French anti-pensions reform movement heads toward defeat

Leigh Phillips on the current state of the French trade union movements

October 26, 2010
6 min read


Leigh PhillipsLeigh Phillips is a regular Red Pepper writer and was previously a Brussels-based journalist and Red Pepper's Europe correspondent.

Le Monde Saturday carried an article on 23 October 2010 bearing the headline ‘ A L’intersyndicale, la ligne dure perd du terrain (At the intersyndicale, hardliners lose ground), an analytical report direct from the meeting of the various French union centrals by Claire Guelaud.

Apart from the interesting journalistic point I could make that such illuminating industrial reportage, once a prestigious ‘beat’ (the Industrial correspondent), particularly in the UK and latterly almost extinct, is vital for any informed citizenry, the article more importantly shows how far from adhering to the stereotype we have beyond France (and even domestically) -that the French are incorrigible ‘greve-ophiles’, ready to descend into the street at the drop of a beret. In reality, the movement is heading toward a defeat consciously constructed by a majority of the union leadership, who are petrified at a ‘debordement’, or overflow of the struggle beyond their control.

The unions have called for two further days of action – one of strikes and demonstrations on 28 October, during the week of a parliamentary vote, and a second of ‘mobilisations’ on 6 November, ahead of the promulgation of the law by the president. All of which might -on the face of it- suggest the union leaders remain committed, and that the movement will continue. Le Monde’s reporter describes how the union leaders are conscious that the persistence and strength of actions since the beginning of the autumn ‘renders impossible a premature halt to the movement.’

The mobilisations will continue both during the coming week’s All Saints holiday that Sarkozy has hoped would interrupt and drain the energy of the movement – particularly of students and pupils – and afterward. All the ‘reformist’ unions (Le Monde’s term for the more conservative unions, not mine) – the CFDT, the UNSA, the CFTC, and even the ‘tres reservé’ CFE-CGC – have all called on their troops to keep up the pressure.

However, as the journalist accurately notes, ‘the centre of gravity has shifted and the hardliners have lost ground.’

Not so hardline

The FSU and Solidaires union centrals, both of which had wanted earlier days of action, and Force Ouvriere, which continues to call for a general strike, did not win the day. (The latter two did not sign the resulting intersyndicale communiqué, but the FSU did.)

The crucial quote in the article is the one from Marcel Grignard, the ‘number two’ in the CFDT, the union central close to the Socialist Party, which quietly, and not so quietly in the form of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the IMF and frontrunner to be the party’s presidential candidate next time around, has supported the pensions reform.

Grignaud: ‘Our responsibility as trade unionists is to construct compromises that make sense, and not to threaten the legitimacy of parliament or politics.’

The intersyndicale communiqué reminds that the mobilisations will continue ‘respecting property and people’ and makes no mention of other actions and strikes concurrently underway, making links with other confrontations and thus generalising the movement.

Finally, reading between the lines, the UNSA and CFDT have already signaled their surrender, so long as Sarkozy is able to complete passage of the law, saying in essence that this would end the current level of industrial action.

‘We will stay together for as long as the parliamentary debate lasts and the imposition of this reform,’ said Jean Grosset of the UNSA.

‘For the CFDT, the closure of parliamentary debate and the promulgation of the law will create a new situation,’ said Grignard.

The CGT (the union close to the Communist Party) for its part has effectively done the same. In the words of Nadine Prigent, a member of the CGT executive: ‘We demand the immediate opening of negotiations. We will see what the head of state decides and will proceed step by step.’

The reporter is clear to say that none of this suggests a progressive ‘atterrisage’ or ‘landing’ of the movement: What direction the leadership of the CGT takes to manage the various internal tendencies within the union is crucial in the coming days, such as signs of a ‘wise prudence’ on their part. She notes that the desire on the part of the CGT to maintain a unity of action with the more moderate CFDT weighs heavily: ‘The CGT knows that the unitary character of the movement is decisive,’ remarked Prigent on Thursday night.

‘Given these conditions,’ writes the reporter, ‘6 November could be the last day of mobilisations and demonstrations.’

All of this is less important for what occurs in France as far as this particular law goes than for the rest of Europe in the face of the imposition of austerity. The markets, the European Commission, the European Central Bank, the IMF, and Berlin, the invigilator of EU member-state fiscal policies, are all watching the balance of forces in two member states in particular: France and Greece, where opposition forces are the most organised and politicised.

Confident austerity measures are working

Last week, the IMF and the Greek government began to tentatively discuss an extension repayment of Greece’s 110 billion loan. While Brussels and Berlin immediately rejected the idea out of hand, Costas Lapavitsas, a Greek economist at the University of London, told the EUobserver, the EU affairs online newspaper, that he believes that this opening of the discussion on Greek debt repayment is actually an indication that the Greek government and the IMF are beginning to feel more confident that the austerity shock measures are working.

‘This is basically signalling a new phase of the crisis. They believe that they are meeting success in stabilising the deficit. The recession is still unfolding and is pretty serious, but the government believes that this is looking like it will be within what the IMF expects for this year,’ he said.

He also said that a second crucial factor behind the comments is that the IMF and Greece have managed to push through the programme without stirring massive popular opposition to the extent that was originally feared.

‘There has been discontent, to be sure, but not in an organised or decisive fashion that could threaten the political situation.’

Elites feel, with some justification, that they have held the line in Greece. Thus it is not even that the failure of the French popular movements to halt Sarkozy’s pension reform will only add to their overall confidence, but that it will send a signal to them that they can push through anything.

The struggle in France is pivotal. The state of the struggle across Europe hinges upon what French grassroots forces beyond the trade union leadership are able to achieve in the republic in the coming hours and days.


Leigh PhillipsLeigh Phillips is a regular Red Pepper writer and was previously a Brussels-based journalist and Red Pepper's Europe correspondent.


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