frontline 10

France: The movement of May-June 2003

The months of May and June 2003 saw the biggest wave of strikes and demonstrations in France since the historic general strike of May 1968. On several occasions millions of workers struck and demonstrated against the government of Jean-Pierre Raffarin. Their demand was for the withdrawal of the Fillon Plan, a project for pension reform that would effectively put an end to the right to retire at 60 with a decent pension. At the same time teachers and other workers in education were fighting a project of decentralisation, a first step towards breaking up the state education system. Murray Smith looks at the May-June movement and its repercussions.

On 21 April 2002 Jean-Marie Le Pen, candidate of the far-right National Front, came second in the presidential election and went into the second round run-off against incumbent president Jacques Chirac. On May 5 millions voted not for Chirac but against Le Pen, giving Chirac, who had only got 19 per cent in the first round, a whopping 82 per cent. In the wake of his election, on a low turnout the following month's parliamentary elections gave an unimpressive victory to the right-wing parties over a dazed and demoralised Socialist-Communist-Green bloc. Jean-Pierre Raffarin became Prime Minister.

The French right thus found itself, rather to its surprise, in control of the key levers of political power in France - the presidency and the upper and lower houses of Parliament for the first time since 1995. Nevertheless, in the first instance Chirac and Raffarin moved cautiously, aware of the very particular circumstances of their election.

Perhaps in other circumstances they would have remained cautious. But circumstances didn't allow them to. Pressure was coming from both the European Union and the French employers organisation, the MEDEF. Chirac and his then Socialist prime minister and presidential rival Lionel Jospin had undertaken at the EU summit in Barcelona in March 2002 to do two things: raise the retirement age and privatise the state electricity and gas company EDF-GDF. It was time to deliver.

For many years the French right has suffered from an inferiority complex. Over the last two decades, governments of right and left have succeeded in imposing important parts of the neo-liberal project. They have privatised, introduced flexible working, spread job insecurity and restructured industry, destroying in the process sectors that were bastions of the unions and the Communist Party. But every time they have been faced with mass protests they have backed down. And in this respect the right has been no more resolute than the left.

Right on the Offensive

Consequently the hard core of the public services and the Welfare State are still intact. It is this hard core that Chirac and Raffarin are now setting out to attack. That what we are faced with is a general offensive, is underlined by the fact that the government has adopted an unprecedented battery of repressive legislation and is deploying the full force of the law against those who oppose it. The imprisonment of peasant leader José Bové is only the tip of the iceberg. A whole series of trade union and other militants have been prosecuted for what would previously have been considered as legitimate protest. New legislation directed against illegal immigrants also criminalises anyone who aids them.

In launching its plan for pension reform, the government no doubt anticipated massive protests. On the other hand, there was no danger of a political challenge. The Socialist Party had still not recovered from the hammering it had taken in last year's elections and in any case was in fundamental agreement with the right about what needed to be done. The Communist Party was severely weakened and politically irresolute. And the 10 per cent of the vote won by three revolutionary socialist candidates in 2002 had not been translated into a credible political alternative.

The unions would of course organise protests against the government's measures. But as subsequent events showed, if Raffarin had calculated that opposition from that quarter would stop short of an all-out fight to make the government back down, he would have been right.

So prudently, but firmly, Raffarin moved forward with his different projects. Reaction was not slow in coming. Between October and November workers from EDF, Air France and the railways took to the streets.

Pensions Struggle

The first spectacular setback for Raffarin came in January. A prerequisite for privatisation of EDF is to change its pension system, which prevents the company from showing a profit. A referendum was organised and to almost everyone's surprise, and against the recommendation of the two main unions, a majority of EDF employees rejected the proposal. This was widely seen not just as a refusal of the reform but also as a protest against the planned privatisation. The government announced it would go ahead anyway, but its authority had been weakened.

Saturday February 1 saw the first massive national demonstration against the Fillon Plan. The basic elements of the plan are that workers will have to work and make pension contributions for longer in order to be able to retire with a full pension. Workers were faced either with retiring late or trying to live off inadequate pensions. And that is where the real sting in the tail comes in. The only way to be sure of a decent pension would be to pay into a pension fund, the development of which is a basic aim of the MEDEF. The result would be that those who could afford to would do so, and those who couldn't would spend their old age in abject poverty. This two-speed society is fundamental to the neo-liberal project. What is being applied to pensions today will be applied to health tomorrow and education the day after. There will be a low quality minimum guarantee in the public sector, and if you want quality, it will be private health insurance, pension funds and school fees. As former Tory minister Virginia Bottomley once put it, 'If you want a good life, you have to pay for it'.

One of the most striking aspects of the May-June movement was the extent to which large numbers of people understood this. One of the catch phrases of the movement was 'choice of society'. People understood what kind of society was being prepared for them and they didn't want it.

Raffarin's technique was to engage the union leaderships in months of futile discussions while the law was being prepared. They fell into the trap. A second big day of action was called for April 3, this time on a working day. Hundreds of thousands struck and demonstrated. In retrospect it is now quite clear that the strategy of the union leaderships was to punctuate their discussions with the government with these days of action and at the end present their members with the concessions they had been able to extract. There was no real will or strategy to force the government to back down.

Two things happened to complicate this schema. In the first place Raffarin wasn't in the business of making concessions, and he would only have dropped his plan if he had been confronted with a full-scale general strike. The significance of that was not lost on Seilliere, who said in an interview after the end of the movement, 'For the first time in decades the will to reform of a government carried the day against negative, corporatist, extremist reactions of refusal and blockage'. Secondly the teachers strike erupted. One of the reasons was that teachers would be among those most affected by the pension reform. But even more important was their opposition to the decentralisation project. Behind the innocuous-sounding term of 'decentralisation' was the proposal to take 110,000 non-teaching staff out of the state education system and transfer them to local authorities, who would have no obligation to allocate them to schools, opening the door to privatisation of everything from cleaning to careers advice.

Teachers Strike

The eruption of the teachers strike complicated the situation. In the first place, it was completely outside of the control of the big confederations (CGT, CFDT, FO) and indeed to a large extent of the main teaching union, the FSU. Secondly, the fact that one sector had come out on all-out strike acted as a focus for the most militant layers everywhere, those who would soon be pushing for a general strike.

The decentralisation plan went through Parliament in March before anyone really realised what was happening. But teachers had already been mobilising for several months. From the first strikes in Bordeaux in March the action spread through the regions. By May the movement had really taken off. It was organised by general assemblies of striking teachers and other education workers and supported by the unions, especially the main teachers union, the FSU. It took the form of a permanent strike by a large minority punctuated by regular (once or twice a week) days of action where a big majority came out. The government was probably not expecting a reaction on this scale, but it stood its ground.

Militancy among teachers had been building up for several years. The fundamental reason is that they are at the sharp end of the social effects of unemployment, job insecurity and low pay. It is no accident that the strike was most massive in the poor neighbourhoods in and around the big cities. Once a solid base of support for the Socialist Party, teachers were seriously disillusioned by the Jospin government from 1997-2002. In the spring of 1998 a teacher's strike in the militant Seine Saint-Denis department, massively supported by parents and pupils, forced the government to unblock resources it said it didn't have. Two years later a national mobilisation claimed the scalp of Jospin's Minister of Education, Claude Allegre, who had arrogantly proclaimed that he was going to 'slim down the mammoth' as he called the education system.

A key feature of this strike was that the shock troops were young teachers between 20 and 30, in their majority women. They employed tactics such as occupations of public buildings, blocking roads, and similar actions, which were something of a break from the more traditional methods of teacher's trade unionism. All over the country neighbourhood meetings were organised by striking teachers and parents organisations that supported them. The debates that took place on pension reform and decentralisation and the coherence between the government's different projects helped to win the majority of public opinion (which held at over 60 per cent till the end of the movement, and indeed since) to opposition to the government's measures and support of the movement.

The teachers strike served as a catalyst for the rest of the movement. When the main unions called the next day of action on May 13 it was absolutely massive, with several million on strike and two million marching in demonstrations. On May 14 and 15 rail (SNCF) and Paris public transport workers (RATP) stayed out. These were sectors that everyone looked to because of the leading role they had played in the 1995 strike movement that forced the government of Alain Juppé to back down. If they had stayed out they would have been joined by other sectors. But the leadership of the main union, the CGT, pulled out all the stops to force the rail, bus and underground workers back to work, explaining that the next steps in its strategy were a big mass demonstration on Sunday May 25 and a new one day strike on June 3, letting it be understood that if the government didn't back down, that would be the time for an all-out general strike. Meanwhile on May 15 the other main confederation, the CFDT, broke ranks, did a deal with the government and accepted the Fillon Plan in return for marginal amendments to it. But a large minority of the CFDT violently denounced their leadership and stayed in the movement.


May 25 was massive and a call from the unions could still have led to a general strike, which more and more workers were demanding. Some other sectors were joining the teachers in their ongoing strike. This was particularly the case with local government workers and some state employees. After every day of action militant minorities in the SNCF and RATP stayed out, hoping to draw in other sectors. A new feature of the movement began to develop: the appearance of what were known as 'interpro' (short for 'interprofessional') assemblies. Centred on the sectors that were permanently on strike, and often initiated by teachers, they also involved the other sectors, those who only came out for the big days of action. They involved both rank-and-file strike assemblies and representatives of unions. In many areas these 'interpro' structures acted independently of the national union leaderships and actively pushed to extend the strike, and they sometimes succeeded. This was particularly the case in areas like Marseilles, Clermont-Ferrand (home of the Michelin tyre factories), St.Nazaire (shipbuilding) and Nantes. In these areas there were incipient regional general strikes.

Nevertheless the leaderships stubbornly refused to put their authority behind a strike call. Further massive one-day strikes took place on June 3 and 10. But the movement was in an impasse. CGT leader Bernard Thibault was booed at a mass rally in Marseilles on June 12 when he formally ruled out a call for a general strike. There was one final day of action on June 19, which was much less massive than previous ones. Nevertheless a final series of defiant demonstrations involved about 350,000, the hard core of the movement. Nothing had been gained except the cancellation on June 10 of 20,000 of the threatened job transfers in education. And the government hastily withdrew a plan for university reform when students began to mobilise.

So from the point of view of its immediate results the movement was clearly less successful than the last big strike movement in November-December 1995. Nevertheless for a number of reasons May-June 2003 was a more significant movement than 1995.

In the first place it involved larger numbers and broader sections of workers. 1995 was essentially a strike by the public sector with sympathy from the private sector but only symbolic participation. This time significant sectors of private industry came out. But not on all-out strike. In France public sector workers have strong job security and little risk of being sacked for striking. That is not the case in the private sector. In 1968 the unions never called for a general strike, but the rank and file outflanked them and the strike spread spontaneously. But 1968 came after twenty years of the post-war boom, with full employment and stronger workplace organisation. More than twenty years of high unemployment and short-term contracts have led to a situation of what has been called 'social insecurity'. Workers were not willing to take the risk of coming out on strike without solid union backing. This was true not only of the private sector but of sectors like the Post Office, where many workers are now not public employees but work on contracts where they have no security of employment. Nevertheless many of these workers did come out on the national days of action or when local unions called them out, and they solidarised with those who were on strike. That and the wide support of parents and many others workers employed in small non-union workplaces is why it is appropriate to talk about 'the movement of May-June' rather than just 'the strike' or 'strikes'. The movement was much broader than the number of workers who were on strike at any one moment.

The second noteworthy aspect of the movement was its extremely political nature. This was the case on two levels. In the first place, when Raffarin tried to discredit the movement by calling it political, the reaction of many workers was: yes, of course its political, here is a government trying to put through a political measure and we're opposing it, that's political. But it was also the case on a deeper level, in terms of the widespread understanding that what was involved was a 'choice of society'. In this respect, the fact that two reforms were going through at once helped to make the big picture clearer, especially when privatisation of electricity and gas and a reform of the health insurance system had already been announced.

This political character of the movement was denied by the union leaderships, with the exception of the small G10 Solidarity federation. In an interview on June 5 Christophe Le Duigou, number two of the CGT, explicitly stated that 'we don't have the political aim of defeating the government' and insisted on the trade union dimension of the struggle. This was a thoroughly disastrous attitude faced with a government determined to force through its measures. Françoise Fillon had every reason to pay tribute to the CGT at the end of the movement for its 'reasonable attitude' and 'responsible opposition'. Many CGT members saw things differently.

Defeat and Victory

The result of the movement of May-June was a victory for the government and a defeat for the movement. But there are different degrees of victories and defeats, and there exist several criteria for judging them. First of all an objective one - by the application of measures that are adopted. There is no doubt that the Fillon Plan and the decentralisation measures will have detrimental effects if they are applied. However there is also the subjective aspect. How is the defeat experienced ? Is it felt as a crushing defeat that discourages future struggles, or does it on the contrary act as a spur to future battles ?

In this case the outcome of the movement has not left the militants beaten and demoralised, disinclined to fight again. The feeling is that a battle has been lost, but not the war, which is in fact the case. We can say that the outcome is contradictory. In the short term, the government has won. But in winning it has probably weakened itself. The movement has activated a resistance that was always latent and that showed itself on several occasions from last October onwards. Secondly, the feeling that the government is illegitimate, that it does not have a mandate for what it is doing, has come to the surface. Previously this feeling was somewhat muffled by a confused feeling of guilt at having helped to put Chirac back in power. Thirdly the movement has mobilised and politicised a whole new generation of young workers.

Any judgement has to be tentative, to be confirmed or invalidated by future events. Those events will not be long in coming. Raffarin appears to be taking account of the potential dangers to his situation. He is now talking about putting off the proposed reform of health insurance, even spreading it over several years. On the other hand in the framework of the opening of the European market he will probably have to push ahead with privatisation of gas and electricity. And he is being pressured to stay on the offensive by hardliners in his own party and by the ever-present Seilliere, who has declared: 'A wind of reform is blowing, but not hard enough'. On the other hand a wind of revolt is also blowing.

The situation remains potentially explosive. A generalised climate of discontent and resistance is developing. Ministers have been warned by the civil servants who run the education system to expect an 'indescribable' situation when schools go back in September. With the support of the main secondary school teachers union, parent and teacher representatives on school boards have been blocking the application of some of the decentralisation measures.

Acting Up

Into this still simmering situation has come the strike of the acting profession. Traditionally not much happens on the political and industrial front in France in July and August. But that is not the case so far this year. A measure adopted by the government on June 27 makes it much harder for actors, musicians and other workers in the profession such as technicians to get unemployment payments when not working. This immediately provoked a strike that is spreading and has already caused the cancellation of many of the theatre and music festivals that take place in many towns over the summer, including two of the biggest and most prestigious ones, in Avignon and Aix-en-Provence. Very significantly, teachers and other participants in the May-June movement have been actively supporting the strike. Between that and the campaign for the release of José Bové, the press began talking about 'Chirac's rotten summer'. It got a bit more rotten on July 6, when voters in Corsica rejected an administrative reform in a referendum. The Corsican national question was one element in the vote, but Corsica was a bastion of the May-June movement and many voters also seized the occasion to vote against the government.

As everyone looks forward to the future confrontations the question is how to win next time. There will be many repercussions from the movement. Shock waves are being felt in the unions. Massive collective walkouts from the CFDT towards other unions are on the agenda. Sharp debates will take place in the CGT over the confederation's role in the movement. The SUD unions will be strengthened. And the FSU, which already has some members outside education, will probably also benefit from the crisis in the CFDT. There will be a discussion on the role unions should play in future movements. One key element for the future will be to maintain and strengthen the inter-union links at local level, which were such a positive feature in May-June.

Finally, it will be necessary to address the question of building a political alternative to the traditional left. The movement has underlined the urgency of such an alternative. Both the Socialist and Communist parties formally opposed the government's measures, the Socialist Party albeit quite hesitantly, aware that it would have done much the same in office. But neither of them played any significant role in the movement, their opposition being essentially limited to a belated and ineffectual campaign of parliamentary amendments. Although revolutionary socialist organisations, especially the LCR, did play an important role in the movement, none of them can claim on its own to represent an alternative. In the wake of the movement a number of appeals are circulating, seeking to promote debate and joint action on the left and to give the movement a political expression. One of the most interesting is the 'Appeal for a new Anti-capitalist Force' in Marseilles, 'capital' of the May-June movement, which involves representatives of the LCR, a series of currents from a Communist Party background and trade union and community activists. Hopefully the logjam that has so far prevented the regroupment of anti-capitalist forces in France will begin to be broken in the coming months.