Liberté, égalité, fraternité: One big union

Submitted by Anon on 23 October, 2003 - 5:06

By Vicki Morris

When France got back from its summer holiday, the French left could hope for a "warm autumn" after the mobilisations of May-June against pension reforms, plans to decentralise education and attacks on education workers. But it was just a hope.
The government's pension plans went through - the government, after all, has a massive parliamentary majority, and all the initiative... what an initiative!

In the "rentrÉe", the government is inflicting on the working class massive attacks on unemployment benefits, cuts in health benefits and a boost to private health insurance, a 3% cut in income tax in the 2004 budget, rises in indirect taxation, an increase in job schemes that will force more people to work cheap for the bosses, attacks on the 35-hour working week, cuts in public sector jobs, attacks on immigrants, and wholesale privatisation of the public utilities.

The French economy is in a bad condition. The government says it is taking many of the above measures to get unemployment down by encouraging enterprise and creating jobs. Unemployment is almost 10%. The budget deficit is soon to be 4%, above the 3% demanded by the European Stability and Growth Pact.

Many private companies are cutting jobs; the giant company Alstom that makes trains, cruise ships and gas turbines nearly went under but has been bailed out by the government. Alstom employs 118,000 people, 28,000 in France, and many jobs will go in the attempt to make it viable.

To make things better for the working class - through creating jobs - the government first proposes to make things much worse. And in whose interests is all this done really? The government is a government for the Mouvement des Entreprises de France (Medef), the organisation that represents private companies, the ruling class. It is not envisaged that the ruling class will pay any price whatever to mend France's economy.

Some trifling indications of this to add to the obvious: a proposal in the parliament to end tax exemption on ëgolden parachutes' - the money given to retiring top company execs - got nowhere.

That this class of people is corrupt as well as greedy was shown recently in the trial of ex-prime minister Alain JuppÉ (he of the massive strike wave of December 1995). He is implicated in a corruption scandal that took place during his time as head of the political party Rassemblement pour la RÉpublique (RPR; now the governing Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP)), and when the current president Jacques Chirac was mayor of Paris.

Famously, Chirac is immune from prosecution while he is president.

JuppÉ is accused of having colluded in a scheme to use money from Paris local government to fund RPR party workers. If found guilty he faces a suspended prison sentence and fines. More to his chagrin, he will effectively be ruled out of the 2007 presidential race. JuppÉ admits that such scandals went on, before legal state funding of political parties was introduced, but denies all responsibility.

So here is a viciously anti-working class government, with a huge parliamentary majority, running amok, setting out to ëdo a Thatcher' in France, in a climate of economic insecurity and widespread political disillusionment.

In what condition is the opposition? The political opposition is weak. The ëleft' - the Socialist Party, aided and abetted by the Communist Party and the Greens - puts no obstacles in the path of the ruling class, in government or out of it. The far-left is achieving creditable scores in elections, but does not make the political running. The biggest ëpolitical' opposition comes on the industrial front from the trade unions. But they are inadequate for the task.

An example, while the biggest trade union federation, the ConfÉdÉration GÉnÉrale de Travail (CGT) is roaring its opposition to measures such as the planned privatisation of ElectricitÉ de France (EdF) and Gaz de France (GdF) its leaders are compromised. Back in January they proposed that the EdF/GdF workers accept planned pension cuts - the workers voted no. How far are the bureaucrats prepared now to go to stop privatisation?

In the spring and summer, and even now, the response of the anti-government federations to the pension and other "reforms" was to call "days of action" and marches, and explicitly not to organise the general strike that could have united all workers against the attacks that will ultimately affect them all. To do that would have risked... political meltdown, the bureaucrats losing control. They cannot go ëjusqu'au bout', to the end, all the way.

Of course, the ConfÉdÉration franÁaise dÉmocratique du travail (CFDT) has been a partner to the government from the start, signing any number of agreements on pensions, social security, etc. For this they have lost members; wholesale, branches of the CFDT have decided to join the CGT.

Yet the method of the CGT leaders - and of course we are not surprised - is the same as that of the CFDT leaders: negotiation where possible, and inevitably a measure of compromise. Along with the CFDT and the other federations, the CGT has signed an agreement on ëprofessional training'. In this they accept the general framework set by the government: that training at work meets the needs of business; and much of it is to be done in workers' own time.

There is a big battle on for rank and file trade unionists, for the far left within the trade unions, and in the political arena, to define a political opposition to the government that is not just piecemeal and reactive. And for this they need to get control over the unions and the federations, and make more links between workers across sectors.

And they need to build the links between those in work and the unemployed, and those who cannot work.

Ideally there would be only the one trade union federation. Those who organised cross-sector (ëinterpro') meetings throughout May-June are working now to create a virtual ëone big union' on the ground and to arm it with political arguments against the government and the bosses and all those on their own side who squeal about the knocks but accept the general framework and will not go ëall the way' to reject it.

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