France fights back against Thatcherite ‘reforms’

French workers have only to see what has been done to the British working class in recent decades to understand the ramifications of their present fight.

France has been hit by a massive wave of protests and strikes. The student placard being held above calls for: 'Knowledge sharing, power sharing'.

The French bourgeoisie has thrown its latest president, Emmanuel Macron, into the class battle that it has been trying, unsuccessfully, to win for some years now. That battle is being forced by the French government and is, according to Macron and his stooges, ostensibly to ‘modernise’ the economy and break the grip of the trade unions.

Of course, the battle is to break the solidarity of workers by destroying trade union organisation, smashing the public sector contracts with workers and eventually making the working class pay for the current crisis of capitalism.

The French organised working class has been historically a tough nut to crack, ever since May 1968 when workers and students went on the streets together to fight attacks on them both and came very close to overthrowing the French government.

In the late seventies, when Britain got Thatcher with all the attacks on organised workers and state-owned industries that were to go with it, the French ruling class was still wary of the power of organised labour. A number of times since then, various French governments, be they described by themselves as socialist, centrist or rightist, have tried to reintroduce the attack on workers’ rights and state industries, but have always eventually backed down when faced with militant workers and students.

In the year when France is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1968 rising, it seems extremely stupid or arrogant for a government to attack the most organised workers in the country (the transport workers) and the students.

Macron is trying to push through legislation which will stop students going to university to study on the courses of their choice but instead put them on courses that their school qualifications seem to lean towards.

And in the middle of this battle, Macron has also decided to take on another opponent, the ZAD (Zone to be defended) camp in Notre-Dame-des-Landes. This camp was established around 10 years ago in protest at an attempt to build an airport – an attempt that has now been shelved.

Most protesters left with the victory, but around 250 people, who have made it their home over the years, decided that they would stay on and run the bit of land as a communal farm. The French president sent 2,500 heavily armed and armoured gendarmes into that camp to evict these people, whom he dismisses as anarchists (not that it would matter if every single one of them were), and in a matter of days, following pitched battles, the group in that ZAD grew to 700.

A week later the police were attacked by a group, reported as numbering 300, around some of the land that they had cleared which was retaken by the ZADists using sticks and petrol bombs. Some 3,000-4,000 then marched onto the site to hold a rally and to defend the camp. It is reported that a sizable group within that march and rally were rail workers.

The daily newspaper, Ouest France, has said of President Macron’s initiative that it had turned into a fiasco. “More than 4,000 stun grenades have been fired [in Notre-Dame-des-Landes] and at the end of the day, the situation has not improved at all,” adding, to ram its message home: “On the contrary, it has become worse.”

A total of more than 45 gendarmes and about 150 activists have been injured in confrontations at the camp and yet, at the time of writing, the camp still stands.

An offshoot of this heavy-handed attack on protesters is that many other ZADs are now being set up around the country and 15 universities have been occupied and declared to be ZADs, including a site at the Sorbonne in Paris and the birth-site of the 1968 uprising – Nanterre university – which has been blockaded by several hundred people.

Many of the ZADists, as they are now becoming known, openly state that they hope to join forces with striking workers and win a crushing victory.

Meanwhile Montpellier, in the south of the country, has seen thousands of ZADists, students and workers fighting running battles with the police following protests to defend students occupying universities and the original ZADists of Notre-Dame-des-Landes.

President Macron has been trying to make a name for himself as a ‘strong’ president, and when the unions opposed his labour law last year, he cut short the time that the topic was in the public arena by using executive decrees to avoid a parliamentary debate about the changes.

He has threatened to do the same again with his rail reforms unless unions agree to his wishes during the two months of negotiations that he declared starting in March. We cannot but agree with Olivier Faure, the incoming leader of the Socialist Party, who likened the approach to inviting people for talks “with a revolver at their temple”, although we are not sure whether M Faure was speaking with admiration or condemnation.

The disruption on the French railways has been mainly solid, with only the odd train running, internally or internationally, on strike days. Commenting on Macron’s declaration that he will “stand firm”, Laurent Brun of the CGT’s rail branch said: “We’re going to have a marathon if the government forces it.” He also gave warning that the strike could extend beyond its scheduled end of 28 June.

Rail unions have also answered Macron’s claim that the public is with him by pointing out that a fund set up to compensate striking workers’ lost wages had risen to over €460,000 from nearly 14,000 donors so far.

As well as striking rail workers, protesting students and ZADists, France has seen civil servants out on the streets, along with pensioners, prison guards and workers at state retirement homes.

Rubbish collectors have taken action again and staff at Air France have forced the cancellation of hundreds of flights over a pay dispute.

The leader of the CGT union, former car worker Philippe Martinez, told L’Humanité newspaper: “In 1968, it started like this. There wasn’t a call for a general strike, but there was a chain reaction of different movements which came together.”

If this struggle broadens and develops even greater momentum, Macron could find himself in very deep trouble next year as the competitive tendering of state-owned services starts EU-wide in 2019 – an event that the CGT is on record as bitterly opposing.

We wish the French working class and its allies success in their struggle against the government of Macron, the chosen child of French imperialism. May their militancy long continue to inspire us.