Francois Coustal, from the editorial committee of the New Anticapitalist Party’s newspaper Tout est à nous, spoke to Ed Maltby about the French government’s attempt to simultaneously remove the legal right of French workers to retire at 60, and to force them to pay into their pension funds for a longer period.
EM: How is the struggle against the pension reforms going?
FC: The next important strike day will be 7 September — a general strike — and we expect it to be well-attended. Everyone is building for it, from the Parti Socialiste (Socialist Party) to the radical left. It is a demonstration against the pensions bill but within that there are nuances of slogans and demands. What will be the next step is a more complicated issue. Furthermore, the pensions bill will be being debated in the National Assembly [lower house of the French parliament] in September.
EM: What is the strategy of the PS?
FC: The majority of the working class are against the reforms, they are very attached to their right to retire at 60. However not everyone thinks we can maintain the current 40-year pension payment period.
The PS has basically accepted the extension of the pension payment period, but they are formally for the defence of the right to retirement at 60. That is platonic; it does not sit with an extension of the years of payment [cotisations]. But it gives us a fragile framework for a united front. The NPA is for the defence of the 40-year payment period — and we call for it to be shortened to 37 years. The PCF (Stalinist French Communist Party) formally shares our position.
EM: What is the NPA’s strategy?
FC: We want a big mobilisation for 7 September to fight against fatalism; to prove that it is possible to fight against the bill; but we argue for a strategy of escalation. We argue that a big strike day every two months is not sufficient. If the 7th is a success, we will need to follow up rapidly.
EM: Which sector might go into further action?
FC: The best organised sector in France is transport. They have the right to retire at 55 years. But they have felt that these reforms will eventually get them, despite their relative advantage. First the private sector, then the public sector, then transport workers will be hit by this reform.
In 1995 the public transport workers had their pensions attacked and they saved them. In 2003, in the struggle over public sector pensions, the transport workers thought they were safe, and they participated in the movement but not so much. And now they understand the idea that even if they are not being directly attacked, they will still be hurt by reform.
The air traffic controllers were mobilised around a struggle against a European directive which attacked their conditions. There is an atmosphere of discontent among them, but not around pensions.
EM: Has there been any fall in working-class combativity?
FC: If we take the overall figures, it is doubtless that there has been a fall in combativity. But this is has taken place over 20 years. Year on year there is a fall, and then on occasion there are very big movements.
In recent years there have been many small conflicts, often over sackings and very defensive questions. The big movements have been centralised and over general questions.
There has been little in the way of huge centralised movements beyond the level of a single sector since the big strikes of 2007-8. There have been plenty of isolated local strikes, where we have intervened, but there has been a difficulty creating a common movement. The challenge now is, will there be a big generalised movement over retirement? It is a perspective we are fighting for, but we are not sure.
EM: How is NPA union activity organised?
The NPA organises discussion meetings of NPA militants sector-by-sector to exchange ideas; they do not take decisions. There is no common discipline in the sense of having a “union fraction”.
We are arguing for discussions in unions about extending the action from 8 September — not just building for 7 September. So, either that a given sector could have continued strike action, or attempting to rapidly call another strike day, faster than the union leadership will want. The idea is to get a movement with credibility.
The NPA has not taken a decision to not have union fractions, but nor have we taken a decision to have them. We have a tradition of respecting the independence of trade unions. It is an old tradition and an old debate on the French far left, given the weight of revolutionary syndicalism in our militant history.
EM: Does the NPA contest union elections in an organised way?
FC: In the tradition of the LigueCommuniste Revolutionaire [Trotskyist group which formed the bulk of the NPA], the idea was to construct union tendencies — not Party tendencies but oppositional tendencies in the unions.
The idea was that these tendencies should aid the projection of the party but not be subordinated to the Party. This is under discussion. The LCR had a body of theory on the subject but the NPA has not necessarily inherited all the baggage of the LCR.
One difference between the LCR and the NPA is that the NPA has militants in all the unions, and the LCR had union members in a certain selection of unions. Also, not all NPA members are in unions, whereas this was necessarily the case in the LCR.
Some people in the NPA raise a leftwing criticism of union membership. This is the subject of a debate which has been going on for two years, not necessarily in a systematic manner.
EM: What about other ruling-class attacks?
FC: The other big attack is budget austerity, which means cuts in public services. That means cutting jobs above all. This is done on the basis of natural wastage — only one worker is replaced for every two who retire. The two biggest sectors are schools and hospitals. The historically more combative sector is schools, where a strike is being planned for October. But in the hospitals, we don’t know exactly where the job cuts are going to fall and staff are more difficult to organise because of that.
There is a sharpening of attacks on immigration. This summer, the major offensive, rather than against Arabs or Africans, has been against Roma. The government uses the police to attack the mobile encampments of Roma, to break them up, force them elsewhere, where they are attacked again. A movement to defend the Roma is being set up.
Often the Roma encampments are in municipalities controlled by the PCF.