Marseille marches to a militant beat

MARSEILLE WAS at the height of the recent strike wave in France. Its militant traditions were reflected in the numbers on the streets.

Manny Thain, participant in the recent mass workers’ actions in France

On the first national strike day, Tuesday 13 May, 200,000 demonstrated. On 27 May, 230,000 took to the streets, with similar numbers the following week. A 200,000-strong demo on 10 June was followed on Thursday 12 June with a quarter of a million strikers descending on the football ground of Olympique de Marseille – the Vélodrome. With a population around a million, this is a phenomenal level of participation.

The movement, spearheaded by workers in education – over pensions, but also over privatisation – quickly spread to others in the public sector. Significant numbers of private-sector workers also participated. In Marseille, chemical and oil refinery workers were prominent and dockers were also out in force. On 27 May shop workers shut down six Casino supermarkets.

On 10 June, unions and independent strikers divided up the city: six assembly points and short, separate demos with crossover points. Nothing moved except demonstrators, a few mopeds and cycles, and some people walking their dogs. Traffic into Marseille tailed back for miles.

The public sector was shut down: rubbish collectors, workers in education, tax, post, telecoms, job centres, hospitals, customs, banks, electricity and gas, rail, bus, tram and underground, school and university students. There were even off-duty police on the march, members of the Unsa union.

Two-thirds of Marseille’s workforce are employed in the public sector, or are dependent on it – more than any other French city. It has suffered 20 years of de-industrialisation. Gone are the shipbuilding, mines, and iron and steel. It is a working-class city with 15% official unemployment – 5% higher than the national average. Amongst its large immigrant (especially North African) population the percentage is far higher.

Massed ranks

THE 12 June demo was the biggest, as 250,000 assembled around the old port and one of the main thoroughfares – Canebière. The CGT and Force Ouvrière (FO) union federations vied to be the most impressive. The CGT in orange armbands linked arms, sound systems blaring. FO stewards in red bandanas and t-shirts did likewise. Rail workers ignited flares. Fire-crackers exploded all around. There were contingents from surrounding, sprawling suburbs – Port de Bouc, Martigues, Fos and further afield, like Aix-en-Provence.

The strikers made their way down the Prado boulevard, to a stage in front of the Vélodrome. (The mayor had denied permission for a rally inside.) Four union leaders – Bernard Thibault (CGT), Marc Blondel (FO), Gérard Aschieri (FSU), and Alain Olive (Unsa) – addressed the crowd.

The fact that they had come to Marseille was a testament to the city’s militancy. It was a very demanding audience. Thibault was greeted with applause and shouts for a general strike. He praised the movement in Marseille and attacked the mayor. But his flattery did not deceive. As soon as Thibault mentioned pensions tens of thousands called out for a general strike. He denounced the government’s stance as “intolerable”, and heard the immediate response: “General strike!” The demand was raised at every opportunity. Thibault’s speech faded to polite applause and loud calls for a general strike.

Blondel was drowned out by the general strike roar: “OK, OK, at least give me a chance to speak…” The crowd relaxed its grip, and he repeated Thibault’s praise of their militancy, and anti-mayor spiel. He assured them he “heard the voice from the streets”. Sustained shouts for a general strike left him in no doubt what it said! Blondel said that FO “recommends a general strike”. The street cheered. But, he added, “we need to maintain a united front” (as an excuse for inaction). And the street jeered.