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France: Protest Stronger Against Pensions Reform Bill

Translated Wednesday 29 September 2010, by Isabelle Métral and reviewed by Isabelle Métral

Mobilization is developing deeper root: last Thursday’s strike was indeed broader in the private sector than on September 7th, and there were more young people, more women marching in the streets. For all the government said, trade unions have succeeded in widening the protest against its pensions reform bill.

Last Thursday’s strikes and demonstrations were “clearly a success”, French trade unions said. For the government, mobilization was “losing steam”. The quarrel is not just over figures. It reveals how much the sequel depends on the perception of the balance of forces in this contest.

Whereas it had pretended to lend a sympathetic ear after the first national strike on September 7th, the government this time opted for denial. As early as noon last Thursday, when most of the demonstrations had not even started, it gloated over a “noticeable decline in the number of strikers”, without taking the number of strikers in the private sector into account. The figures in some sectors were indeed slightly down, but in others they soared. The CGT union of rail-workers found 49.85% of SNCF workers on strike, against 51.8% on September 7th (SNCF figures were37.06% and 42.9% respectively). Among secondary school teachers, who had already been called twice to come out on strike earlier this month, the figures were slightly down (45% according to their main trade union); in primary schools the proportion of strikers was 55%. But in primary and secondary schools more than half the teachers were either in the streets or on strike. The government is proclaiming to all and sundry that the number of strikers was down in the national public sector (21.44% against 26.76%), but the figures were up in the local and regional public sectors. The CGT federation of public workers unions puts it at above 33% and says “mobilization (was) stronger and wider”.

That the movement is developing deeper root is manifest in the increasingly stronger protest against a reform aimed principally at keeping people at work longer. All the polls confirm it: more than 70% of all French people oppose the raising of the retirement age. The swing in the public opinion is evident in the fact that this time more branches relayed the call to strike. Between 50 and 80% of Total refineries’ workers (according to Total management) joined the strike. In the Isère département , some 60 metallurgy firms, from Péchiney to Alcan, through Caterpillar, Citroën, Thales or Valeo, stopped work from 2 hours to a full day. The Paris CGT union of sales assistants said that in this sector there were more workers out than on September 7th. The Essonne branch (south of Paris) noted significant increases in the number of workers in the movement in the private sector and quoted Carrefour Market and Ed, Intermarché and Auchan among others. Figures that the government obviously ignores in its reckoning.

But what the government cannot wholly conceal is that globally demonstrations were massive. Even as the ministry for the Interior was about to announce that there were not above one million marchers (against 1.2 million on September 7), the demonstrations in Paris and Marseille had to split in two, so numerous were the demonstrators. All in all, the CGT said the number of demonstrators in the 230 marches added up to 3 million. The marches, most of them very dynamic, attracted greater numbers of women and young people this time, proof that the protest is spreading to categories of people who may often find it difficult to go on strike or to join the demonstrations.

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