France Protests Austerity

Jake Mautner and Ben Webster

Riots in Greece, militant student mobilizations in Great Britain, general strikes in Portugal and Spain, Ireland on the edge of financial collapse: this is the emerging face of Europe under the threat of economic crisis.  And in France over the past few months, millions of workers and students took to the streets to protest the French government’s proposed pension reform bill, disrupting transit and nearly crippling its oil industry.  Battles around pensions in France have erupted at key moments over the last 15 years, often resulting in the withdrawal of proposed reforms. Although the bill was signed by President Nicolas Sarkozy on November 10th and is scheduled to go into effect in July, the struggles against cuts in social services revealed sharp  antagonisms in France as well as neighboring European countries that show no signs of resolution.

Across Europe and beyond, austerity is being imposed by the IMF and the EU as a necessary step towards economic recovery. In France, these measures were implemented though a pension reform  scheme which increases the age for full pension benefits from 65 to 67, and partial pension from 60 to 62 by 2018. Not unlike our Social Security system, the current pension system is a minimal guarantee against poverty for the retired and elderly.  Implemented by a Socialist administration in 1983, it is a cherished and fiercely guarded right won from the state.  If the reforms are implemented older workers will be forced to sacrifice two more years of life to the monotony and wear of work, and younger workers will face a job market with fewer opportunities. President Sarkozy was determined to reform the system despite the mass outrage it provoked in its most recent inception. Throughout September and October roughly two million joined the mass strikes primarily organized by the CGT (General Confederation of Labor) and the CFDT (French Democratic Confederation of Labor), the largest unions in France.

Austerity is a term commonly used in Europe and throughout the world to refer to the economic policies of spending cuts. Austerity refers to a range of actions governments take to trim their budgets during economic downturns, such as cutting unemployment benefits, cutting free social services, and raising the costs on public services, such as university tuition. These cuts are often coupled with tax hikes, creating a situation where everyday people's standard of living drops as austerity measures take effect. Governments often take these measures in order to assure international creditors—such as Wall St. banks that trade in bonds or the International Monetary Fund—that they are “credit-worthy” borrowers. If a government were to default on these loans, the powerful financial institutions that loaned to it would lose money.

In Europe, austerity is understood by many as an attack on working class people, not on the richest members of society or the banks that lend to governments. With the slogan, “We Won't Pay For Their Crisis,” unions, social movements, and everyday people have taken to their streets to protest these economic policies that make things harder for the majority of the population, and benefit the wealthy people who started the economic crisis through deregulation and speculation. In addition to protests in France, there have been huge demonstrations in Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Greece, England, and Italy.

In the U.S., austerity is being imposed as well, although it is usually described with different words. Cuts to state and municipal budgets that provide services, the expiration of unemployment benefits, higher local sales and other taxes, and cuts to social service agencies are all examples of austerity. Congress' and Obama's insistence on extending huge tax cuts for the wealthy while cutting services and support for the majority of Americans under the pretense of “balancing the budget,” shows how austerity is being used to benefit the wealthy.

For a look at the politics of austerity in Philadelphia, see defenestrator #44 (Spring 2009), “Philly Budget Wars 2.0: We Won’t Pay for Your Crisis. Tax the Rich, Not Us!” 

Many strikes began in response to specific workplace or industry conditions, but continued in support of the pension reform protests and strengthened their efforts. Unions called on truck drivers to block busy intersections and distribution centers as well as refineries. Slow-downs stalled major highways and toll booths were occupied allowing free entry. Regional Rail service was reduced, in particular the RER-B line serving Paris airports. Airport traffic controllers joined the strikes, affecting mostly domestic and European flights. By mid-October students in secondary schools joined the protests with walkouts, small demonstrations, and blockades. Their involvement arose in part due to the threat that already high unemployment among youth – reaching almost 25% in the past year – would be compounded by these reforms.  In Nanterre, students looted stores and attempted to take the streets amidst spirited physical confrontations with the police. In Paris suburbs such as Montreuil and Argenteuil, as well as in provinces such as Caen, police intervention in student demonstrations turned violent with the use of tear gas and flash balls. Approximately 260 secondary schools offered reduced service in the following week. In Marseilles, workers blocked port gates, while a strike among city workers lead to garbage pile-ups. Joining them were sanitation workers in Nantes who voted to strike. In Fos-sur-Mer, about thirty miles north-west of Marseilles, workers successfully blocked the oil terminals.

The most powerful rank and file actions centered on France's twelve oil refineries.  Workers at six refineries struck beginning in September, and the remaining plants engaged in partial strikes. Members of the CGT union aided strikers' efforts by blocking fuel distribution centers until police dispersed the workers. A panic was created with the possibility of a long-term fuel shortage, and as many as 2,500 gas stations ran dry while the government continued to deny the existence of the shortages. By the end of October, these efforts were ultimately counteracted by commanding workers to specific worksites, sending riot police to dismantle blockades at depots such as Donges, Le Mans and La Rochelle, and drawing from reserve and imported oil from elsewhere.  On October 26th the final draft of the bill cleared the Senate, and was approved the following day by the National Assembly. Protests continued into the following weeks but were unable to sustain the large numbers who came out in mid-October, as many as 3.5 million by some estimates.

It is necessary to analyze these events beyond their representation as a defeat, which is ultimately nothing more than a legislative defeat. Workers young and old, waged and unwaged, unionized and non-unionized came out en-masse to make their voices heard and to try to connect their struggles. Despite the fuel shortages and delays in travel, it is estimated that 70% of the French public supported the demonstrations. Thierry Dedieu of the CFDT union asks “Can we continue to extend indefinitely the length of the working life?” Sarkozy, on the other hand, has turned a deaf ear to the public, and contemptuously stated: "In a democracy, everyone can express themselves but you have to do so without violence or excesses." The growing solidarity of workers and students who’ve mobilized on the new terrain of austerity has become a force which Sarkozy and the interests he protects will have to contend with in any further attacks on social services.  In this regard, the pension reform effort is but a Pyrrhic victory for Sarkozy, and a tentative victory of consciousness and organization for those opposing it.

As 2011 approaches, the target of discontent is the bloated global capitalism that generated the economic crisis, and that now orders the working class to tighten its belt through concessions and cut-backs. The recession is not affecting everyone equally; the wealthy have used this opportunity to increase their wealth, while the livelihood of the vast majority is ever more precarious and miserable. The French example shows the importance of rejecting the imposed definitions and mandates of the politicians and their economists, which are ultimately constructed around corporate interests. Even as the French state hardens against mass protest and develops new tactics to silence dissent, demonstrations across Western Europe and those slowly emerging here in the US show that this economic crisis is a period in which resistance, not austerity, is necessary.

There is nothing inevitable about austerity, even here in Philadelphia, where every defense of public services is met with an infamous 2-word stonewall: “the Budget.”  Public education, libraries, fire protection, union contracts, homeless services, public transit, and neighborhood funds are under fire with every city and state budget cycle.  Nationally, once sacrosanct forms of social income like Social Security, the minimum wage, and collective bargaining rights are threatened.  A number of local groups  are already fighting cutbacks, but the changing political and economic terrain demands that we not only resist, but also advance our own ideas about the lives we want to live.

For more non-corporate coverage of the events in France, visit