By Vicki Morris
On 29 June the French parliament voted a change in the status of the public owned national power company EDF-GDF (Electricité de France-Gaz de France). EDF-GDF became a sort of "société anonyme", a joint-stock company, open to 30% private capital.
Private shareholders can in future reap profits from the labour of the EDF-GDF employees. In time, no one doubts, the government's plan is to open the entire company to private capital, until it is wholly privately owned - until it is privatised, in short!
The vote in parliament was no surprise: the right-wing government of prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin has a huge majority, and can pass what it likes. The size of the opposition movement outside parliament also was not more than one would expect - but very enouraging for that!
The EDF-GDF employees had received promises - ho, ho, ho - from the government that their statut, the terms of their employment, will not change with the change in the company's status. Indeed, there have been some pay rises. And the statut will continue to apply, the government says, to new recruits.
And yet, still, the EDF-GDF workers staged industrial and political action: strikes, of an hour a day duration to whole days, demonstrations, and several "Robin Hood" actions, such as temporarily cutting the supply to politicians' homes and reconnecting poor people who had been cut off, delivering power free for a time to public services such as hospitals.
This was part of a campaign, in the main instance by the large CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail) union federation, to oppose privatisation. The unions know that the government will come back one day to attack the statut of the workers. And they genuinely gave voice to the sentiment that power generation and supply should be kept in public hands, not parcelled up and sold off to completely unaccountable private body to make profits from.
On the CGT website - http://www.cgt.fr - you can read some of the political reasons why the CGT opposes privatisation, if also a rather uncritical appreciation of the service as it has been in public hands since 1946:
"Access to energy represents a fundamental right and an essential element in the fight against social exclusion The availability of plentiful, high-quality and low price energy can be a vital economic and social tool, indispensable to the development of society, for as long as this right is dissociated from the logic of the marketplace.
"It is thus that, since the nationalisation of gas and electricity in 1946, the necessary investment in the means of production and supply has been developed in response to need and it is you, paying your bills, who have paid for all the equipment that allows you to have some of the safest and cheapest electricity and gas in Europe."
Why must all that change now? The CGT says: "European directives, decided by the [European] states, have imposed free competition on energy and this deregulation combined with privatisation is leading to significant rises in prices and doubts about the level of the service throughout Europe."
Writing after the passage of the bill through parliament, does the CGT despair? No, it reassures itself that this measure, like the recent attacks on pensions and the ongoing attacks on health provision, do not correspond to the "deep feelings expressed by a growing number of citizens". They propose: "The CGT invites you to demand of president Jacques Chirac that he organise a referendum on the energy question".
Is this a realistic response to the threat posed to CGT members, EDF-GDF employees, long-term? Or a realistic strategy to hold out to the French public to defend one of their "fundamental rights"? No, not at all, but it is all the CGT is offering for now.
In the current situation, where the official opposition, the Socialist Party, agrees with the general drift of government policy on most things if not this particular privatisation, and no other organised political force is big enough yet to offer a political alternative, the unions are forced more and more into being the political opposition. Yet they are reluctant, terrified you might say, to play such a role.
What would it mean for a trade union movement to wield decisive political force? Why, a general strike. We saw that last spring and summer, with the big strike wave led initially by the teachers, but joined by many others around the pensions issue.
Then Raffarin's government learnt its lesson: do not bring in big changes all at once, tread softly, talk endlessly about "social cohesion", talk to the unions, promise them things - promises need not be kept.
Union leaders learnt some lessons as well. In spring 2003 they nearly lost their grip on their members, but they resisted calls to organise the general strike that was the logical next step in the social mobilisation, and successfully demobilised the movement, demoralised many, and handed a victory to the government. They will not easily let such a potentially explosive situation develop again.
As predicted, after facing down the movement in 2003, the government is back for more. On EDF-GDF, the unions did fight, at least the sectors directly affected fought, the rank and file militants right up to the last. But the union leaders, especially Bernard Thibault of the CGT, gave it to be understood very clearly that once the vote had gone through, the industrial action would stop, and in any case nothing major should be done to upset the public. And union leaders put the brakes on the more imaginative protests, those where the union's members showed who in society really has the power.
The CGT website has recently had a revamp and a new rubric has appeared at the top of it: "CGT - pour de nouvelles garanties sociales".
This phrase more than suggests, to even the slightly informed observer, that the CGT is preparing to watch as the government destroys all the existing social guarantees, one by one. Rank and file CGT members must not let it!