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Five Things You Should Know About the Ongoing General Strike in France

France’s major unions have agreed to extend the general strike through Thursday, in defiance of President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to overhaul the pension system. Students and activists are joining striking workers in mobilizations against the government. As it enters its sixth day, here’s what you need to know about the general strike currently rocking France’s major industries.

Diego Sacchi

December 10, 2019
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Image by REUTERS

On December 5, the most important strike in decades in France gave expression to the discontent of a key sector of the population in response to a controversial pension reform package that French president Emmanuel Macron is trying to pass. 1.5 million people flooded the streets nationwide to protest this latest part of the government’s austerity package. 

Here are five keys to understanding why millions of people—organized in France’s biggest unions, social movements, and universities—are taking to the streets against the government.

The General Strike Has Paralyzed France’s Most Strategic Sectors

The strike includes some of the most important sectors of the French workforce, including the transportation industry, oil refineries, hospitals, and education.

The SNCF (France’s national railway company) reports that 55.6% of its employees support the strike, with even higher percentages among those who work in daily train operations, such as train conductors (85.7% support) or ticket inspectors (73.3% support). Other unions have reported that at least 70% of their members took part in Thursday’s walk-offs, with some sectors reporting up to 90% participation. This level of involvement was particularly visible in Paris, where public transportation ground to a halt in many areas, paralyzing the city.

Flights out of France’s major airports have also been severely disrupted. According to government estimates, between 20% and 30% of all flights were cancelled on December 5, and many flights continue to be grounded this week. In the education sector, the absence rate in kindergartens and elementary schools was 55% nationwide and 78% in Paris.

In the private sector, oil refineries were hit the hardest. Seven of the eight major French refineries went on strike last Thursday. Emmanuel Lépine, Federal Secretary of the chemical sector of the CGT (General Confederation of Labor), summed up the tactics of the strike: “No goods come out, not by pipeline nor by truck.” Lépine also said that though previous strikes in recent years had been fierce—such as those staged in response to the pension reform of 2010 or those in 2016 against the El Khomri labor law—none of them match the intensity and widespread coordinated efforts of the strike that began on Thursday.

France’s major train lines and public transportation in Paris remained shut down over the weekend into Monday morning. Only two of Paris’s sixteen metro lines are currently running. The strike, which is scheduled to last at least through Thursday in main sectors such as transportation, hints at the strength of the working class, united across industries, to paralyze the whole economy. 

France’s Alliance of Commerce, which represents 27,000 supermarkets and clothing and shoe stores, reports that Thursday’s mobilizations alone caused a 30% drop in sales on average. The country’s bosses are clearly concerned that work stoppages could last through Christmas and put a serious dent in their profits.

Macron Is Attacking One of the Pillars of France’s Hard-Won Social Programs

The reform proposed by the government is a new attempt to cut social programs and adjust the government’s budget at the expense of the working class. Macron and his cabinet claim that France’s retirement benefits, some of the most expansive in the world, are costly and in need of complete overhaul. 

The plan proposes to establish a “universal system” that will standardize the 42 different retirement systems that currently exist in the country, drastically reducing benefits for many workers. Among the pension programs that would be cut are the so-called “special retirement plans” now guaranteed to workers in many government-owned corporations. These “special plans,” which include benefits such as an early retirement age, are the result of many years of hard struggle by workers in professions with physically demanding or dangerous jobs. Workers in both the SNCF and the RATP (Paris’s public transportation system) rely on these pension plans; consequently, they are leading the strike movement currently rocking the country.

It is important to note that the attempt to reform the pension system is not new. In fact, it is something that the bosses and the French establishment have been trying to do for years. Only the resistance that workers have put up against these attacks over the years has prevented the government from gutting France’s retirement system. 

The Pension Reform Will Drastically Reduce Pension Income

Since the government has not yet publicized a formal legislative proposal, the exact details of Macron’s pension reform plan are still unknown. However, the people protesting in the streets understand that the “reform” will be to the benefit of the ruling class and will erode one of the pillars of France’s social welfare system. The idea of reforming the pension system is considered a threat to hard-won rights.

Najat El Mekkaoui, a specialist in social security programs and demographic change at the University of Paris-Dauphine PSL, told the Spanish newspaper El País that “one of the main propositions for the reform affects the way that retirement pensions are calculated, completely changing pension standards… Workers’ entire career trajectory will now be taken into account, not just the 25 best years (as is now the case for private sector workers) or the last six months (as it is for public sector workers).” In other words, whereas current retirement systems calculate one’s pension based on the salary they earned in the later part of their career—when most people tend to make higher salaries—Macron’s universal plan looks at one’s average earnings across their entire career, taking into account their lowest salaries and therefore lowering, on average, the salary on which one’s pension income is based. As a result, one’s overall pension earnings are reduced significantly. The overall impact, explains El Mekkaoui, will be a loss in pension income that will make daily life harder for millions of workers across France. Added to an increase in the retirement age, this reform will force many people to work longer for a smaller retirement payout. 

The General Strike Is Open-Ended, Echoing the Spirit of the Yellow Vests

Macron is confronted with the prospect of an indefinite strike, one that is expected to last for weeks, perhaps even through the Christmas holidays. The open-ended character of the strike is reminiscent of the Yellow Vests movement that began in 2018, opening the possibility of a “giletjaunization” or a “Yellow Vest Effect” developing in the strike. The workers currently on strike with their unions are already beginning to reflect the spirit of the Yellow Vests—not only through radical and combative forms of struggle but also by overcoming the narrow demands and action plans imposed by union leaderships. Many Yellow Vests are participating in the strike and mobilizations.

Though the immediate demand of the strike is to stop the pension plan from moving forward, the rhetoric and tactics of the protesters and strikers reflect the general discontent with Macron’s government that was expressed during the height of the Yellow Vests movement. This opens the possibility for the demonstrations to take up this rejection of Macron’s government and the call for him to resign. 

The participation of students in the strike further solidifies this possibility as the mobilizations begin to include broader sections of France’s population. Students in universities across France are joining demonstrations and staging occupations of their universities and high schools, against precariousness in labor and in solidarity with the strike. Administrative services were closed and classes blocked in several universities last week, including Pantheon-Sorbonne University in Paris. 

Unlike the Yellow Vests movement, however, the process currently underway in France shows workers explicitly taking the lead against Macron’s policies and using the weapons of the working class—the strike—to confront them. The strike shows that the working class is perfectly positioned to fight back against Macron’s attacks on the living conditions of millions of people living and working in France. Moreover, France’s workers have the support of the majority of the population. The national strike began on December 5 with an approval rating of 70% across the country, and hundreds of thousands of people are joining striking workers in the streets and at blockades in daily marches and demonstrations. 

Further, there are already examples of coordination and organization among workers across the country which show the working class using methods that go beyond the narrow economic platforms offered by union leaders. There have been successful cross-sector coordination meetings like the interprofessional general assemblies of La Genérale and the Front de Lutte or the Assembly of Assemblies held in Toulouse by teachers and students. In Paris, the SNCF and RATP strikers convened an inter-industry meeting that they opened to other striking sectors on Friday. 

Given the percentage of workers, activists, and students participating in the strike, as well as these instances of organization independent of the union leadership, there is hope that the strike will be able to overcome the pressure being imposed by both the government and the union bureaucracy and to defeat the pension plan.

With Rebellion in the Air, the Ruling Class is Scared

The French ruling class is frightened by the general strike because such coordinated efforts of workers have rolled back austerity plans in the past. In 1995, a three-week mobilization against a similar austerity reform launched by then-Prime Minister Alain Juppé ended with the successful revocation of the planned cuts. The government was forced to completely abandon the plan.

This seriously weakened the ability of then-President Jacques Chirac to implement sweeping neoliberal reforms in France at the time. The French bourgeoisie fears that if the current movement triumphs, Macron’s government will be too weak to promote the neoliberal agenda that the capitalists require to maintain stability in the country. With 1.5 million people in the streets protesting the policies of an unpopular president, the ghost of the 1995 defeat haunts the French political and business establishment today.

Last Thursday, Macron held a meeting with the Council of Ministers during which, according to French media reports, he urged his administration not to “underestimate” the mobilizations but also to remain firm in its plans to reform the pension system. As Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said in an interview with Journal du Dimanche, “I am determined to take this pension reform to its completion.” He warned that if the government does not implement this particular plan, “someone else will do a really brutal one tomorrow.”

Macron is demonstrating once again that he is willfully ignoring the demands of the majority in order to appease France’s ruling class. The widespread disapproval of the plan is not limited to striking workers but extends also to the massive mobilizations joining them in the streets. According to the Ministry of the Interior, over 806,000 people demonstrated throughout France on Thursday. According to CGT estimates, there were 1.5 million people protesting this week.

Where Does the Strike Go from Here?

Yves Saintemarie, a retiree and participant in the demonstrations, said about the strike: “It’s not just a question of pensions. It’s about people in general living in poverty and precariousness. I am a ‘Yellow Vest’ and a trade unionist, and it is imperative that our struggles converge; we must bring down this government that kills us.”

Faced with this social and political crisis, the government is torn between maintaining its position on the reform plan, and giving “concessions” to engage in negotiations with sectors of the union leaderships in order to weaken the strike.

The overwhelming force behind the December 5 demonstrations seems to indicate that the government will take the second route, attempting to “negotiate” a way out of the strike, but the lack of unity within the cabinet around how to combat widespread discontent makes its plans unclear. Though Macron and Philippe maintain a hardline stance on the retirement reform, other government officials are advocating ceding ground to the strikers who say that they will not go back to work until the reform is rescinded. As Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told French television, “I want the state budget to be balanced, but let’s not be dogmatic… the calendar is open to discussion.”

The movement currently underway in France is heading for a decisive moment. The tasks for the working class are becoming clear. The rank and file of France’s unions must pressure their leaderships to drop any formal or informal negotiations with the state. Striking workers must take the movement into their own hands and decide the steps they want to take. Further, they must extend their demands to other sectors, especially private companies; they must integrate other exploited and oppressed sectors outside of the unions, such as the Yellow Vests, the youth movement, the feminist and anti-racist movements, and link up with the struggles of the urban neighborhoods that have been active in previous mobilizations concerning housing, health care, and eduction. The general strike has opened an exciting process in France—how far it goes will depend on the ability of the working class to independently combine and coordinate their efforts with the other sectors of the population participating in the mobilizations.

Translated by Ophelia Raggio

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Diego Sacchi

Diego is a journalist from Buenos Aires and the editor of the international section of our Argentinian sister site La Izquierda Diario.

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