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From The Socialist newspaper, 25 March 2009

France: Three million take to the streets in national strike

THURSDAY 19 March saw three million workers and young people take to the streets of over 200 French cities.

Danny Byrne, Committee for a Workers' International (CWI)

This massive response to the call for a national strike and demonstrations against growing attacks on jobs, public services and living standards by French bosses and the Sarkozy government, reflects the prevailing mood of anger among French workers and youth.

An opinion poll on 17 March showed 78% support nationally for the strike and recent political polls have shown a complete collapse in the support for the French president.

As unemployment mounts, with mass lay-offs and the slashing of hours in both the public and private sectors, the response of the government to the world capitalist crisis - cash injections and bailouts for bosses and bankers, in tandem with an assault on public services, including healthcare - has been met with outrage.

Thursday's demonstrations were bigger and angrier than those on 29 January (which saw over two million mobilised nationally), but both reflected the growing consensus in French society that a fightback is necessary to defend jobs and living standards in the face of the crisis.

Also, significantly, these demonstrations saw a higher turnout of private sector workers who have been most heavily affected by the jobs massacre, particularly in the car industry. The Paris demonstration - 350,000 strong - included large, lively contingents of car and other metalworkers and even McDonald's workers!

In response to the strike, the French prime minister, Francois Fillon, merely restated the government's intention to continue on its present course and implement its anti-social 'reforms', despite mass opposition.

However, Fillon and Sarkozy's government recognises that the French working class, with its fighting traditions, will not be so easily ignored. Nicolas Sarkozy's recent observation that "social issues often heat up in May", (in reference to the legacy of the French revolutionary general strike of 1968) reflects French capitalism's fear of the working class mounting a sustained, effective movement which could force the hand of the bosses and Sarkozy.

Trade union leaders

The actions of the trade union leadership, however, have so far had the effect of holding back the development of such a movement. Their announcement on Friday that the next day of action would be on 1 May signals no change in their approach.

Gauche Revolutionnaire (CWI in France), aided by Belgian CWI activists, intervened in demonstrations in Paris, Rouen and elsewhere, arguing against the strategy of token mobilisations, called once every two months. They instead counterpoised a programme of militant action, in the form of a united general strike to defend jobs and public services.

The shining example of the workers of Guadeloupe and Martinique, in the 'French Caribbean', whose general strike led to a historic victory (including the provision of an extra 200 a month for the lowest paid), will serve as a thorn in the side of the trade union leadership as the movement develops. One banner in Paris read "200 more here too!"

Gauche Revolutionnaire is an active current within the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) led by Olivier Besancenot, whose public approval ratings have surpassed those of all other party leaders in recent weeks.

Many workers have responded enthusiastically to the launch of the NPA in February and the party was well received on Thursday's demonstrations. However, if it is to win the support of the mass of workers and youth, it must be built as a mass party, which can give the struggles of workers and young people a political expression.

Gauche Revolutionnaire fights for the NPA to put forward a socialist programme, based on the power of the working class to organise and change society. Such a party could make the case for an end to the crisis-ridden capitalist system and its attacks on living standards, through the socialist transformation of society.

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In The Socialist 25 March 2009:

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