French strike shakes right-wing government

By Fred Gaboury, People's Weekly World, 7 December 1996

Solidarity and militancy paid off on Nov. 29 when a 12-day strike by French truck drivers won an unprecedented agreement that lowers the retirement age from 60 to 55 years and provides one-time bonus of about US$600. And in what many observers see as the most important concession was the agreement of the French government to help meet the drivers' demands by taking immediate steps to amend regulations to guarantee that drivers be paid for down time

Fearing a mass disruption similar to last year's 24-day transport strike, the government said it was ready to help to end the dispute by aiding early retirement for drivers and cutting employers' payroll taxes. On Nov. 29 the French government signaled its intention to intervene in behalf of the strikers when its spokesman said, The state is ready to take responsibility, in particular by facilitating an agreement on retirement and by contributing to payroll charges.

The settlement came when other other unions began laying plans for a general strike in support of the drivers. the Communist-led General Confederation of Unions (CGT) called for a day of action across the country and the Force Ouvriere (FO) union said it would extend the industrial action to other transport sectors unless an agreement was reached by Dec. 1.

The five main rail unions called on members to support the strikes by all appropriate means. Workers at France's state-owned gas and electric utilities held a 24-hour strike on Dec. 3 and Air France and other French airlines staff launched a two-day strike.

European newspapers were quick to characterize the settlement: Seldom has a profession obtained so much through a 12-day strike, one French tabloid said, while the more upscale Figaro asked if France had become the most ungovernable country in Europe and answered the question in the affirmative.

Even the Wall Street Journal said the strike won something truckers should have had long ago, the right to be paid for all on-duty time, rather than just time on the road. And the Financial Times of London said the truck drivers' victory may be contagious and worried that it may increase the chances of a heavy Socialist victory in 1998 legislative elections.

The New York Times pulled no punches in its article reporting the end of the strike. Saying that the government was dealt a setback when it was forced to intervene, the Times continued: Widespread public sympathy for the strikers reflected mounting discontent with the state of the economy and deepening dissatisfaction with the 17-month-old conservative government of President Jacques Chirac. It characterized the settlement as another blow to the government's policy of holding the line on workers' benefits and changes in work rules.

During the strike pickets, buoyed by public sympathy and the support of fellow unionists, set up some 250 barricades and blockaded roads, ports, border crossings and fuel depots. In their boldest move, strikers blocked access to the Grigny fuel depot south of Paris. The depot supplies more than 90 per cent of fuel to the capital's huge hypermarkets, as well as gasoline for ambulances, police vehicles, fire engines and the military.

By the time the strike ended more than 180 key roads were wholly or partially blocked by the drivers The motorway between Lyons and Grenoble was blocked, causing 10-mile backups, and the city of Clermont-Ferrand was effectively cut off by the dispute.

Road freight shipments from the Mediterranean to the Channel remained at a virtual standstill, fish shipments in western ports began to rot on the quays and a number of factories, including the Renault plant in Douai, have stopped work due to lack of spare parts. In several towns in southern and western France, local officials began rationing gasoline as scores of gas stations ran dry.