Kate Connelly interviews John Mullen, a teacher taking part in the recent strike action in France and an activist in the Nouveau Parti Anti-capitaliste (NPA).

Why do you think it is so important to participate in this strike?

This is the latest big attack on ordinary people’s living standards so whereas they found billions of Euros to bail out the banks all of a sudden they are telling us that we have to work 2 years longer because there’s not enough money to pay the pensions – and we don’t believe them! And the vast majority of the French people don’t believe them: we’ve got 71% supporting the movement and numbers among working-class people and among young people are much higher than that, it’s incredibly popular.

As you say, over 70% of people were against the so-called ‘reform’. Would you say the movement has pulled new people into activity?

It’s been the biggest movement for the last 15 years; there were 7 or 8 days of action since September, on the last one there were 260 demonstrations across France and every time there have been hundreds and hundreds. Some towns that haven’t seen a demonstration for 20 years were having demonstrations. In a small town I know well, of 40,000 people there were 8,000 people on the demonstration.

The number of strikers was well into the millions: people argue, were there 2 million, were there 3 million on a given day of action? It’s hard to tell exactly, but extremely high numbers. And between the days of action, and perhaps this is the most impressive, tens of thousands of people taking continuous strike action normally decided day-by-day, each day a mass meeting deciding to continue the strike for another 24 hours, we’re talking oil workers, hospital workers, museum workers, library workers, dockers, Securicor – the money delivery people – firefighters, council staff, engineering factories.

And then there’ve been hundreds of more or less spontaneous rank-and-file actions, like the blocking of the oil refineries. Students in Pau, in the South, blocked the motorway and let people through the tolls free, occupying the motorway toll booths. So hundreds and hundreds of local actions, some of them very inspiring. The school canteen workers in Marseilles were one of the first groups to declare continuous strikes and fairly soon they were working with the dockers and oil workers in unheard-of alliances. A group of philosophy teachers in Lille organised collections for the oil workers.

It’s been a tremendous period of rebuilding class consciousness and class organisation. The street cleaners were very much on strike as well. So you have the regular days of action with millions of strikers and then certainly tens of thousands in between times – both public sector and private sector: that’s very important because the government has been very keen to divide us on those lines. And very much coming from the rank-and-file, it’s pretty clear that the trade union leaders were not happy to see the continuous strikes taking off.

It attracted a lot of young people. Why do you think that was?

A lot of people are very angry with Sarkzoy for a lot of good reasons and it was clear that this was the battle of the moment and so the University and the high school students got very much involved. They are quite right to do so. If their parents, who are 45 now, retire with very low pensions it’s their children who will be helping them out. And also, as they point out, if people are working longer, there’ll not be so many jobs for young people – and unemployment is very high already, especially amongst young people. The government squealed that 15-year-olds were too young to demonstrate, this is a government whose Justice Minister last year suggested lowering to 12-years-old the age at which you can imprison young people for crimes!

Some union leaders are scaling back the action. Do you think that’s right?

No, we could have won. The trade union leaders wanted big days of action because Sarkozy is not willing to negotiate with them and for the first time in a long time all the trade union federations, including the so-called moderate ones, supported the days of action and mobilised for the days of action. Because Sarkozy didn’t want to negotiate with them, so they wanted action. However, they didn’t want continuous strikes or a political challenge to the government because if the movement got too dynamic then their role as professional negotiators would not be important any more.

What can be done now that the law has been passed in the Upper House?

It’s very hard to say. It’s not impossible that the movement will take off again, but it’s looking harder. The oil workers, who were on strike for several weeks, have gone back to work but not demoralised, and they’re ready to move again if the movement rises again: that’s what they said. I think the main thing is that we have won a tremendous rise in class consciousness and class organisation – it’s not been for nothing at all. There will be more explosions. Now, will Sarkozy decide to halt further attacks for a few months because he’s been really scared or will he decide that now’s the only time he can really get them through and go right ahead with the next attack? I don’t have a crystal ball. Certainly he and his mates were very scared.

Sarkozy was looking for his ‘Thatcher moment’. The problem that the French ruling class have is that conditions for workers have not been slashed in the way they have been in other European countries. So making profits at the same level as capitalists in other countries is difficult because they’re having to give too much, for their liking, to the workers. Sarkozy is the most recent card played by the ruling class, the previous cards did not go down well! Villepin was thoroughly defeated by the movement in 2006 against the First Employment Contract, and that law was defeated after it had been voted in both Houses.

Certainly we need a permanent and national co-ordinating force, which can organise national action independently of the trade union leaders when necessary. We also need to rebuild our unions. They need to be much bigger. At the moment 8% of French workers are in trade unions, although many millions more are in collective bargaining agreements organised by the unions. Without the unions there wouldn’t have been a movement, but if we rely on the union leaders we won’t win.

What was the atmosphere like at your college?

It was slow to get moving because there’s very little tradition and it’s a working-class university where many students have to work to pay for their studies. But I was very pleased to see that when I sent an email around to my colleagues for the day of action 2 weeks ago, I immediately got 11 people saying “yes, we’ll go on strike” – that’s 11 out of 30 or so. And we were on strike again this week. This week [week beginning 25th October] on the day of action almost all the teachers were either on strike or moved their classes so that their students at least could go demonstrate. My colleague came back to his office to find a little note from his students saying “we won’t be coming to your class, we’re all going to the demo”. But my college was no the avant guard of the movement.

And do you think this movement has changed the people that have been involved?

Oh very much so. For the young people it’s brought up a new generation of activists. There are 83 universities in France and probably 15 of the biggest were very much involved in the movement with mass strikes and occupations and involvement in going out to help blockade the oil refineries along with the oil workers, mass meetings 3 times a week, exciting debate and great creativity. Certainly struggle transforms people. And people learn things. Oil workers and school canteen workers probably didn’t know that they had so much in common. One of my colleagues suggested the other day that we organise a collection for the street cleaners who’ve been on strike – university lecturers don’t usually think like that. This is a good sign. And this is somebody not particularly left-wing.

The university student movement, which hasn’t yet got to all the universities in France although it might rise again in the next week – had the first meeting of a National University Co-ordinating Committee all weekend, and stayed up all night discussing what to do next. This is young people’s democracy in action and people certainly learn a lot about the class struggle. At the moment arguments about the importance of the working-class fighting against the ruling class are very easy to put over in student circles.

Certainly at Tolbiac University in Paris a lot of the students felt that the way Sarkozy had got rid of the democratic ways to criticise the Bill made it illegitimate, and they also mentioned the racism of the Sarkozy government. Do you think that’s something that has fuelled some of the anger in the protests as well: a feeling that Sarkozy’s government and its politics are utterly politically corrupt?

Yes. Also there were very shocking corruption scandals over the summer with the Minister responsible for the attack on pensions finding his wife a job with one of the richest women in France whose tax problems suddenly disappeared at the same time. Very, very shocking. The racism, certainly Sarkozy has been working hard to build up the scapegoating of gypsies, of Muslims and of undocumented workers. There has been quite a lot of reaction in defence of gypsies and of undocumented workers, and almost none in reaction to the attacks on Muslims because the left, unfortunately, is hopeless on the question of Islamophobia. A demonstration against the ban on wearing the full veil on the streets, after working very hard, only got 50 people. We just did it because you have to do something even if there are only 50 of you.

John Mullen’s blog is at http://johnmullenagen.blogspot.com

Katherine Connelly

Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.