May 23, 2005
In the summer of 2003 an exceptional heat wave led to the death of about 15,000 people in France, most of them elderly, and most living alone. The government had done nothing to anticipate the danger, and when disaster struck it failed to respond. In the aftermath, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin declared that workers would have to give up their Monday Pentecost holiday. They would work and the additional taxes employers paid for the day's production would go to a fund to help the elderly. In fact, it was nothing but a pretext, aiming at removing one of the 11 paid holidays all workers in France are entitled to. The French government did not quite get its way, however.
We translated excerpts from an article that appeared in the May 18 issue of the newspaper Lutte Ouvrière (Workers Fight) about the situation.
Two days after Pentecost Monday, Raffarin congratulated himself on the pretended success of his initiative. He added that while an assessment should be made – later on – no polemic was needed. We understand his wish, for the least that we can say about it is that everything didn't go as well for the government as Raffarin pretended.
Anticipating the reactions of their workers, a number of bosses decided to close their businesses, or to give out "reduction of working time" days. On the French National Railroad, management decided beforehand that the day would remain a holiday and that the 100,000 railroad workers would have to work an extra one minute 52 seconds a day during the rest of the year to pay for it, which in fact was a retreat due to the threat of a strike over the entire rail network. In numerous cities, public transit was affected by protest strikes. And many workers, in the public as well as in the private sector, went on strike that day. They didn't want to have their holiday stolen from them.
We hear all about our "duty of solidarity" and the necessity for "financing solidarity!" All the government ministers are gushing with morality lessons addressed to the workers. They ignore their own lessons. For, in fact, the government and its ministers led the way in incompetence and the absence of generosity and solidarity. What have they done since the sweltering days of summer 2003, so that this tragedy couldn't happen again? Almost nothing. If solidarity had meaning for these rulers, it wouldn't consist of trying to make workers work for free, under the pretext of paying into a fund, when everyone knows perfectly well that a good part of the fund will never go to the elderly. Solidarity would consist in taking money from business profits, which have gone through the roof this year, and putting necessary measures into effect immediately to protect the elderly.
This Monday of Pentecost, the workers didn't go along with Raffarin's orders, which was a failure for the government. Perhaps this will encourage it to try something else to finance what it dares to call "solidarity" toward the elderly.