A brief chronology of the struggle against pension reform in France

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Below is a brief chronology of the events and different stages in the movement against pension reform which has developed in France over the past few months[1]. We will add updates as and when new they occur.

This movement is already rich in lessons for the proletariat. In the face of the lies of state’s propagandists, the French media and the international press, the following testimonies and details about the struggle should be disseminated as widely as possible, here as in all countries. We encourage our readers to complete the timeline below (at the moment very fragmented and incomplete) using our discussion forum. We will strive, to the extent of our forces, to translate these texts into the other main languages.

March 23rd

The ‘Intersyndicale’, which includes almost all the French unions - from those most openly 'collaborationist' with the government, to the so-called 'radical' - calls for a first Day of Action.

800 000[2] protesters took to the streets. The atmosphere is rather subdued, resignation dominates. It must be said that the pension reform has been prepared for months and even years in advance. Politicians, the media, “experts” of all kinds have been saying that reform was in effect necessary and unavoidable, that the very survival of "welfare state" and “the balance of the national budget” were at stake. Besides, the watchword of the unions is not “withdrawal of the attack on pensions” but “planned reform”. They call for “more negotiations,” for the trade unions and state to find reform that is “more just, more humane.”

In short, the State, Employers, and Unions all say that the sacrifice is “a sad necessity.” In the face of this juggernaut, discontent is great but heads are bowed.

May 26th

It’s Groundhog Day. The unions call a second Day of Action under the same terms and slogans. There is a slight increase in participation (1 million) but the atmosphere is still marked by desperation.

June 24th

The unions believe they are giving the movement the coup de grace. A third Day of Action is announced. Given the relatively bleak atmosphere of the previous two, with the third taking place a day before the holidays, this one should be a “protest funeral.” The machinery is well oiled. A Day of Action on the same scale as the previous means that “the game is over”. With two months of summer holidays ahead, the goal is to scatter any remaining crumbs of hope of the struggle developing. The unions had certainly prepared their speeches well: "We tried, but the workers don’t have the stomach for a fight”. Discouragement is guaranteed!

This technique has been used many times in the past, often with success. But... wham! June 24th, 2 million workers, unemployed and temps in the streets!

Besides the greater scale, the atmosphere also changes: anger, frustration. Since the acceleration of the crisis in 2008, poverty and injustice continue to grow. Pension reform has become the symbol of a sharp deterioration in living conditions.

July-August

The June Day of Action has pumped up the proletariat’s morale. The idea that a more powerful struggle is possible begins to gain ground. The unions also evidently feel the winds of change. They know that the question "How can we fight?" is running through people’s heads. So they decide to immediately occupy the ground and minds, there is no question that the workers themselves begin to think and act for themselves, outside the control of the unions. So next day they announce another Day of Action for the autumn. To ensure any "independent thinking" is nipped in the bud, they fly airplanes over the beaches pulling advertising banners calling for the demonstration on Tuesday September 7th!

But another event, in fact quite trivial, is feeding the workers' anger over the summer: the “Woerth Affair”. There is collusion between the politicians currently in power (notably Nicolas Sarkozy and Éric Woerth) and one of French capital’s richest heiresses, Ms Betancourt, boss of L'Oreal, a background of tax evasion and all kinds of illegal arrangements. However, Eric Woerth is none other than the Minister in charge of pension reform! The feeling of injustice is total: the working class must tighten their belts while the rich and powerful manage “their small affairs.”

September 7th

From the outset the Day of Action looks well attended. However, this is the first time one is organized so early in the school year. Even before September 7th, recognizing the extent of discontent within the ranks of the proletariat, the unions promised to organize another one without waiting for a Saturday so that “everyone can participate.”

The day arrives: 2.7 million demonstrators. With the summer hiatus over, the return looks hot and starts where it left off. Calls for renewed strikes begin to bloom. Given the scale of the mobilization, the unions react immediately: the demonstration on Saturday is cancelled, precluding the possibility of a renewed strike, until September 23rd... 15 days away! The aim is to break the momentum, to waste time. This “sense of responsibility” by the unions is hailed by the highest representatives of the French state.

September 23rd

3 million protesters in the streets! The movement then swells again. For the first time, processions are reluctant to disperse. Rather, in many cities, a few dozen people over here, a few hundred here and there, are discussing at the end of the event. Union leaflets begin to call for the control of struggles by the workers themselves[3]. In some cities, the CNT-AIT organizes “Popular Assemblies” for “free speech” (and the ICC joins this excellent initiative.) From that moment, these street assemblies begin to have some success, managing to gather each week several dozen participants, including in Toulouse[4].

This willingness of minorities to self-organize reveal that the whole class begins to ask questions about the unions’ strategy, not for one moment to think about the consequences of their doubts and questions.

October 2nd

The first Day of Action held on a Saturday. There is no real trend in the number of participants. But the 3 million protesters found themselves side by side with “man on the street”, workers' families and the public who cannot usually go on strike. Several attempts to arrange meetings at the end of street demonstrations fail:

  • In Paris, a leaflet distributed by the inter-profession Turbin (named after their email, [email protected], which is also slang for hard labour) calling all to rally under its banners - "The best retirement is a good offense" and "Take our struggles in hand”), under a gazebo at the start of the procession. Evidence that this appeal has circulated is clear: at the meeting point you will be physically met by dozens of police officers... with a camera! Without a suitable place to conduct a discussion, the meeting may not be held, but those present decided to continue anyway. Fifty people congregate together and leave their old banners. In an hour, nearly 300.
  • In Tours, the committee "for the extension of the struggle" leaflets calling for "keeping the streets."
  • In Lyon, a few dozen protesters expressed their wish not to leave immediately, to remain there to discuss, meeting on the street, and to reflect collectively on how to continue and expand the movement. But the sound systems of the CGT (the main French trade union) are ultimately fatal to their initiative: the deafening noise prevents any real debate.

These failed attempts to express both the efforts of our class to take control of their struggles and the difficulties that still exist in the current period are mainly due to their own lack of self-confidence, which inhibits the exploited.

By contrast, in Toulouse, popular assemblies continue to be held. The initiative follows the same pattern as the CNT-AIT and the ICC. At the end of the demonstration a banner is planted at the assembly point that reads "Employed, unemployed, students, retirees: TAKE THE STRUGGLES INTO OUR HANDS!" and a street meeting is organized below them. This debate brings together a few dozen people.

October 12th

The new Day of Action brings together 3.5 million people in struggle! A record!

More importantly, the atmosphere is relatively vibrant. General Assemblies begin to multiply, with several dozen taking place across the whole of France. Each time they gather each between 100 and 200 participants. The policy of the unions is to increasingly openly criticize many of these leaflets, even claiming that they lead us voluntarily to defeat.[5] The evidence of this dynamic, in Toulouse, in addition to the Popular Assemblies organized by the CNT AIT (and to a lesser extent, the ICC), is a call made to hold a street meeting every day outside the Labour Exchange at 6pm [which continues to meet again today, 20th October] and initiate appeals by leaflets.

The majority of the unions finally decide to continue the strike. Given this marathon (the movement began seven months ago!), and the many strikes held by workers during the previous Days of Action, this renewal of the strike comes very late. Workers' wages are already hit hard. In any case, the unions have made a calculation. Yet this movement, too, will be relatively well attended.

Among teachers and railway workers in the Paris region, many unions organize general assemblies. Division and sabotage are held up to ridicule. At the train station, the union GA are organized by sector (drivers on one side, guards on the other, the administration again in another corner). In some hospitals, each floor has its own GA! Moreover, they are definitely not sovereign. For example, at Gare de l'Est in Paris, while the continuation of the strike must be voted on Thursday morning at 2pm, the union bureaucracy have their vote on the preceding Wednesday. This strategy has a double effect:

  • Emptying the GA of its relevance: staff do not attend because everything is already decided;
  • It also allows the media to present the votes of the GA in favour of continuing the strike as the result of an extreme minority, in order to make them unpopular.

Moreover, the unions can play their strongest card: paralyze transport. From October 12th, fewer trains are running, more refineries are blocked, raising the spectre of fuel shortages of gasoline. This creates tension within the working class and pushes those who want (need) to work against the strikers.

October 16th

The second Day of Action on a Saturday. Once again, nearly 3 million people find themselves pounding the pavement.

A new dimension emerges: school children, who entered the struggle a few days earlier, point the tips of their noses in the demonstrations.

The following Monday, nearly 1,000 schools are blockaded and many spontaneous protests by school children take place. The UNL, the main student (and non-student) union, which started the movement, acknowledges that it’s overwhelmed by the scale of the mobilization.

The state exploits the presence of young thugs within the students’ ranks to violently repress certain “blockaders” and young demonstrators (a 17-year-old nearly loses an eye after police fire a Flash-Ball in the Montreuil suburb of Paris). The police themselves fan the anger at “police provocation”. The goal is clear: to derail the movement by dragging it into the mire of mindless violence and a sterile confrontation with the cops. By the same token, the state is seeking at all costs to make the struggle unpopular, to scare young people, their parents and the whole working class.

October 18th

The students, who were at the heart of the victorious movement against the CPE in 2006, seem to be getting into the dance. Some schools (in Paris, Rennes and Toulouse in particular) have announced they are blockaded, but so far they have remained in the minority.

October 19th

The threat to blockade the refineries, which soared after October 12th, is effectively implemented. The troops of the CGT union cripple many sites, on the order of their union, without even a decision made in a General Assembly. Very soon there are fuel shortages at between 1,000 and 2,000 petrol stations.

The mobilization also grows at the train stations. More and more trains are cancelled.

Despite transportation being paralysed, the movement didn’t become unpopular. Even the media, usually so good at going on the with “vox pops” where travellers can vent their anger about being stuck in a train station, this time must admit that these travellers are in favour of the movement and fully support the strikers as “they are fighting for everybody.” Some union general assemblies decide to support the refinery blockades and physically support the pickets, which are subject to numerous, sometimes brutal assaults by the police, to “liberate the refineries”, “restore order” and “stop the thugs” (to quote the President, Nicolas Sarkozy).

Despite the fuel shortage and the lack of trains, despite intimidation and repression, 3.5 million protesters are still on the streets on October 19th. This shows the depth of the anger brewing in the ranks of the workers!

Given the scale of this latest mobilization, the state tightens the grip of the baton and the Flash-Ball. In particular, in Lyons, a massive deployment of cops awaits the arrival of the demonstration. Challenged, the police deliberately fan hatred among the young. A handful gives in to this provocation. The crackdown turns into a rampage, cops hitting everything in sight: young people who “look like thugs” or those who just look young, but also the old. The end of the demonstration would have borne the brunt of the “rule of law”. The state certainly felt it had gone too far this time: some ministers led calls for calm (in reality aimed at their own troops). The demonstration in Paris went much “smoother”, as strongly emphasized the media.

To summarize, the movement has swelled for 7 months. Anger is immense. The demands against pension reform tend to be overshadowed: the media recognize that the movement is becoming "politicized." The cause of this is the general misery, insecurity, and exploitation, etc... which is being openly rejected. Solidarity between different sectors also increases. But for the moment, the working class fails to really take control of its struggles. It wants more, it tries to here and there. It’s increasingly wary of the unions, but it still fails to really organize collectively through sovereign and autonomous general assemblies, and therefore outside the unions. This is why such assemblies formed the heart of the movement against the CPE in 2006 and gave it its strength. The working class still seems to lack self-confidence. The future course of the struggle will tell us whether it can overcome this difficulty. If not now, then next time! This movement holds great promise for future struggles.

To be continued…

ICC, 22/10/10.

 


[1] We have only been able to make a quick translation of this text at this time, so please excuse any mistakes. We thought it better to respond quickly to the calls from comrades abroad for more details on the movement in France. A better translation of this text will be made available in the future.

[2] All figures for participation are those given by the unions. There is little correspondence between the figures given by the unions and the police. Sometimes there is a difference of 10 to 1! The media also speak of a "war of numbers". This tussle can give the impression of a radical opposition between the unions and the state, although in reality they are just playing different instruments in the same orchestra, serving the same interest: sowing division and confusion. Nobody really knows how many people participate in the demonstrations. We have always used the numbers from the unions, who are probably the most realistic, because it at least it helps to identify trends, whether decreases or increases.

[3] Examples of these leaflets are published on our forum under the thread “Let our struggles be in our hands” (http://fr.internationalism.org/forum/312/tibo/4365/prenons-nos-luttes-main ).

[4] Here, for example, is one of the calls to these people's assemblies “This new school year is marked by massive protests fueled by the pension reform. Hundreds of thousands of us participate in these union organized rallies. How many go without fatalism? How many  do not return home frustrated? Past experience has amply shown that these days of action are a dress rehearsal, nothing but brick walls. If we do nothing, if we have no voice to decide together how to lead and develop our struggle, all the attacks against our living conditions - including the one on pensions - will be imposed, and others will follow. That is why we welcome you to come and debate, to break the constraints imposed on us. What happens when people, forced into silence and isolation, assemble and start talking? Should we wait for the “right time” or permission to do this? Let's meet Monday, October 11th at 13:00 on the steps outside the Arch to discuss together ways to conduct and develop a response. Against dispersion! Let us seize this moment to develop a real discussion, fraternal and open to all.”

[5] Read the leaflet “ADDRESS TO ALL WORKERS” signed by “workers and temps of the joint General Assembly of the Gare de l'Est” (available on our forum: http://fr.internationalism.org/forum/312/tibo/4365/prenons-nos-luttes-main ). The pamphlet says for example: “Letting Chérèque (CFDT), Thibault (CGT) and company decide for us is to prepare for further losses” and “The form that the movement will take is our business. It’s down to us to build the strike committees in our workplaces, to organize sovereign general assemblies in our neighbourhoods. They should gather together as much of the working population as possible, coordinated at the national level, with elected and revocable delegates. It's up to us to decide which actions, demands... And anyone else. "