French strike highlights capitalist scheme

By William Pomeroy, People's Weekly World, 6 January 1996

LONDON—The great wave of strikes and demonstrations that began in France during the last week of November and continued until the week before Christmas was directed against the immediate policies of the government of President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Alain Juppe, but in a broader sense it was aroused by the economic program being implemented by the non-elected top bodies of the European Union (EU).

In particular, a highly centralized policy known as convergence for the economies of the 15 EU member states, aimed at establishing by 1999 a European monetary union with a single common European currency as its core, makes it necessary for members to bring their financial circumstances into line through deflationary measures. It has been in furtherance of this policy that the Juppe government took the steps that provoked the strike action.

Demanded by EU policy-makers is that France drastically reduce its public debt and bring a curtailed budget into balance, to be achieved through cuts in public spending coupled with higher taxes. To carry this out, Juppe proposed a wholesale reform of the social security system, which would bear the brunt of spending cuts.

Affected would be the welfare payment of family allowances which would be frozen this year and henceforth taxed; the extension of the contribution time for eligibility for old age pensions from 37.5 to 40 years; the health system would have spending on hospitals and doctors cut while health insurance contributions by the people would be increased; and income taxation would be increased by a new 0.5 percent levy on all incomes in order to boost social security funds but actually to go into paying off the public debt.

Along with this was Juppe's proposed axing of the state- owned rail network, the Societe Nationale des Chemins de Fer (SNCF).The proposal was to close down unprofitable sections of the 20,000-mile rail system. Such a step would mean the loss of thousands of jobs, and the strike action by the SNCF's 180,000 workers, which launched the general upheaval, was against this proposal.

Underlying these policy decisions is the general line pursued by the big business architects of the EU, operating through its European Commission, of passing the costs of its structural adjustments onto the working people of Europe. The price of pushing through the European monetary union is for each member of the government to attack and drive down the living standards of its people.

In France there may not have been, initially, a clear-cut realization by the millions of demonstrators that it is not so much an unpopular government and its measures that they are resisting, but the less-visible councils of the EU, However, there was a widespread feeling of unease that something is wrong with the way the European structure is being built. The French trade unions, themselves displaying the greatest unity that their usually conflicting federations have ever attained, have less than 10 percent of French working people in their ranks, but the strikes and demonstrations had the support of up to 80 percent of the French population. It has indicated how deep is the discontent being stirred by EU demands.

That feeling, furthermore, is not limited to the French people. On Dec. 13, in Brussels, 60,000 Belgian public sector workers, in a march and demonstration organized by the combined Socialist and Christian Democrat trade union federations, protested the move by the government of Jean- Luc Dehaene to slash the 1996 budget by over $3.5 billion, almost wholly sliced from welfare spending.

The Belgian government is acting in compliance with the EU's Maastricht Treaty which sets out the steps toward a common currency. The Belgian workers protested the threat to jobs, wages and pensions.

Over the past year there has been growing unrest in both Belgium and the Netherlands over the attack on their welfare states. With the French example, the protests may spread throughout the EU. In the London Times on Dec. 4 one of the leading conservative political commentators called the French strikes surely the most threatening event in Western Europe in the 1990s, raising the alarm about the gathering storm.