Mouvement Communiste report their impressions of the past several weeks of struggles in France.
This is based on eye witness accounts, testimony of comrades and friends and cross checking with the media. It cannot pretend to be a complete account but it gives you an idea of how we understand things.
We have seen a growing number of demonstrators in many towns and cities of France in demonstrations called by the unions and supported by official left-wing parties. But on the side of working class strikes the figure is not so bright.
First of all, strikes have not hit “private” sector industry (with some exceptions detailed later). Our two Paris area big automotive assembly plants, Renault in Flins and Citroën in Aulnay saw only 100 strikers among a workforce of roughly 4000 (i.e. even not all the union delegates went on strike); as some workers said, “the mood is not there”. Even in demonstrations there were very few banners relating to private companies.
In French state-owned railways the figures vary from one place to another, but general figures (unions and management) give an average from 25 to 35%. You have to know that among a workforce of 160,000, engineers (often the most militant sector) are only 18,000 and among them the strike figure is just round 50%. From the “user” point of view, in the Paris suburban service, management was able to keep 50% of trains running.
More annoying, the attendance at general assemblies was very scarce: on 7 and 23 September, in Paris Saint Lazare only 50 people attended. On October 12, newspapers report a growing number of attendees in Paris Montparnasse (100 people) but it was only half compared to the November-December 1995 movement.
In the Paris transit authority (RATP), except express line B (see below), figures were no more than 30% for the underground and less for the bus both in Paris and the suburbs.
Relatively important was the strike in the Health sector (roughly 30%), even though striking for nurses is a very difficult thing and can get them “requisitioned” (i.e. legally ordered to work), and participation in demonstrations under the SUD union banners was important as our eye-witnesses have noticed in Orléans, Quimper and Brest.
In State administrations figures were very different but no more than 25% with the exception of tax offices that reached 1/3.
In the Post Office, in Paris there was also no more than 1/3, in sorting centres, Post Offices and mail distribution. According to one comrade, a rank and file CGT delegate, even the CGT was not able to give accurate data.
In education, figures can vary widely from one place to the other, but on average there were no more than 20% of strikers.
We can say that the exceptions, i.e. a real strike in term of participation and organisation, were not due to struggles against the Pensions reform but more for specific reasons.
Paris transit authority Express line B
Here figures were 75% strikers and only one train among five running. This is because of more than 20 years of union militancy, both among engineers and maintenance workers of the Massy Palaiseau facility. But that has been increasing for three years because of a specific problem. RER B is operated by RATP up to Gare du Nord and after Gare du Nord by SNCF. An agreement between SNCF and RATP will give the entire RER B line operation to SNCF, meaning that the workers will be transferred from RATP. And the stupid management, instead of giving the best deal (in comparison between RATP ands SNCF) to the transferred workers has chosen to worsen their situation, not in terms of wages but in terms of work shifts, benefits and bonuses. This has kept the workers angry.
There are 12 facilities in France, of which Total owns six (see list below).
In this sector, on the bosses’ side, there are three problems:
• General over-capacity in Europe (20% of 114 facilities),
• Old installations in France (the majority date from the 30’s), albeit improved. They are costly in relation to new facilities (and the trend in this industry is to build new facilities closer to oilfields)
• A mismatch with the French vehicle market (refineries produce less diesel than petrol but, due to state tax incentives, diesel is more popular).
• Due to European over-capacity Total decided to close half to its French facilities in 2009, first targeting Dunkerque last January. But workers, lead by unions, succeeded in delaying the management’s project (even the government warned Total not to “destroy France’s industrial capacity”). The unions won in court but Total called for a new judgement. So workers remain vigilant and benefited from the struggles against pension reform to maintain pressure on Total, even though years ago they concluded a company agreement regarding pensions that is better than existing laws and certainly more than the new ones.
So all six Total refineries have been on strike since the beginning of September. Oil refineries are very capital intensive and on average only have a workforce of between 600 and 900 workers. The Total workers established picket lines to block any transport. Other refineries went on strike but not so consistently.
Marseille port workers
Traditionally this has been a stronghold of the CGT (100 %) and the PCF with control over hiring. The struggle has started weeks ago around specific problems. Workers blocked the port gates. More efficient was the blockade of the oil terminals in Fos sur mer which started on September 27th.
Marseille city council workers
Contrary to the port, this is a stronghold of the FO union and the socialist party. There is a creeping competition between FO and CGT. The strike was also around specific problems (shifts, wages, work conditions) and hit mainly:
• street sweepers, 80% of whom are on strike, (obviously this is a very visible strike and for two weeks the streets of Marseille looked like the Third World and were very pleasant places for rats),
• elementary school canteen employees.
What characterised this week was the irruption of secondary school pupils in Paris, Paris suburbs and the Provinces. It started spontaneously with young people coming out of their schools and making short demonstrations (100 -150) to other schools and so on. In Paris it was cool, with the police “kindly” monitoring demonstrations and blocking traffic but in the suburbs (Montreuil, where a young guy was close to losing an eye, Argenteuil, etc.) the police immediately attacked demonstrators with tear gas grenades and flash balls. It was the same in the Provinces (like in Caen, where a young guy was badly wounded). The message from the government was very clear: if you want to play with us you have to play rough! In fact the government feared that a situation like in 2006 during the student movement against the CPE could re-emerge, so it was better to nip it in the bud. Up to now this has not succeeded and more secondary schools have seen movements and blockades. According to the ministry of Education, 300 out of 4300 secondary schools are hit. But participation among pupils remains generally low (no more than 30%) and if pupils are for anything, it’s more for skipping school than demonstrating. In some places some young people have burned cars and rubbish bins, and looted some shops like in Nanterre. But there was no real confrontations with the police, more a game of cat and mouse, but this began to limit participation because this was a very peaceful “movement”.
If the Tuesday 12 demo saw an increase of participants, Saturday 17 saw a decreasing number (strong in Eastern France small in Paris and increasing in Western France).
The notable difference on the railways was that strikes (with the same participation figures as before) lasted (and still last) from Tuesday onwards.
The main novelty is the blocking of fuel distribution centres near big cities. This was done by CGT members and in each centre it only lasted only 2 days because the police quickly expelled the workers, who then went elsewhere. But this, along with the Total refineries strike, began to create panic among users that created a real shortage during the weekend.
Also some truck divers began to block roads and highways but with no permanent blockades.
Oil distribution is blocked because:
• Oil terminal port workers in the Marseille area don’t unload tankers and so dry up southern France refineries,
• Total refinery workers continuous strike (One, Grandpuits, supplies the Paris area),
• Other refineries’ partial strikes,
• Fuel depots which serve petrol stations. Since 1968, the number of these depots has enormously increased to follow France’s growing suburbanisation, so they are easy numerous targets for blockades. But also they cannot be defended for very long and the police quickly expelled workers along with CGT members coming from afar. But pickets attack another depot or wait for the police leave and then block it again. In fact, only a dozen depots are blocked.
• Panic created by users themselves who have crammed service stations and dried them up.
In Nord and Pas de Calais departments (Northern France), the CGT leads a very clever one-day strike of some hours but sufficient to paralyze 30 big factories (of which Alstom, Bombardier, but neither Renault nor Toyota). In the affected factories, strikers were not in the majority but were able to harm the boss in the “Italian way” (but as far as we know, this has not been reproduced since).
Participation of pupils in demonstrations changes the mood of them (fresh atmosphere) and stops the decreasing numbers of demonstrators.
Confrontations at the end of demonstrations
We began to see at the end of demonstrations the usual French performance: people (belonging or not to the “autonome” milieu) began to throw things from afar against the police, trying to “radicalise” demonstrators, without efficiency or success and above all no organisation. That leads to panic when the police charge and too many arrests of isolated “fighters” (more than 1,500 people were arrested across France).
As usual, the government and media put the events of Nanterre on the front page. In front of Joliot Curie secondary school (3,000 pupils) 300 youths (some from the school) burned cars, looted small shops, and try to keep the avenue from the police. In fact there was no real confrontation with the police, and contrary to November 2005 not a “cat and mouse” game either. But this cannot be related to any links to any movement against anything in particular. Consequently it has created a climate of fear amongst striking pupils of Joliot Curie.
In terms of number of demonstrators it was positive (for the unions), but not positive in terms of number of strikers.
Railway workers remain on strike but number of strikers diminishes (round 20% and on Sunday 24, CGT announced 19% of strikers), participation in assemblies stays at the same level. But there were no blockades due obviously to the balance of power between strikers and non-strikers, even if the atmosphere remained calm (testimony from Paris Saint Lazare and Paris Est) but the centralisation of strikes is not on the agenda: in Paris Saint Lazare area (which goes up to 80 km form Paris) there is no links between strikers of all the facilities.
In Post Office, Health sector and Education, the number of strikers decreased and went under 20% (with local variations).
There is no more strike in RATP, with the usual exception of RER line B (where the number of strikers went under 50%).
In other State administrations, figures are the same.
No significant strikes hit “private” sector industries.
Total workers, Marseille port and city councils workers are still on strike. Oil depots are still blocked but on Friday 22 only 14 remain in the hands of strikers. Worse, the government has “requisitioned” Total workers from Grandpuits refinery and began to dismantle the picket lines on Friday 22 but on Saturday workers came back so on Sunday all Total refineries plus the others are still on strike. And since Friday in Paris area oil is flooding again in service stations, government having tapped in the long time deposits and imported oil from other countries.
Strikes has started among Toulouse and Belfort street sweepers (I have no exact figures).
On Sunday 24, prefet of Marseille has drafted street sweepers.
In Paris area, and in the department where I live, pupils on strike (but still in a minority – according to my children in the two secondary schools where only 20% of pupils are on strike) began to block highway or railway lines (three times on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday). A hundred stay for one hour, and when the police arrived they left.
But on Friday this is the All Saints' day which starts the holidays and the government expects that these two weeks of holidays will freeze the situation.
On the contrary, on the Total side things may get stronger. On Friday the appeal court has sentenced Total “for not having been clever regarding providing information for its workers, but is nevertheless authorised to close the Dunkerque refinery”.
On Saturday 23rd, there were kind of spontaneous or locally called demonstrations in medium size cities like Auch (500), Castres (3,000) and Narbonne (2,000).
On the contrary, we see on Saturday first counter-demonstrations in Paris (250 from far-right), Chambéry (500 by shop keepers and small companies boss).
On Monday 25, prefet of Marseilles has “requisitioned” street sweepers.
On the content
We can say that confusion is deeply rooted in the movement. If everybody understands that the government “reform” is an attack on the working class, there was no expression of the view that pensions are wages. On the contrary, the ideology of defending the “French social system” is still very strong, not to mention talking about “solidarity among generations”.
In the demonstrations we see a lot of spontaneous individual posters or placards showing that people wanted to prove that they have alternative solutions to government measures.
So this allows room for alternative political solutions.
On the strikes
The first, strikes have not hit “private” sectors and that is one of the main weaknesses.
Secondly, in the railways the strike remains minoritarian and unable to generate autonomous workers’ organization. A minority of politicised workers wanted to go as far as possible but without taking into account the balance of power.
Thirdly, in the other classical state sectors (Post Office, Health and Education) strikes lasted only on day of actions and were more just a testimony than something that could lead somewhere.
Fourth, in the real striking sectors the strikes were due to specific conditions, not to the pensions reforms.
On the general “mood”
Strikes were supported by non strikers. If we rely on surveys up to Friday 22nd, 2/3 of people are opposed to the government reform and in favour of “strikes”. This social schizophrenia (action by proxy) which arose in 1995 is a real burden and the proof of the limits of the movement.
This was the same among the strikers who, weak in their workplaces, try to bypass it by making blockades outside.
On the unions
Contrary to what many leftists thought, unions were not opposed to the “movement” and not ready to “betray” it. Their “offer” was very broad. From the SUD completely unrealistically calling for a “General Strike”, to the CFDT being more “realistic” and waiting for a government response, through the CGT being more realistic according to the weak balance of power in the strikes, and divided by some extremist rank and file-ists, the usual limited scheme of “betrayal” does not apply up to now.
The general weakness of the movement leads to a political alternative: presidential elections of 2012. And this allows the socialist party to recover its innocence.
On the other hand, the stupid and frantic call for a “General Strike”, without taking into account any balance of power, from the SUD to the CNT via the NPA is another proof of the lack of understanding of what workers autonomy could be.
To remain optimistic
In many places very tiny groups of people tried to organize themselves on a rank and file basis to do something, for instance blocking the economy. However unrealistic it is, it certainly allows people to create horizontal links that could be useful for the future. We have participated in Paris in an “Inter-category assembly” (however foolish may be the name of such a gathering, regarding reality) organized around engineers of SNCF in Paris Est and other workers. This could be a chance for the future if links are maintained .
Paris - 25th October