AROUND 100,000 workers employed by the SNCF (French national railway) are taking strike action this week, following Saturday’s mass demonstration of more than 40,000 people through the centre of Paris to stop the privatisation of France’s public sector.
A strike by the CGT trade union federation on the RATP rail service in Paris is also expected today.
French rail freight is already being opened up to private competition and the trade unions also warn that 11,000 kilometres of rail track will be lost.
This week’s rolling strike action – renewable every 24 hours – was called over a freeze in recruitment by the SNCF, amid widespread distrust amongst the workforce of the government and SNCF bosses’ intentions.
It follows the recent struggle against the privatisation of the SNCM public ferry service to Corsica, when French troops were sent in to forcefully break up the occupation of a ship by workers.
France is in a state of turmoil and this is widely regarded as the biggest movement of workers since the 1995 strikes that brought down the Juppe government.
The action coincides with the insurrectionary movement amongst the impoverished unemployed youth in the suburbs of Paris and in cities across the country, following the deaths of two teenagers.
Emergency state powers have been extended by parliament for another three months.
The CRS (French riot police) have been sent into the banlieue (suburbs) to try and quell the uprising.
Local authorities have been given powers to impose curfews.
Apparently, in one locality in northern France, a total curfew on people of all ages was imposed at night-time and even the electricity was cut off.
The only light was said to have come from police helicopters hovering in the sky above, who were shining their helicopter beams on the roads down below.
Last Saturday there were demonstrations against the government’s privatisation plans in Toulouse and Bordeaux as well as Paris.
The Paris march, which assembled at the Place d’Italie, was dominated by big contingents of the CGT and SUD trade union federations, who came from departements (localities) all over France, from Brittany to Marseille.
They included hospital workers, rail, bus and tram workers, electricity and gas workers, telecoms and postal workers, teachers and civil servants.
A leaflet distributed by the Federations Syndicales Des Cheminots, CGT – FO – SUD-RAIL – FGAAC (the rail workers’ unions) said that, after having privatised Air France, France Telecom, GDF (French Gas) and the SNCM, the government was now starting the sell-off of the EDF (French Electricity).
‘So it is perfectly legitimate for us to ask,’ they said, ‘what is the future for the SNCF?’
There was a contingent of immigrant workers angrily protesting about housing conditions in Paris.
They were demanding improved, affordable accommodation, not expulsions of poor workers and refugees, in the wake of the terrible series of three fatal fires in the French capital recently.
Other demonstrators showed their opposition to the repressive measures against working-class youth and the privatisation of the Corsican ferry service.
‘We are against all the suppressive measures,’ said one young protester.
‘They don’t solve the problems of the suburbs, which are lack of employment and poor education.’
All along the route of the march, which dispersed near the French National Assembly with the singing of the Internationale, workers shouted anti-government and anti-privatisation slogans.
Demonstrators from the SUD federation were shouting ‘Tous ensemble, tous ensemble – Greve generale!’ (‘All Together – General Strike!’)
One worker said: ‘We always call for a general strike.
‘In all the public sectors they are asking us to work more and pay more out and they are trying to privatise the public sector.’
A striking SNCF rail worker spoke in detail about the situation facing the industry.
He said: ‘The government plans to privatise the rail ways and refuses to hire new workers.
‘The freight service has already been opened to the private sector under European Union regulations – despite the vote of the French people against the EU constitution.’
Asked about the ferry workers’ struggle, he said: ‘The workers at the SNCM ferry service in Corsica have been threatened that if they don’t accept privatisation then the service will go bankrupt.
‘How can a state-owned company go bankrupt? It’s like saying if soldiers don’t accept a pay cut, the army will be bankrupt.’
He criticised the CGT leadership for not taking action to win the ferry workers’ struggle.
‘SNCM is being forced out of business in order for the private ferry companies to establish a monopoly in services to Corsica,’ he said.
‘All that will happen is once they achieve this, the private companies will push up their prices.
‘It is not competition on an equal playing field. There should be the same safety standards, the same security standards and the same pay and conditions.
‘Defence of public services, that’s what the whole debate is about in France today.
‘There are two different terms in French: user and customer. I believe in users.
‘Once you talk about customers, you are talking about buying and selling a product. It’s a different relationship. These services will no longer belong to the people.
‘You sell off a public company, private companies come in, they sell off the maintenance and they drive standards down.
‘They drive the service down to the point where the government has to step in and buy back what they once owned. So the public pays twice.
‘What we’re fighting for is that health, transport, education and energy must belong to the state to guarantee quality of treatment and true social cohesion and stop those who argue that profit comes first from winning the argument.’
He warned: ‘If the railways are privatised it will affect services on inter-city trains.
‘At the same time it will sacrifice safety – both of workers and the public.
‘We are opposed to any opening of the railways to private capital because it will just be a step to full privatisation.
‘We have already seen the consequences of rail privatisation in Britain – the high accident rate and the exorbitant prices.
‘Or you can look at America, where you can see there was no kind of rescue operation set up or envisaged for disasters like the one that happened in New Orleans and Louisiana.
‘We would really like an extension of the public services to essential social needs such as medicine and water, which is in private hands.
‘We are trying to thwart privatisation before it really gets underway.’