Sarkozy stares down French pension bill strike wave

On November 10, French President Nicolas Sarkozy signed into law his conservative government’s pension reform plan, under which the minimum age of retirement will be increased from 60 to 62 years, but those retired workers who wish to claim full pension benefits will be forced to wait until they reach the age of 67 instead of the present age of 65. The pension changes will be phased in from July next year and become fully enacted by 2018.

The law was passed by the French parliament, dominated by Sarkozy’s UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) party, on October 27, in defiance of a two-month long strike wave, which halted public transport services, blockaded motorways and halted deliveries of petroleum products from France’s oil refineries leading to a national fuel shortage. French students joined striking workers in protests, with around 400 high schools picketed by striking students.

Explaining why high school students were striking, Karim Boursali, a 17-year-old student at the Lycee Janson de Sailly in Paris, told the BBC News website on October 20: “High-school students have a culture of demonstrating, and when people feel directly concerned, as they are now, they demonstrate. Today we see in the employment market that there are 10 million job seekers, three million unemployed, including a third who are young unemployed. If older people have to work for longer, when young people arrive in the labour market, there won’t be any jobs left, and we will end up unemployed at the age of 25 and we won’t be able to contribute long enough to be able to get a pension.”

The strike wave has been compared to the popularly supported 1995 strike wave, which resulted in the defeat of the austerity measures planned by right-wing prime minister Alain Juppe. In October and November 1995, public sector strikes took place in response to a pay freeze and, the following month, railway workers struck in response to proposed job cuts and an increase in their minimum retirement age. Railway workers were joined by Paris’s metro workers, postal workers and school teachers and the strike wave soon spread across the country, forcing Juppe to drop his government’s retirement reform plan.

Strike wave

During the 2010 strike wave there have been eight days of nationwide strikes and demonstrations between September 7 and November 6. On the biggest strike days, on October 12 and 19, there were up to 3.5 million participating in protest actions against Sarkozy’s pension bill. On October 12, strike action grounded 30-50% of flights at airports in Paris and other cities and cut rail transport by 50%. By October 14, workers at all 12 major oil refineries had struck, leading to a major fuel shortage with a third of fuel stations running dry. French aviation authorities requested that incoming flights carry enough fuel to return without being refilled, anticipating that the shortage would worsen.

As the strike wave grew, so did popular support for the protests. On October 18, the daily Le Parisien newspaper published a poll by the CSA polling company that found that 71% of the French population were supportive of strikes against Sarkozy’s pension bill, compared with only 62 % support on September 7 and 68% support on September 23. When asked if they want a more determined strike, 61% of respondents in the CSA poll said yes. Since July, opinion polls have found that Sarkozy’s approval rating has remained at a record low of 26%,

From October 12, high school students joined striking workers in large numbers, sparking fear within the ruling circles of an escalation of the popular resistance to the austerity measures. After the October 12 strike, the London Financial Times observed that “France’s centre-right is still traumatised by the  events of May 1968 when students joined striking workers in rebelling against Charles de Gaulle’s economic and social policies”.

The satirical paper Le Canard Enchaine quoted Sarkozy as saying, “we must at all costs avoid the mobilisation of youth. For a government there is nothing worse than the joining of the social and education front. I’m not talking about teachers who strike when they return from vacation, but school and college students. They must be watched closely, like milk on a stove.”

Four universities voted on November 2 to resume blockades: Le Mans, Nantes, Saint-Etienne, and Pau. More universities are holding general assemblies of students to discuss future actions. Speaking to the Toulouse daily La Depeche du Midi on November 1, one Toulouse-Mirail University student explained: “We will discuss and vote [on November 2] on whether to restart the movement, which is focused on the pension cuts though there is also a broader anger, which is more political than social, among students.”

Another student explained that even though the government and the unions had ended the oil strike, there was still profound opposition to the austerity measures: “Of course the refineries and Marseille garbage workers are back at work, but that is after their strikes were broken by government injunctions, the workers are still very angry and they could go back on strike.”  At the Universite Lyon-2, students gathered to vote on future action and protest the detention of demonstrators at Corbas prison, according to an account in the Lyon-Capitale daily. They criticized the unions and the Socialist Party (PS)’s presumed 2012 presidential candidate, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who is currently the head of the International Monetary Fund.

One Lyon student said: “We’re in the street because we have had enough of Sarkozy. We had had enough of [former right-wing president Jacques] Chirac before and we will have had enough of [International Monetary Fund chief Dominique] Strauss-Kahn....What we do not want anymore is Sarkozy, capitalism, and globalisation.” Another student added: “Today, we see the limits of the trade-union system ... Because capitalism is aging, the trade unions are aging also.”

Tax cuts for corporate rich

Sarkozy has argued that the pension age increase is needed to slash France’s budget deficit to a European Union ceiling of 3% of GDP (the government’s 2010 budget deficit is running at 8% of GDP). The French government however has maintained tax cuts for the richest households and companies. The 2005 pre-recession Cope tax cut generated a €22 billion loss in government revenue over three years, to the benefit of major companies. A report by the Counsel for Compulsory Levies of the independent semi-judicial Court of Audit calculated the real tax rate for major French companies, claimed to be about 33%, to actually be approximately 13%. The cancellation of some of those tax deductions for companies could put €15-€29 billion a year back into French public finances.

France is not the only West European country where capitalist governments are imposing austerity measures on working people. On November 6, up to 100,000 people marched in Lisbon against the cuts in social spending by Socialist Prime Minister Jose Socrates. The protest was in preparation for a national strike on November 24 against cuts in government workers’ wages of up to 10%, the capping of social benefits and a rise in sales tax.

On November 9, a student protest in London against a government-imposed tripling of university fees gathered 50,000 marchers, some of whom occupied the Conservative Party headquarters and clashed with riot police. In Britain, the trade unions have made no plans for nation-wide strike action to protest the brutal austerity measures announced by the coalition government of Tory Prime Minister David Cameron and Liberal-Democrat deputy PM Nick Clegg. The Cameron-Clegg government plans to make ₤83 billion in spending cuts over the next four years, including eliminating 500,000 public-sector jobs.

In an attempt at racist scapegoating Sarkozy’s government has mounted a renewed campaign against immigrant Roma (Gypsies) from Romania and Bulgaria. Last year, the French government deported 10,000 Roma back to Romania and Bulgaria. This year, the government has begun dismantling half of the estimated 600 Roma camps. The French authorities have even started to take the fingerprints and other biometric data, to make sure the Roma do not come back, despite the deportations being a violation of the European Union’s anti-discrimination laws, including its Charter of Fundamental Freedoms. The UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has sharply criticised France’s crackdown against the Roma and said racism and xenophobia were undergoing a “significant resurgence” in France.