argentina and first used in France in 2003 is widely used. This is how it works: a group of 100 to 150 workers go to the middle of the road in a major economic centre and stop or slow all cars and trucks. Because this happened every morning, in every town, it disorganized production and cost the capitalists hundreds of millions of euros. For sure, it means every morning we face the cops. The practice is to withdraw when the police become too aggressive, to avoid arrests and trials. The blockade is the most common feature of the current movement.

Train blocking is also a popular tactic: one which can be set up with the help of striking railway workers. Electricity workers have also cut the power supply to selected places for a few hours in order to inflict economic damage and to enable them to speak with workers who are on standby during the blackouts.

Q: What are the main obstacles workers face in their fight against the government’s attack?

N: Firstly, the question of wages, first. In France there’s no tradition of wages being paid by unions, or well organised strike funds, so people lose their wages when they go on strike. This is an old debate: in most European countries wages are paid by unions during strikes. But the practice has led some unions to refuse strike action: it makes people afraid of going out for long. It has been a real problem as polls show 71 per cent of people living in France support the movement, but they do tend to “delegate” other sectors to go on strike for them. This issue of the “delegation strike” has been happening since 1995 and is a major obstacle for the working class movement. Fortunately the refinery workers gave large sums in solidarity and this success has helped to ease the problem.

The second problem is the level of police repression. The movement suffered attacks by the police from its very first days. Students have been arrested and put on trial in their hundreds, worker activists has been arrested, some demonstrations turned into riots and special police units were called in by the government to attack people. Every day police threaten road barricaders, using the latest anti-riot equipment. Currently workers in France have no means of defending themselves against a government which trains its police for urban guerrilla activities and civil war.

Q: What does the wider population feel about the government’s plan and the workers’ protests?

N: Day after day, the movement has become more popular. The government plan to seduce people, arguing that raising the retirement age to 62 was the only way to save pensions, failed. 71% of people support the movement. I saw this every day. For example during road blockades very few people seemed angry to be blocked (even if it meant staying put in their cars and trucks for hours) out of sympathy. More generally, most workers are angry about the Sarkozy government’s policy, its attacks against workers’ gains, its oppressive methods and its racism against migrants and gypsies. Retirement is one aspect of workers’ anger, a spark in the situation, but not the only reason for this large movement.

Q: Is there an understanding of the importance of international support among the protest leaders, as protesting workers are deprived of their wages which may limit their ability to strike for long periods? Do the leaders of the labour movement have a clear alternative to face the current attack by the rightwing government aimed at lowering the living standards of the working class?

N: No there is not. This aspect has barely been mentioned by trade union leaders, for the reason they are themselves afraid of the way the movement has evolved. We still do not know how they succeeded in stopping the strike in the refineries and the ports, but it is clear they were afraid of the results of the strike. The union leaders have a big problem: since WWII and, more particularly, since the “socialist” government in 1981, they have been negotiating everything with the government. The union bureaucracy receives a lot of money from the State. In fact the government has begun to rely on these people to prevent workers from being successful. But Sarkozy has more or less refused to negotiate, which puts trade unions leaders, even the most moderate, in a new situation. They had to demonstrate their ability to mobilize workers, without at the same time losing control of the strikes. With the road blockades and the involvement of students they started to lose that control so they have to look for new ways to slow down the movement.

Q: What is the role of the communists and socialists in this struggle?

N: It depends on how you define socialist and communist, for sure. There are parties under those names which are no longer working class parties, even if they are still nominally controlled by trade unions. There are other leftist parties which play a real role in the struggle, but rather as networks of local union leaders and not as a communist party in the sense that we accept. The situation is not taking place with a political vacuum on the left.. There are numerous leftist parties, even if none of them fits what we consider to be a workercommunist party.

The meaning of the struggle is by itself communist, as it’s clearly against wage-slavery. If people refuse to work longer, it is because they dislike their conditions of work, the situation facing older workers and unemployment. In France, socialists and communists are welcome, workers consider their ideas with sympathy. But the notion that socialism is possible, that socialism can be achieved, does not seem to be on the agenda. Our task, as communists, is to raise this idea.

Q: These protest movements, regardless of their size, will die down unless there is a worker-communist party which can put this struggle in its class context and lead the working class toward final victory. Is there a hope of such a party emerging from the current situation? What are the plans of the WC Initiative? Are these protests an opportunity for the WC Initiative to introduce itself to the working class, connect with communist leaders of these protest, provide an alternative and ultimately build a party for the entire country?

N: Worker-communist Initiative is very new, as we started discussions with a group of worker-communist sympathisers a few months ago, only launching it officially in August. So our ability to influence the movement is still low. At least we’re able to connect with groups of workers in various towns, and play a role in the movement in the towns where we have already activists. Now we plan to put a draft programme before the workers’ groups, to discuss our demands, meet them and link with them. So, without exaggerating the importance of what we did, I think we have at least achieved the first step in establishing worker-communism here. This is the first step towards a worker-communist party in Europe .

 

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Une Réponse to “On the Recent Workers’ Protests in France (Dessaux)”

  1. mondialiste Says:

     » . . . unless there is a worker-communist party which can put this struggle in its class context and lead the working class toward final victory » The last part of this seems rather Leninist to me.

    J'aime

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