MASSIVE nationwide strikes and demonstrations were held across France on Tuesday 19 October, the 6th day of action against government plans to worsen retirement arrangements.
An estimated 3 million people took to the streets in over 250 French cities large and small, with the action replicated from Rouen in the north to Marseilles in the south, and Lille in the east to Bordeaux in the west. In Paris alone a third of a million took part to protest against proposals to change the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62, and the full retirement age from 65 to 67. The Senate finally voted for the change on 22 October, by a narrow margin.
Rolling strikes and actions over two weeks have caused disruption to transport and oil supplies, with all 12 refineries blockaded, ports blocked and 200 oil depots picketed. In the south, a mass of oil tankers prevented from docking can be seen outside the ports of Marseilles and Toulon. Police have cleared depots, only for strikers to return to block them again. One refinery, Grandpuits in eastern Paris, was reopened on October 22 by riot police on government orders. Around two fifths of filling stations are running low or empty. Food and other goods are starting to run short. Buses, trains and flights have been cancelled. In Marseilles, rubbish has piled up on the streets and dinner ladies (mostly single women on very low wages) have shut more than half of nursery and primary school canteens.
The 'no crisis' crisis centre
Sarkozy’s crisis centre, set up to deal with the action, stated officially there is “No crisis”. Of course, the numbers taking part are disputed by police and government, but local journalists have employed their own counts and footage of demonstrations on YouTube has testified to the scale and breadth of the involvement. The actions have included a wide range of workers from both the public and private sectors. Students and schoolchildren have joined in, saying that French provision was fought for by their grandparents, and a later retirement age means both a worsening of their prospects and fewer jobs as posts are occupied by older workers for longer. Around 14 per cent of schools have been affected by protests.
The government is forcing the change through, counting on the two week half term holiday to weaken the action. It employs the usual “race to the bottom” argument – that French retirement provision is better than elsewhere in Europe (although this is questionable) so people must accept deterioration. This is part of European Commission’s drive to weaken workers’ retirement provision throughout the member states. So far the French public are unconvinced – according to polls 71 per cent support the strikers, in spite of the widespread disruption. Two more days of action are planned by the unions.
One demonstrator, Vero du Cheyron, 51, a social worker with the mentally disabled, said: "I am protesting today because this reform is a symbol of a society which always favours the rich and hurts the little people. When the banks go under, the government saves them. But it's not saving us. So I'm fighting for me and for my children. They say that people are living longer so they have to work longer, but they don't say anything about the health problems that come by doing that.”