By Vicki Morris
The 3 April in France was a day of action against planned pension "reforms". The participating unions estimated that 580,000 people demonstrated in 70 towns, most of them public sector workers.
Government estimates for those on strike were 32% among civil servants, 16% of hospital workers, 30% of schools staff, 20% each of France-Telecom and the post office. Eighty per cent of flights were cancelled. There was serious disruption on the national railways (SNCF).
The percentage of workers who are union members is very low in France - people tend to join only if they are activists. All workers have a part in electing workplace representatives who are usually nominated by the unions.
What "reforms" are the unions rejecting?
French public sector workers have good pensions, better than workers in the private sector. The right-wing government of Jean-Pierre Raffarin wants to end that - rounding down, of course. Public employees should make bigger contributions towards their pensions, work more years before being eligible for the full pension, and the value of pensions should be linked to prices not wages, says Raffarin.
The background to the proposed attacks, as in much of Europe, is France's ageing population - something that most sane people celebrate is always posed as a problem by the boss class. And they are always adamant that they will not pay for any social costs of longer life expectancy.
Since the 1980s, French governments have tried several times to "reform" pensions, but so far they have achieved little of their desired programmes. What they have achieved, however, has been significant.
Edouard Balladur in 1993 succeeded in breaking the link between the pensions paid to private sector workers - 60% of the workforce - and wages, linking them instead to prices.
This gradually erodes the value of the pension, makes it more necessary for workers to make private provision, and weakens political support for the state pension regime.
As in the UK, this "withering on the vine" scenario erodes support for the state pension - and makes today's pensioners bloody hard-up.
The continual commissioning of reports and inquiries, and debate about the pensions "crisis", and doom-mongering has had an effect on people's expectations. Private provision is becoming more important simply because more people are doing it now. Nearly half of French households save in addition to contributing towards their pension. Most French people now believe that there will be a pensions crisis in the future, even though they do not like successive government proposals for dealing with it. (In France the system is "pay-as-you-go", known as "repartition" (distribution). Those in work pay current pensioners' pensions).
There is little support among the public or zeal among politicians for increasing the role of "funded" pension schemes - where pensions are paid from funds accumulated and invested on the stock market. When the value of the shares goes down, or when the funds are mismanaged, or simply looted, such schemes can be disastrous.
Some politicians and some right-wing trade union leaders have dressed up "funded" schemes in revolting national dress. President Jacques Chirac is one. Nicole Notat, when she was leader of the CFDT made this astonishing remark: "European and French workers must ask themselves if they will continue to let Anglo-Saxon pension funds continue to have the monopoly in the capital of French and European enterprises". Notat left the CFDT to set up Vigeo, a private company that grades other companies on their ethical business practice and in the long run, she hopes, will make her rich.
What are the prospects for this particular set of reforms? Before it is even announced - the bill will be published on 28 May, the government minister responsible will appear on TV to explain his "reforms" on 24 April - the major trade union federations and unions have planned a number of days of action, the biggest a strike and national demonstration coming up on 1 May.
Will we see a repeat of the events of November-December 1995, when Prime Minister Alain Juppé tried to "harmonise" the public sector pension regime with the recently "reformed" private sector regime? Those heady days saw massive protests and practically a general strike throughout the public services. Juppe was forced swiftly to withdraw his proposals just to get France moving again.
The major unions and the militants and leftists within them will try to make it so. But 1995 will be a hard act to follow. Raffarin must be banking on that. He must believe that one day the unions will be too weary to resist yet another politician throwing himself at their gates with yet more of the same old reform claptrap, and hoping that that day has come. Let's hope he's wrong. Let's hope that Raffarin, like Juppé - who, discredited, was booted out of office in 1997 - is just the latest politician in a long line the unions can repel. Sooner or later, however, the unions are going to have to find a permanent political riposte to the unremitting bourgeois onslaught.
Note: The main contributory pension schemes are administered not by the state, but by bodies representing the employers and the workers, described collectively as "the social partners". Part of this administration is "negotiation" over the level of contributions each side makes. Each industry tends to have its own scheme: there are hundreds of schemes, including different schemes for managers and "lower" grades, and the sectors where industrial militancy is greatest, such as the SNCF, tend to have better schemes from the workers' point of view. The element of worker representation in the current regime is popular and helps explain French workers' attachment to it.