France: Protests Escalate Against Public Service Cuts

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Over 300,000 public sector workers demonstrated throughout France last month as part of a week of action against attacks on public services.

Thousands of postal workers facing a restructuring programme involving tens of thousands of redundancies stopped work. This was followed by railway workers who took action against falling wages and ongoing job cuts. Then it was the turn of teachers, hospital staff and civil servants.

With over half of France's teachers on strike it was the biggest day of action since the huge mobilisations of spring 2003. Teachers, like other workers, are facing specific attacks. One teacher described planned reforms of the education system as the 'institutionalisation of inequality'. But there is a wider context which unites all the strikes. Workers across the public sector are being asked to work more for less pay. Civil service unions estimate that real wages have fallen by 5 percent since 2000. Railway workers' wages have fallen by over 15 percent since 1981. At the same time redundancies mean that working conditions have steadily deteriorated over the same period.

There is a real and widespread awareness of the threat to public services. Last year over 200 local government representatives in one rural area of France resigned in protest at cuts in services. Alarm is not confined to those working in the public sector. Recent opinion polls have shown 65 percent of the population support the strikes. As one postal worker put it last week, 'They're doing everything to turn the postal service into a business like any other. But it goes much further than just the post. We live in a society where only profits count. We can't go on like this.'

This is the latest round in a fight over public services which has been going on for nearly a decade. In 1995 three weeks of strikes and demonstrations by workers who united across the public sector defeated the Juppé government's attempt at pension reform. In 2003 the government focused its attacks more narrowly. With union leaders failing to play the combative role they had played in 1995, some groups, notably teachers, suffered a defeat over pensions. But the resilience of the rank and file networks set up during these struggles, along with growing anger at relentless neoliberal attacks on public services, has raised the prospect of another major confrontation.

The catalyst for this could be right wing prime minister Raffarin's attempt to undermine the 35-hour week introduced by the previous Socialist government. When this reform was first introduced many hoped it would improve their working lives. But employers have fought every step of the way to sabotage this prospect. France's major unions have called for mobilisations on 5 February in protest at this latest attack on the 35-hour week. This offers a chance to build on the success of January's action and forge unity across different sectors against what one striking railway worker called the attempt to 'hand everything over to the market, to the private sector, to competition'.