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Anti-retirement pension reform in France

category france / belgium / luxemburg | economy | opinion / analysis author Friday October 29, 2010 13:06author by Cuervo - Alternative Libertaire Report this post to the editors

Will the spark catch ?

The battle against the pension reform started 6 months ago, came to an apex during the last 2 months, and according to the government is winding down.
We still don't want that reform, and the fight is not over, but has reached a new phase. The "getting rough" phase most likely.

Anti-retirement pension reform in France

Will the spark catch?

France is nearing its second month of struggle on the question of its retirement pension system. The government wants to break it down, evolve progressively towards a system of capitalisation, obviously opening that market to private interests. To do so, the government has decided that a reform of the system would bring the legal age of retirement from 60 years old, up to 62, full pension being made available at 65, and in coming years, 67.

The main argument of the government revolves around the question of how to finance the actual form of pension, considering that the system presents a gaping hole of €32bn. What it forgets to say is that only €2bn represent the real debt of the pension fund, the 30 other billions being the result of the 2008 financial crisis, artificially heaped on top of those funds, in order for, as usual, the people to pay for capitalism’s erratic management . The true question, adroitly avoided by Sarkozy (but just as much by the Left) is, what kind of society do we want ? Do we want to take care of people after a lifetime spent breaking their backs ? Or do we want to hand it over to a happy few speculators that will know how to make money out of it ? The answer is quite clear of course.

The union head offices, and to a very timid extent, the French opposition parties (Socialist), in the first phase of the movement, wanted to discuss this and amend it drastically. But as things went by, the last month has radicalised the mottoes and what the workers were shouting in the demonstrations was : we don’t want it. Period. In other words, the reform is unfair, brutal, and the “Sarkozy-way” to obtain that the law be adopted is vicious and hardly legal (intimidation of the Senate and Assembly among other things).

As the curtain opens on these actors, there is a backdrop that colours the scene in special hues: State racism against the ‘hoods, the Roma, the paperless; police brutality on a daily basis; a number of scandals intertwining business, markets, members of government, among which the very minister in charge of the retirement reform (Alain Woerth). More widely: the country has many, many subjects of grief. As the movement builds up steam, these are coming out.

Things are, of course, a bit more complicated.

Indeed, there is a real gap between what the workers expect to gain and how their unions are ready to follow up on that. Slowly but surely, French organised labour, has progressed from a class-war position, highly imbued with the conscience that it had a role to play to change society, to a position of reformism, even on the part of such highly politicised Unions like the CGT(1). This evolution started maybe 20 years back, and explains in part the form of action that the Union leaders have given the movement since it first started in mid-September (there has been some manoeuvring of course just before the summer holidays in June and July). The CGT, CFDT, FO and SUD have organised the movement on the base of “action days”. The strategy consists in single day demonstrations supposed to show the government that we mean business.

The first of these action days, 7th of September put close to 2 million people on the streets. The next took place on the 23rd of September, where 2.7 million people demonstrated, on the 2nd of October 3 million people paraded, and pretty much the same number on the following 21st.

And, partly, the strategy works. The first demonstrations were massively repressed by the Police (more than 1,000 people arrested on the first action day), further reinforcing the movement. Each action has added not only more people but also new people, from the private sector, people that had never taken to the streets before. In October, the movement was massively joined by students from the colleges, but to be solidly careened by the union workers from the oil sector that blockaded 12 out 12 strategic refineries all over the country. This strategy (blockading the refineries and creating a significant shortage of petrol) is really one of the main pillars of the movement to date. It is also one of the only truly solid things in a more generally flimsy landscape. The momentum must be taken up by other sectors if it is to last and gain leverage over the government and the Union federal head offices.

So that is where the movement stands at this point. It has been hard, often violent, and Sarkozy hasn’t hesitated to push and shove, muscling his way to ratification by Parliament : illegally forcing the Assembly to vote, and threatening the Senate likewise, using every devious ploy in the book to gain time. (As we are writing these lines – October 26 – the final vote is expected and the government has warned that “it will not be the same to protest once the reform is voted”. Right indeed, we will make sure that it doesn’t stay the same).

But, as said previously, things are not that simple. For the union federal offices believe they can still gain something in the movement – or lose less – by holding back their troupes from going towards a general strike. Hence the single-day, sporadic-burst tactic, which is a way of letting off steam and keeping it manageable.

On this stage, the CFDT, naturally on the side of reformism is playing the role of the weak link. The CGT plays the gunslinger, with not a little bravado and threatening of the index, but seeming more uneasy by the day at the way the strikers are manning the pickets : stubbornly, and with much creativity, huge dedication and faith. Hopefully Sarkozy closed the door to negotiations. And this puts the CFDT mainly, and to some extent the CGT, in a pickle, forcing them to follow the base.

In the middle of all this, Alternative Libertaire has been on most every front, fighting in the way we usually fight : horizontally, from the inside of union work outwards, on the pickets and speaking out in the general assemblies to give things a libertarian bend, among other things, by appealing for self-management of local strikes, to go beyond the current union structure of the struggle. Globally what we’re pushing is: the radicalisation and politicisation of the movement by ways of its reaching out to more people – massification is the key word here. Just as importantly we are driving at the converging of all the structural social struggles to join the anti-reform movement in one big protest, one big surge against the government’s policy.

Two things are at stake : the first is obviously to come out victoriously over the government’s disastrous social policy. Because if the law were to pass in its present form and dispositions, it would leave the door ajar for Sarkozy obvious next target: the social security system. Having obtained capitulation on the issue of retirement, it would seem perfectly normal to everybody to go on reforming social security to exactly the same neo-liberal tune.

The second thing at stake is making the best use of the aftermath of the present struggle. Who is left standing among the Union actors, among the left Party actors, and how has the game been played?

The two main French Unions CGT and CFDT will have been seen keeping a lid on the movement, preventing it from getting too …revolutionary, too strong, and too demanding of the Government. What will be their credibility at the end of the day?

For the Socialist Party (same drab Social democrats as British Labour) who has taken his time to join the movement, their credibility is, even for the average non-politicised Frenchman, hardly existent. Indeed, their reluctance to speak out against the reform is highly suspect. We know what to (not) expect from that lot. We also know that they agree on every fundamental element of Sarkozy’s capitalist policy. Their posture might, in the end, prove to be the heaviest factor leading to Sarkozy winning a second term (!)

For Sarkozy, victory would mean:
The conservative troupes - previously in disarray - will muster in perfect battle order; division will have been wrought in the ranks of the opposition (Socialists); the road to a complete dismantling of the French social system will be open, and labour rights, social rights, will be unravelled and put in the hands of the private sector.

For us libertarian communists, the way to go is to keep striving for unity among the class-struggle trade union organisations. Considering that the head offices of the union confederations are the weak spot in the movement, we need to weigh on decisions each time we are in a position of influence at section-level, at regional-level, in a company union … We need to be present at field level, at picket level, because that is where the spark will start catching. We need to root the movement in companies, industries, more importantly than it is today. We need to intensify the movement, very simply : what we have today is the country‘s massive support, and massive hate of the government. We have a real following of people that go down in the streets in their millions, but we obviously need more to make the whole system waver, Sarkozy, but also his objective allies, Socialists and Co. We need a general strike, with the private sector to flank it, and the surge to rise from the bottom up !

Alternative Libertaire

1. Confédération Générale du Travail : the oldest French union.
2. The CGT is the oldest and most largely followed confederation of unions, previously class struggle oriented, its federal office is now clearly reformist, even though this is often not the case at base-level.
CFDT : formerly Christian democrat it is very reformist and pleads for compromise with the State every chance it gets
FO : a spin off of the CGT, tends to be closer to reformist stances, but has recently shown more vigorous postures, especially during the present movement
SUD, the youngest of all Organised labour structures was created by CFDT and CGT union workers that wanted to retain the class struggle orientation they felt heir original organisations were discarding.

Related Link:

 #   Title   Author   Date 
   Keeping it in the family     oblomov    Sat Oct 30, 2010 22:35 

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