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From The Socialist newspaper, 22 November 2007

France: massive public sector workers' strike

Test of strength between Sarkozy and trade unions

MOBILISED TO defend public-sector jobs and pay, hundreds of thousands of workers went on strike in France on Tuesday 20 November.

Karl Debbaut, Committee for a Workers' International (CWI)

This brought together teachers, hospital staff, postal workers and public servants with the ongoing national strike of train drivers and transport staff of the Paris Metro. The latter entered their seventh strike day in protest against the government's plans to cut their pension rights and lengthen the time they would have to work before being allowed to retire.

Meanwhile, a student movement is developing against laws that would allow universities to attract private investors and set their own fees. Over 30 universities have been occupied by students and now also the school students are joining this movement.

The French president Nicolas Sarkozy made 'reform' of public services a key policy in his election campaign and wants to show he will succeed where governments before him have failed. He wants to introduce neo-liberal reforms in education, opening up university funding to the private sector, slash the number of workers in the public sector and attack pension rights.

One of his slogans during the April/May 2007 presidential campaign was "work harder to earn more". However, the reality of the Sarkozy programme is that in 2008, 23,000 public sector workers are set to lose their job. And even Eric Woerth, the minister for Budget and the civil service, has had to admit that "civil servants do not always earn enough to make ends meet".

Opinion polls have repeatedly shown that the rising cost of living is the issue that French people are most worried about.

Union leaders

This strike movement is the first big test for the French government of Fillon and the Sarkozy presidency. "Super Sarko" is so worried that he has not made any public statements since last week out of fear of being a recruiting sergeant for the strikers.

The CGT trade union leaders underestimated the resolve of the trade union activists when they announced that they would be prepared to negotiate about the government's plans for the transport workers. They agreed not to have national negotiations but to negotiate with local management and achieve separate agreements according to the region and sector.

The workers saw this, quite rightly, as a manoeuvre to end the strike and accept the governments' proposals. The reaction of the workers was to turn out to their general assemblies, strengthen the strike and put pressure on the trade union leadership.

According to the leader of Force Ouvriere (one of the smaller trade union federations) the general assemblies on Monday 19 November were bigger than those on the previous Friday. 96% of the participants in the general assemblies of the railway workers voted to continue the strike, defying the plans of the trade union leadership.

The trade union leaders and the government will start national negotiations on 21 November. This strike movement against the Sarkozy government is only a first step in a struggle to defend social security, jobs and pension rights under permanent threat from mainstream politicians who want to break up what remains of France's welfare state.

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In The Socialist 22 November 2007:

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