Tuesday, September 07, 2010


Today's one day general strike in France in protest over the government's proposed pension "reforms" drew considerably larger crowds in the demonstrations than the previous effort in June. Once more there are considerably different estimates from different people, with numbers ranging from 1.1 million (government figures) to close to three million (union sources). Even if you take the lower figure this is a considerable increase from the about 800,000 who took part in June. What this means, however, for either the workers or the Sarkozy government is unclear. Here's a brief report of the demonstration from the BBC.

More than one million French workers have taken to the streets to protest against austerity measures planned by President Nicolas Sarkozy's government.

The rallies came as a 24-hour national strike disrupted flight and rail services, and closed schools.

Activists are angry at government plans to overhaul pensions and raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.

Union leaders say more strikes and protests are possible if the government fails to give an adequate response.

"If they don't respond and they don't pay heed, there'll be a follow up, and nothing is ruled out at this stage," Bernard Thibault, leader of the large CGT union, told a rally in Paris.

France's retirement age is lower than many countries in Europe, but analysts say the issue is polarising politics in the country.

Labour Minister Eric Woerth introduced the pensions bill to the National Assembly, warning of dire consequences if it did not pass.

"If we don't modify our pension plan, then tomorrow there will be no money left to pay the French pensions," he told parliamentarians.

Commuter woe

Under current rules, both men and women in France can retire at 60, providing they have paid social security contributions for 40.5 years - although they are not entitled to a full pension until they are 65.

The government says it will save 70bn euros (£58bn) by raising the retirement age to 62 by 2018, the qualification to 41.5 years, and the pension age to 67.

President Nicolas Sarkozy says reforms are needed to cope with an ageing population and the country's budget deficit.

France - 60
UK, Italy - 65 for men, 60 for women
Germany, Netherlands, Spain - 65
Greece - 65 for men, 62 for women
The government is also looking to find 100bn euros of savings in three years, and is planning cuts in the civil sector.

Some secondary-school teachers went on strike on Monday, protesting against plans to cut 7,000 jobs in education.

State railway operator SNCF said fewer than half of its TGV high-speed services were running, and there was a greatly reduced service on many other lines.

Eurostar said its trains between France and London would operate normally.

Some air-traffic controllers walked out, forcing the cancellation or delay of about a quarter of flights from Paris airports.

Air France said it was operating all of its long-haul flights as planned, but short and medium-haul flights had been affected.

Migrant laws

Amid the disruption caused by strikes, the Interior Ministry said 1.1 million people had joined Tuesday's protests but unions claimed the figure was more than double official estimates.

The figures make Tuesday's protest bigger than a previous one in June, where more than 800,000 people took part.

Huge crowds braved stormy weather across southern parts of France, while demonstrators in Paris and the north enjoyed autumn sunshine.

In Paris, protesters shouted through loud-hailers: "Slave-driving? No, no, no. Working more? No, no, no. Fair reforms? Yes, yes, yes."

Protester Michel Prouvier told AFP news agency: "We're going to have old people living in the street."

Activists were also keen to maker a wider point, angry at the recent deportation of about 1,000 Roma (Gypsies) and a host of proposed laws which they say unfairly target immigrants and minorities.

"Pensions are a pretext for protesting against the Sarkozy system," said Adji Ahoudian, a Socialist Party activist.

Among those concerns is a proposal banning the full face veil worn by Muslim women, which was passed by the lower house in July but is now up for debate in the Senate.

Senators are also expected to debate a controversial new security law which would see recent immigrants stripped of French citizenship if they committed serious crimes such as killing a police officer.

The law would also allow electronic tagging for foreign criminals facing deportation.
Here's how this strike was seen by the British Lib Com site.
Mass strikes in France over proposed increase to retirement age
7th September 2010 - In response to the government's proposal to raise the pension age from 60 to 62, French workers have held widespread strikes that brought severe disruption to the French economy.

French unions have claimed that up to three million people have taken part in street protests amid a national strike against France's economic policies.

Police gave an estimate of 1.2 million people at rallies nationwide.

Schools have been closed and public transport disrupted, with demonstrations held in about 200 towns.

Unions are demanding more is spent to protect workers in the recession. Unemployment has reached two million and is expected to rise further.

Union members marched towards the Place de la Nation in Paris behind a banner that read: "United against the crisis, defend employment, spending power and public services."

"They have a profound sense of social injustice," said Jean-Claude Mailly, head of the large Force Ouvriere union, "and that, I think, is something that neither the government nor the employers have understood."

Benoit Hamon, a spokesman for the French Socialist Party spokesman said France was experiencing similar problems to other countries, but that the situation was being made worse by President Nicolas Sarkozy.

"We have a president who aggravates the crisis by making the wrong economic and social choices, by his deafness regarding the general dissatisfaction," said Mr Hamom.

"He refuses to give answers regarding layoffs, regarding the cost of living, regarding the way to objectively avoid the rise in job losses in the public sector or in the public health system."

Marches were also being held in Marseille, Lyon, Grenoble and many other towns and cities.

Noel Kouici, demonstrating in Marseilles, said protesters had a "grudge" against the government.

"Of course we are angry against the government when you see the way they serve the banks and leave the people starving and losing their jobs," he said.

But the deputy mayor of Marseille, Roland Blum, told the BBC the government had done a lot to help people.

"Of course I understand the distress of people who've lost or are going to lose their jobs, but what I think is necessary is that we all work together," he said.

There protests were largely peaceful but minor scuffles were reported in several cities later in the evening.

In Paris, police used tear gas to disperse small groups of youths who were setting fire to rubbish bins and throwing bottles.

It is the second time in two months that major demonstrations have been held, following a similar display in January which drew about a million protesters.

Beleaguered industries

The strikes began on Wednesday evening on transport networks.

An employee assists commuters at Gare Saint-Lazare train in Paris (19 March 2009)
French commuters face a limited rail service because of the strike

The national rail operator, SNCF, cancelled 40% of high-speed trains and half of regional services.

A third of flights out of Paris's Orly airport have been cancelled, while a tenth of France's electricity output has been shut down with workers on strike.

However, buses and the Metro rail system in Paris were running normally, thanks to a new law enforcing a minimum transport service during strikes,.

But with many schools and public buildings shut for the day, the number of workers travelling into the capital was reduced.

Private-sector firms were also expecting a depleted workforce, with staff from the beleaguered car industry, oil and retail sectors taking part in the strike.
It is, of course, easy to expect too much from such ephemeral wonders. A one day general strike is, after all, nothing but a do it yourself opinion poll with a lot of noise. It has exactly zero immediate effect other than a brief loss of production which, in the case of public enterprise, is often a gain rather than a loss of revenue. As the following article from The Economist points out such symbolic actions have forced the government to back down on the issue of pensions at least once in the past (1995). Whether that will be the case this time is uncertain. President Sarkozy has sunk to record levels of unpopularity, but the reasons are not confined to this one issue or even to a collection of issues related to his neo-liberal agenda. Like most conservative ideologues who preach "morality for the masses" his government has more than its fair share of sleaze and scandal, and this has weighed heavily on his administration.

On the other hand, as the following points out, Sarkozy is constrained by political considerations to at least appear to "give a little". In this he has unlikely allies in the form of the larger union federations, the CFDT and the CGT, both of which are quite happy with their present position in French society and who are unlikely to want to toss the dice in the air in terms of a fundamental rearrangement of same. All the ingredients are there for a compromise whereby both sides declare victory while hoping for electoral gains in 2012. Talk of further general strikes are merely bargaining chips for these unions to "appear" to be useful for their members and in the case of the CFDT for its bedfellow the Socialist party. If the unions were serious about pushing their advantage they would definitely set a general strike for September 29 to coincide with the one planned in Spain and lobby their fellow continental unions for a European wide general strike on that day. Not just talk about it and bluster.

The French anarcho-syndicalist union the CNT (CNT Vignoles) participated in the general strike, but they see the limitations of such actions. Recognizing the ephemeral nature of such protests they have recommended a gradual build up of general assemblies at workplaces. Such general assemblies, independent from the union bureaucracies, would not be tied to any institutional benefits from the state and would be much more effective organs of resistance. They lack the flash and noise of one day demonstrations but unlike the mayfly-like lifespan of such protests they are enduring methods for people to resist the government and its corporate masters.

Something to consider. In any case here is The Economist article.

French politics
The retiring type

Sep 8th 2010, 9:27 by The Economist PARIS

FRANCE is bracing itself for more disruption after 1.1m-2.7m demonstrators took to the streets, in hundreds of towns across the country, as part of a 24-hour national strike against President Nicolas Sarkozy’s pension reform. The turn-out was better than trade-union leaders had hoped for, and far higher than a previous day of action in June. Train drivers, teachers, post-office staff, air-traffic controllers, and other mostly public-sector workers, some wheeling children’s buggies, others banging festive drums, took part. Flush with their success, union leaders are now hoping to press the government for further concessions.

Mr Sarkozy wants to raise the minimum legal pension age from 60 to 62 years. This is a relatively modest change by the standards of some other European countries, which are pushing the retirement age up to 65 or even 67. The government forecasts that retirement at 62 will reduce by €18.6 billion the €42 billion state pension-fund shortfall expected by 2018. Tax increases, including a raise in the top income-tax rate from 40% to 41%, will make up a further €4 billion; the rest will come from general government spending.

Yet the reform is symbolically important. France has not touched the legal retirement age since the early 1980s, when it was cut to 60 years. Previous governments have tinkered with contribution rules to try to make the numbers add up, but never dared to meddle with retirement at 60. Back in 1995 Alain Juppé, prime minister under President Jacques Chirac, was forced to withdraw a more modest pension reform after weeks of chaos on French streets.

Union leaders and the opposition Socialist Party, which is also against the reform, argue that the government cannot afford to appear deaf to such this week's show of public opposition. Martine Aubry, the Socialist boss, called the reform “unfair”, and called on the government to “go back to square one”, and withdraw the legislation, which is currently going through parliament. “If we are not listened to, there will be further protests,” declared Bernard Thibault, leader of the powerful Confédération Générale du Travail. Union chiefs now need to decide whether to call another national strike this month. Some are talking about another one-day strike later this month, when parliament is due to vote on the reform.

Mr Sarkozy is in an awkward corner. His popularity has dropped to record lows. His own political camp is restless, and some deputies fear he has lost his political touch. The Socialist Party is freshly confident, and has started to believe in its chances of election at the next presidential poll in 2012. Mr Sarkozy says he will not budge on the retirement age. But he will be tempted to give some ground, in order to thwart further disruption. Certain concessions at the margin, over issues such as special rules for those who have done hard labour (pénibilité), would not necessarily make for a bad deal. But to go too far would only save him trouble in the short run. It would do nothing to restore his credibility as a reformer and a leader ready to take unpopular decisions, without which he has no chances of re-election in 2012.

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