Demonstrators took to the streets in their millions in France again on Thursday to resist the attacks on their retirement rights.

The French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, said in his 2007 presidential election campaign that ‘the right to retire at 60 years must remain’. Now that governments across Europe are trumpeting the idea that working-class people must pay for the global economic crisis, Sarkozy has broken his promise, now demanding that 62 be the official retirement age.

This is not only an attack on French workers who did not cause the crisis. It threatens to worsen youth unemployment (there will be fewer jobs available because older workers will be forced to stay in their jobs for longer) and, if successful, would boost the confidence of the right to continue smashing up the hard-won rights of fifty years.

Ignoring widespread and co-ordinated strike action against the measure and the protests of millions of people across the country, the Upper House in the French government voted in favour of the new law attacking the retirement age last week.

The government’s contempt for the opposition on the streets was reflected in their attitude towards opposition in the Upper House, where an obscure emergency measure was used to stifle debate and criticism of the bill.

The movement stays on the streets

The media is keen to claim that the passing of the bill in the Upper House signals the end of the anti-austerity movement. Yet on Thursday thousands of people took to the streets in Paris in a huge and vibrant demonstration, as well as in other cities across the country. Unions estimate that two million people demonstrated nationwide.

On the streets people know that democracy was trampled upon in the government’s rush to pass the law. Naima, a striking student, at Universit√© Paris 8, told Counterfire ‘70% of people were against this law but the government voted it in through force’.

She, like many others we spoke to, is critical of some Union leaders who have not reflected the huge working-class anger at the government’s attacks. This anger has not disappeared because the Upper House have passed the bill. At Naima’s college nearly all the students were on strike on Thursday.

Selma, an activist in the left-wing party Nouveau Parti Anti-capitaliste (NPA), told Counterfire ‘We are at a turning point because the leadership of the trade unions wants to end the movement whereas rank-and-file activist are still striking: for example in the petrol industry and the railworkers. And we have a new form of strike and resistance. There is a big sense of “tous ensemble” (all together) – that each sector won’t win against Sarkozy on their own’.

This feeling was magnificently reflected in the action of Belgian workers who this week blockaded oil refineries there in solidarity with French workers.

Selma argues that the NPA has the potential to generalise the struggle against the retirement age attacks to fight on broader issues and put pressure on the trade union leaders to reflect the general desire for a fightback. It is not ‘just a matter of defending pensions, but a more global struggle against the right-wing. The right-wing has been in power in France for 8 years. The question now is how to build long-term resistance to it within the working-class in every area from below which can challenge their own leadership, because we have seen for example the leadership of the CGT (General Confederation of Labour Trade Union) change, while the rank-and-file can radicalise the movement’.

Olivier, another demonstrator, also felt that the movement had the potential to challenge the vicious right-wing politics of the French government: ‘We have to use every opportunity to show our refusal of the general political ideology that is leading French society. When you look at people who demonstrate there are more and more young people who are not directly or immediately concerned with the retirement age. They don’t only demonstrate over the question of the retirement age but because of a larger dissatisfaction’.

Students vote to continue strike action

These wider social questions were clearly in the minds of students at Tolbiac University in Paris where lively picket lines were maintained from 8am on Thursday.

Later on students packed a huge lecture hall and its balcony to attend the Students Union debate on whether to continue the strike action. There was a real atmosphere of liberation. Students passionately debated the best tactics to a backdrop of political graffiti all over the walls. The loudest applause was for those students who addressed wider political questions. One student called for ‘a humane economic system’. Many others described the government’s methods to pass the bill as ‘illegal’, and denounced the government, which recently expelled hundreds of gypsies, as racist.

An Italian student told the audience that he felt they had a huge responsibility to students across Europe who wanted to resist. Students in France ought to provide the example.

Amid huge applause, the mass meeting voted to take part in the next two days of strike action: that day and next Tuesday. Chanting for a general strike they marched onto the streets to join the demonstration.

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'.