SAINT-NAZAIRE, FRANCE, February 7 — On January 29, as part of a massive general strike of hundreds of thousands of workers, 2.5 million people marched for jobs and against government cutbacks in almost 200 cities across France, with 300,000 demonstrating in Paris and 200,000 in Marseilles.
At least 18,000 demonstrated in this ship-building port in western France. When the sub-prefect (the local representative of the national government) refused to receive a union delegation, protesters began throwing beer cans at the riot police protecting the sub-prefecture. When the police attacked with tear gas, workers tore down the entry gate and four hours of street fighting ensued. The cops injured a number of protesters, one seriously and rounded up 16 people, partly at random, some of whom have already been sentenced to jail.
The bosses in France are very nervous. Even the government’s under-stated figures show nine months of rising unemployment have left 2.1 million workers jobless, while another 2.8 million have given up finding a job. Result: a real unemployment rate of at least 17.5%!
This high unemployment has made workers anxious and angry, sparking this huge general strike and demonstrations called by eight union confederations. From 20% to 40% of public sector workers — hospital, telephone, postal and electric company workers and half or more of secondary and elementary school teachers — walked out.
All the major state radio networks shut down, and a third of television network workers struck. Almost one-third of flights from Orly airport were cancelled. Almost all the Paris commuter train workers, half the Métro (subway) workers and at least a third of urban transport workers in the rest of France went on strike.
In addition, unexpectedly large numbers of private-sector workers went out, in the banks, Renault auto plants and at Alcatel-Lucent (the world’s second-biggest telecommunications equipment-maker). Autoworkers completely shut down PSA’s Poissy and Rennes factories, and partly closed the Sochaux plant.
Private-sector workers do not enjoy the same job security as public workers and consequently strike less. Thus, many Auchan supermarket, Celanese chemicals, Dynastar ski, Ford auto, Free telecommunications and Tefal kitchenware workers used their holiday time to join the protest marches.
Many marchers bore signs saying, “Can you see this strike, you stupid jerk?” — a reference to French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s July statement that “nowadays, when there’s a strike in France, nobody notices” and his telling a farmer who refused to shake hands with him in February, 2008 to “beat it, you stupid jerk.”
As usual, union leaders here are tailing the militancy of the working class. The bosses wanted to reduce the duration of unemployment benefits. The signature of two trade unions was necessary for the measure to pass, so on February 2 the traitorous CFDT and CFE-CGC obliged the government and signed.
President Sarkozy responded to the workers’ strike with insult and scorn, reflecting the ruling class’s estimation that any deviation from the set course could lead to their losing control. In his February 5 speech, his “answer” to the general strike, Sarkozy offered another, 8-billion-euro tax break ($9.5 billion) to French bosses and told the working class he would continue to push through his neo-conservative counter-reforms, notably the non-replacement of half the public workers who retire. He announced a meeting with union leaders on February 18.
The more radical unions want to stage another strike and protest before the 18th, a move the conservative unions are resisting.
These struggles need to confront racism since police repression, mass unemployment, among other problems have hit non-white and immigrant workers here for a long time. International solidarity with strikers in Martinique and Guadeloupe must also be part of the struggle. In this age of endless imperialist wars and economic meltdown, this means developing a revolutionary anti-racist communist leadership of these militant struggles, breaking with the union misleaders and fake leftist electoral parties.
Teachers Shut Universities
On February 2, teachers struck at over half the 83 French universities on February 2, with the strike continuing and general assemblies being held on February 4 on many campuses. Students are gradually joining the protest movement.
The teachers are opposing counter-reforms which make it harder for members of the working class to become primary and secondary school teachers and give university presidents greater control over faculty working conditions and careers. These counter-reforms are the French enactment of a May, 2006 European Commission decision to force all European universities to serve the capitalist class more directly. A national university protest is scheduled for February 10