Strikes Grow in France

By Nat London, the Militant, 12 April 1995

PARIS—A strike wave in France, taking place in the midst of the presidential election campaign, continues to shake up politics here. Walkouts are now spreading among postal, railroad, bus, and subway workers as well as to the state-run airline, Air Inter.

With production at a virtual standstill at Renault plants March 21, the auto giant agreed in negotiations to do what it had vowed never to do—reopen the 1 percent wage offer it had made two weeks earlier.

The morning of the Renault talks, Prime Minister Eduard Balladur gave an exclusive front-page interview to the business daily La Tribune warning, We have to be very careful We are in a competitive world. When I see the extraordinary efforts being made by American and German companies to restructure and remain competitive, I say we must be on guard. Nevertheless he moved away from his previous intransigence to wage increases. I am not saying that we don't have to raise wages, he said defensively. We just have to do it when it is possible.

The same day, Balladur caved in to the striking Corsican public workers who were demanding that the island be classified a high cost of living zone entitling them to an automatic 3 percent wage bonus. The government granted the classification but initially resisted extending the bonus to retired workers. They have now agreed to negotiate this question.

The Corsican strikers went back to work once the government agreed to pay their back wages for the five weeks they were on strike.

Renault strikers press for wage hike

As Balladur was promulgating his views in the big-business press, several thousand Renault strikers from plants throughout France demonstrated in front of the company's headquarters in Boulogne-Billancourt during the reopening of wage negotiations. Thousands of others blocked plant gates at struck plants. At the Renault motor and transmission plant at Cleon in Normandy, 16 buses ferried workers to a local demonstration and then back to the plant to await the results of the talks. At the assembly plant in Maubeuge near the Belgian border, workers occupied the plant gates for the first time, cutting off all incoming and outgoing trucks.

At the Choisy-le-Roi parts plant, where this reporter works, trucks were allowed in for the first time in a week as a court order imposed heavy sanctions and management threatened to fire nine strikers. Later that afternoon, however, five buses pulled up unexpectedly in front of the factory and 250 young strikers from Renault's Lardy Technical Center joined us at the plant gate. They had heard about the threats to the strike at Choisy while demonstrating at Renault headquarters that morning. Instead of going back to picket at their own plant, they decided to come over to Choisy and help us out.

Since Choisy strikers were prohibited from stopping trucks at the plant gate, the Lardy workers decided to block the entire road in front of the factory on their own. No trucks got into the plant for the rest of the day as, together, we awaited the results of the Billancourt negotiations.

Renault management finally came up with a 2.5 percent wage increase plus a 100 franc monthly increase for all workers. This means about a 3 percent to 3.5 percent increase for most workers.

The two unions leading the strike movement on a national level, the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) and the French Democratic Confederation of Labor (CFDT), refused the wage offer as insufficient. The unions are demanding a FF1,500 increase for all workers. This would amount to a 20 percent hike for most workers.

Strikes, demonstrations, and work stoppages have been continuing in a number of plants. There was another national demonstration of Renault workers March 28 as the company reported FF3.64 billion in profits ($732 million) for 1994. At the same time Renault president Louis Schweitzer announced he would go no further in raising wages.

Candidates adapt to new situation

As workers assert themselves through strike action across France, presidential candidates are being compelled to adapt to the new situation. Jacques Chirac, the leading candidate and a conservative Gaullist politician, is the best example.

Chirac's public proclamations have undergone a radical transformation since January when he was a very distant second or third candidate in the race. The British weekly The Economist pointed out March 25 that during Chirac's last term of office as prime minister in 1986-88 he espoused a French version of Thatcherism. Now he presents himself as a true Gaullist, standing above the left-right divide, seeking to reconcile the interests of the whole nation.

Chirac launched his new look in February when, as mayor of Paris, he seized abandoned buildings to house homeless people, announced that wage increases were justified, and that he opposed any reductions in the public medical insurance and retirement systems. Initially, other candidates denounced Chirac's social demagogy. Lionel Jospin, the Socialist Party candidate, accused him of Chiraci-Marxism.

Chirac explained his changed politics to the conservative daily Le Figaro March 25: There is a tear in the social fabric like our country has never seen, which is getting worse and imperils the cohesion of the nation. According to the reformed politician, unemployment and unequal access to housing, health care, and education were putting in jeopardy the very principles of the French Republic.

Today, even Jean Gandois, a leading employers' representative, has publicly called on his fellow capitalists to accept the necessity of raising wages. When companies are doing well, there should be higher wages to augment buying power, he told La Tribune March 28. He warned that refusing to increase pay at profitable companies could be a provocation to the unions.

Instead of taking the unions head on Gandois counsels instead going for massive cuts in the social wage including social security, medical care, and lowering the retirement taxes that employers must pay.

In spite of elections; strikes continue

As the final weeks of the election campaign approach, workers at Air Inter are organizing their third three-day walkout. Each 60-hour strike costs Air Inter the equivalent of its entire profit for 1994. Strikes and work stoppages are continuing at many Renault plants and among some postal workers.

On March 30, Air Inter strikers will be joined by a one-day national walkout of railroad workers and Paris bus and metro workers. Many transport workers see this as a first step toward opening up a more sustained fight like Renault.

Fellow workers at Renault are in high spirits. While it is clear the employers have not abandoned their plans to get competitive and reduce our standard of living, especially by going after our social wage, the recent actions of workers across France has boosted our confidence and demonstrated that the bosses will face stiff resistance.