As oil refineries and public transport depots are blocked, petrol stations run dry and young people riot in the Paris suburbs, political tensions are rising in France. The unrest will climax today in demonstrations throughout the country intended to influence Wednesday’s vote in the country’s Senate.
To quell the huge mobilisation of workers, pensioners and young people, President Nicholas Sarkozy has formed a crisis cabinet to ensure the continuity of fuel supplies, with three departments – the interior, economy and environment ministries put in charge of preventing disruption of supplies.
The wave of protests against the Sarkozy government’s attack on pension rights has closed schools across France and seen clashes with riot police on the streets. Workers at France’s 12 refineries are in their eighth day of strike. Protesters are blocking access to many fuel distribution depots round the country.
It is the sixth day of weekday protests and work stoppages called by national labour union confederations since June, but the unrest has intensified since last week when unions at railways and refineries began open-ended industrial action, joined now by truck drivers and delivery workers. Since September 7, pension protest numbers have involved a staggering 15 million people, according to official sources.
A majority of French people -- 71 percent in one poll -- back protests against the plan to raise the minimum and full retirement ages by two years to 62 and 67 respectively, a measure the government says is the only way to stem a ballooning pension deficit.
France is one of a very few countries remaining where pensions arrangements are almost universally provided by the state. Payments to pensioners are taken out of current tax receipts. Trade unions have fought long and hard to protect the right to a decent income after a lifetime of work.
It is no accident that the French Senate is voting on the same day that the UK coalition government finally gives the details of its unprecedented assault on the public sector. These two events, and many similar are choreographed by the return to recession which marks the end of the phoney recovery. Capitalist society has entered into a period of contraction and nothing can be allowed to stand in its way.
But as the French state steps up its operations, leaders of France’s main trade unions have no plan beyond pressurising a government that is determined to see through cuts in pension provision.
All the union chiefs know that Sarkozy will not give in and are feverishly even now considering their exit strategy even as the fuel shortage worsens and protests spread to the volatile suburbs, the banlieues. As the right-wing daily, Le Figaro, notes, the union confederations are divided over their strategy facing a government which will not give in to their demands. The strategy of the Confederation General de Travail (CGT) faces pressure to call a general strike, something which it has signally failed to do so far. The mass defence of jobs, services, benefits and rights is leading directly to a confrontation with the state, something that they and the other union bureaucrats are desperate to avoid.
Workers and students should join forces with local communities to form People’s Assemblies that can move beyond protest and challenge the French state. The French ruling class and union bureaucrats are haunted by the spectre of the 1968 General Strike, when the possibility of people’s power arose but the opportunity wasted.