Yesterday, UK Chancellor George Osborne launched unprecedented social cuts, as part of the new Coalition government’s Comprehensive Spending Review. Spending was slashed by an average of 19% across all government departments, and unemployment is expected to rise by around a million as a result. That the cuts had been demanded by the same financial institutions that got a trillion pound bailout from the previous government was underscored by confident predictions that UK PLC would now keep its ‘AAA’ credit rating. Meanwhile millions of working class people in Britain and Northern Ireland are today counting the cost, and worrying about their uncertain futures.
But they need only look across the Channel for an example of determined opposition to government austerity measures. France is currently convulsed by a wave of protests, strikes, blockades and occupations, as President Nicolas Sarkozy seeks to implement two year increases in the state pension age.
One of Osborne’s announcements was that the British state pension age would go up to sixty-six, a rise of six years for women. French workers are angry about having to wait until sixty-two for their pensions, but that is just the tip of the iceberg, and merely the latest reactionary reform introduced or threatened by Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement government. While there have been large numbers at union-organised rallies, a series of rolling strikes has paralysed key industrial sectors, and occupations of oil depots have raised the prospect of bringing the whole country to a standstill.
However, over the last couple of days, Sarkozy’s government has moved to break the blockades, using a mixture of riot police and the assistance of trade union bosses. Depots in Donges, Le Mans, and La Rochelle have been attacked. Workers occupying the depot at Fos, near Marseilles, had already been evicted last Friday, 15th October, when ten busloads of riot police faced fifteen protesters left behind after the General Confederation of Labour union had called off a temporary blockade. The union’s strategy of merely symbolic occupations was confirmed by their representative in Martigues, who told the WSWS, “The aim of the blockage of the depot was not to hold it ad vitam aeternam [for all time]”.
As the WSWS report continues:
“[…]the CGT does not make the issue of the occupation of an important oil storage site a strategic question for the working class. It gives the impression of being combative, but that is not the case. In fact, the CGT general secretary, Bernard Thibault, has insisted on several occasions that he does not want to block the French economy, and that he is simply looking to renegotiate the attacks on pensions and jobs being carried out by Sarkozy.”
The pension legislation is now expected to pass through the French parliament by the start of next week, and union leaders have signalled they want to wind down the movement against Sarkozy. Like union tops around the world, the French bureaucrats have sought to manage and control the anger over the pension reforms and other issues, calling a series of demonstrations and marches, at which workers and young people have heard similar speeches time and again. However, support for the action remains high, and there is concern in French ruling circles that the anti-Sarkozy movement may have escaped the control of those who would manipulate it for their own ends.
According to the same WSWS article:
“Columnist Michel Noblecourt wrote yesterday in Le Monde: “Running out of steam is not on the program [of the demonstrations]… exiting from the crisis is difficult.” He added that union leaders had previously described the October 19 day of action as a “last gallant fight purely for purposes of honor,” before the cuts passed. However, these plans were thwarted by “radicalization,” that is, by “the unexpected mobilization of high school students and industrial action in the refineries.”
In France, Greece, South Africa, China, and now Great Britain, workers fighting back against ruling class austerity measures face the combined weight of the state, the corporations, the mainstream media and the unions. Only by taking their struggle into their own hands and uniting across oceans can they hope to overturn “savage cuts” in living standards, wherever they may occur.