300,000 workers march vs. austerity in France

Workers demand no closing of Nexcis solar panel plant in Rousset, France.

Workers demand no closing of Nexcis solar panel plant in Rousset, France.

On Thursday, April 9, 300,000 workers marched in 80 cities throughout France at the call of four major unions: the General Confederation of Workers (CGT), Workers’ Force (FO), the major education union (FSU) and Solidaires, which is concentrated in mass transit and the postal system. The Paris march alone was 120,000.

The strikes reflected by this turnout closed a few tourist spots, like the Eiffel Tower, but mainly affected schools, where 25 percent of the teachers went out, and the postal service, where more than 6 percent of the workers struck.

The French Democratic Federation of Labor (CFDT), which is closely tied to the Socialist Party, which currently runs the French government, did not participate, saying negotiations were more effective than street marches. Its leader, Laurent Berger, proclaimed, “Austerity doesn’t exist in France.” (Le Figaro, April 9) The party is socialist in name only and supports French capitalism.

Many of the CGT contingents said that this was just the first protest. There will be others.

As in many large French protests, there were flashes of politically sharp humor. Bakery workers, for instance, marched waving half-eaten baguettes. Their spokesperson said that prices were going up as jobs are going down, so that half a baguette is all that people are able to afford.

The reactions in the major business-owned media were significant.

French television, of course, couldn’t ignore 300,000 people in the streets against austerity, but they tried to minimize the turnout and the effects of the strike. The daily paper Le Figaro didn’t even mention the number in its coverage.

If you looked hard, it was possible to find some coverage in the English-speaking press, but generally the media in both languages were much more interested in analyzing the split in France’s fascist party, the National Front (FN), which won about 25 percent of the vote in local elections held nationwide a few weeks ago.

Marine Le Pen, the current FN leader, was upset by the openly anti-semitic, pro-Vichy, xenophobic and racist remarks made recently by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the FN. The pro-Nazi Vichy ran France under German occupation during World War II.

The differences between them aren’t really political. It is more about a softer image on Marine’s part to the hard-nose approach of her father, who after all started his career as an “intelligence officer” — torturer — in France’s war against Algerian independence.

But their dispute has had a major impact on the rightward course of European politics. Both the English-language press, like the New York Times, and the French press have devoted a lot of attention to it.

The workers in the street don’t support the FN and made no reference to this sparring among their enemies.