Workers Struggles Grow in France: Two Million on the Streets, Universities on Strike

The national general strike on Thursday, Jan 29 in France was a resounding success for the unions, left political parties and many other groups who called it, with some two million workers in the streets, equal to the largest of recent mobilizations. While in Paris the march of some 200,000 was not exceptionally large, the protests were very widespread, with major demonstrations in dozens of cities that have rarely seen such marches. Support for the strike in the opinion polls was high as well, with 70% of the French agreeing with the aims of the strike.

In Paris, the demonstrators came mainly with the banners of the unions, with both the largest federations the CGT and the more leftist SUD being most in evidence. There were large numbers of professionals, health workers and social workers, marching in protest of the Sarkozy government’s attacks on all public service sectors. The strike occurred against the background of the nearly two-week old unlimited general strike in Guadalupe, where the latest demonstration called out 65,000 people nearly 15% of the island’s total population.

Despite the protests, Sarkozy vowed to continue with his “reforms”, his word for his attacks on the public sector, which predated the economic crisis, but have only intensified since then.

On Saturday, a national meeting was called to try to unify the many struggles of professionals in education, health, justice and social services. The Paris meeting was packed with 700 participants and filled the day with tales of the disastrous effects of the Sarkozy reforms in slashing budgets and attempting to roll back worker gains of past decades. The reforms reflected policies being implemented across Europe.

However, when there were calls for action, including refusing to carry out unjust laws, those at the podium resisted. “Words are actions” protested one of the organizers of the event. In the end there was broad agreement only on the need to set up coordinating committees with representatives from all the professions. A few participants also called for broadening such committees to representing all those in the struggle, including workers in the private sector, students, undocumented immigrants and the unemployed.

The confrontation with the government broadened on Monday, when professors voted to begin a national unlimited strike of all university and research institutions. Some 300 elected delegates from 74 universities, including a few student representatives, met at the Sorbonne University in Paris as the General Assembly of the National Coordination of the Universities. The delegates were elected for the meeting by the faculties –they were not union officials. They unanimously voted to extend to all institutions an unlimited strike which has already begun at Strasbourg University and some other campuses. The key demands of the strike were to roll back government decrees that would make graduate studies vastly more difficult, limiting them essentially to the wealthy, slashing enrollments, and greatly reducing the pay of new professors. The strike was also protesting the recently passed “loi LRU” which, under the pretext of giving individual universities autonomy, concentrated all powers in the hands of university directors, taking then way from the faculties.There was a general realization that the strike could only win if it gather the support of the students, and reached out to other parts of the educational system. The delegates agreed to adopt a demand to undo the Sarkozy “reforms” for primary and second school teachers. There was general agreement that mobilizing students, organizing an active strike with political meetings substituting for classes, was a priority. However, only a handful of students were delegates. The formula adopted for the next General Assembly, three faculty delegates and one student delegate per university, was also not the most welcoming for students, who,after all, vastly outnumber the faculty.

The first key test of the strike will come Tuesday, the first day of the strike on most campuses, where support from the bulk of the faculty and students will become visible. A second key test will be on Thursday, with the first mass demonstrations. If the faculty can succeed in bringing in students and the broader community, the movement in the university may fan the flames of workers’ protests throughout France.