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France: 24-hour general strike in the making
A NEW wave of militancy is sweeping France as school students and workers take action against the attacks of the right-wing Raffarin government.
A general strike has been called in defence of the 35-hour working week on 10 March. Karl Debbaut reports.
THE THREE main French trade union confederations CFTC (Confederation Francaise des Travailleurs Chretiens), CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail) and FO (Force Ouvrière), have launched an appeal to all private and public sector workers to strike on Thursday 10 March.
Although the appeal speaks of 'work-stoppages' it is clear that hundreds of thousands will go on strike for the day. Trade unions organising teachers, postal workers, workers in power plants, railway workers and civil servants have officially called for a 24-hour general strike and the momentum is building that should allow many private sector workers to join in. The school student unions have called for students to join the demonstrations.
Since it came to power the French government has been pushing hard on neo-liberal 'reforms'. The attack on pension rights in 2003 provoked an enormous mobilisation of the working class, youth and the poor but Prime Minister Raffarin and his government were saved by the failure of the trade union leaders to call a general strike at the decisive moment.
The implementation of the pension reform opened the way for a number of counter-reforms to pass, including the part-privatisation of the electricity and gas sector, without a serious mobilisation of the trade unions. When struggles took place they were often isolated, especially those against the growing number of redundancies in the private sector.
A new stage
TO GUARANTEE their profits French capitalism has to attack the living standards and working conditions of workers and youth, relentlessly. The French government is going for the 'big bang' by attacking the education system, effectively abolishing the 35-hour week, and preparing the privatisation of public services like the post and the railways at the same time.
Teachers and school students have been at the forefront of the mobilisations against the government. They have come out on strike repeatedly against government proposals that would model schools to the needs of employers and limit the number of students able to get into higher education. (see article below).
On Saturday 5 February more than 500,000 public and private sector workers took part in demonstrations around France in defence of the 35-hour week.
The mobilisation on 10 March is an important stage in the build up of a more generalised movement in the public and private sector to defend incomes, stop redundancies and call a halt to the neo-liberal policies.
Gauche Révolutionnaire, (the Socialist Party's French counterpart), have called for a general 24-hour strike as the next stage in the movement to defeat the Raffarin government. To be able to have a unified strike of private and public sector workers we need to prepare it by building general assemblies and strike committees, democratically controlled by the workers in each sector, as a step towards cross-sector assemblies and coordinating committees.
These can discuss the necessary demands and actions to unite public and private sector workers. A unified struggle can stop the attacks of the government and the ruling class. But to truly free the working class our demands and actions have got to overstep the boundaries of capitalism.
Gauche Révolutionnaire's action programme includes the need to fight for a democratic socialist society based on nationalisation of the key sectors of the economy.
The resilience of the French working class and youth against capitalism will, once again, be an inspiration for millions around Europe.
School students mobilise against education 'reform'
THOUSANDS OF school students have taken to the streets in recent weeks, in a fightback against the Raffarin government.
The French establishment is scared of this mobilisation of school students against its proposed counter-reforms in education (which include more selection to filter out 'less promising' students). As one top civil servant put it: "School students are like toothpaste. Once they are out of the tube you'll never get them back in again".
The Fillon reform will also force teachers and teaching staff into more 'flexible working arrangements', ie longer hours and worse conditions. The establishment is terrified of the growing appetite for joint action between school students, teachers, public service and private sector workers.
The first big demonstrations took place on 5 February and brought more than 1,000 youth onto the streets in Paris and 2,000 in Rodez. Since then the movement has taken a quantitative, leap forward.
A day of action on 15 February saw 40,000 youth demonstrate in Paris and 20,000 in Bordeaux, despite many school students being unable to join the protest because of half-term holidays.
JEAN-PIERRE RAFFARIN, the French prime minister, and François Fillon, minister of education, are panicking in the face of the resistance put up by the school students and the school student unions.
They snapped at the movement with the customary arrogance that has become a trademark of this right-wing government. Fillon claimed that the students were being manipulated by the teachers and Raffarin complained about the 'negative attitude' of the trade unions.
Since then, both of them have changed tack. The proposed law on the reform of education, the so-called 'project Fillon', will now be rushed through parliament using special powers.
The social-democratic opposition of the Parti Socialiste (PS) can hardly oppose this trickery. In 1989 Lionel Jospin, who went on to become PS prime minister, proposed a similar reform on education that was pushed through parliament using the same emergency measures.
The PS openly refused to filibuster the law, something which would have been a great advantage to the school students and teachers as it would have given them time to get the protest going again after the half-term holiday.
The Raffarin government is hoping that the protests will die out once they get the proposed reform voted through parliament. Fillon is trying to repeat his tour de force when he pushed through pension reform, as the then minister of social affairs, in the spring of 2003. He doesn't fully realise however that he, and the government, only succeeded in overcoming working class opposition because of the failure of the trade union leadership to organise a general strike.
THE DEMONSTRATIONS and strikes of school students are being organised under the official umbrella of the UNL, the national union of school students, and the FIDL, the Independent and Democratic Federation of school students. These two school student unions do not represent the bulk of school students and neither are they seen by a majority of school students as their organisations.
This was illustrated when the president of the FIDL, Coralie Caron, said in an interview with Le Monde at a meeting of the national coordination of school students in Paris: "If we come here in the name of the FIDL, we get booed".
The UNL and FIDL are both at the top politically controlled by the Parti Socialiste. Their demands are too vague to take the struggle on a level capable of defeating the law. It is not enough to just demand the withdrawal of the Fillon law. Any set of demands would have to spell out what kind of education school students need, in what society and how to finance it.
For socialists this means demanding free education, fighting against the subordination of education to the interests of big business and raising the need to fight for a socialist society.
Apart from the school student unions, and on a more local level, some action committees are functioning to organise and coordinate the different demonstrations and mobilisations. The French media reports are cynically suggesting that school students are being manipulated by shady revolutionaries.
THE MAGNITUDE of the opposition to these educational reforms, coinciding with the ongoing trade union mobilisations, shows the true opposition to the 'neo-liberal' reforms (which the French ruling class has been demanding from every government over the last 20 years).
The French working class, even if it has not won all-out victories in this period (due to the dismal role of the trade union leaders), has successfully obstructed the full implementation of the neo-liberal agenda.
The school student unions are calling for days of action every Tuesday and a national day of strike on 10 March. This is one reason why the trade union federations have been obliged to call work stoppages, in effect a 24-hour general strike, of public and private sector workers on the 10 March (see article above).
A new phase in the struggle is opening up. This needs to be developed in a struggle to overthrow the Raffarin government and fight for a workers' government.
In The Socialist 26 February 2005: