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France: On the Frontlines of the War Against Austerity

The French masses have raised the banner of class struggle in what is becoming the first major battle against austerity after the pandemic. Working people across the world should pay attention.

James Dennis Hoff

March 25, 2023
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Photo: Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images

On Thursday, millions of working class people once again took to the streets of cities across France to protest, march, and strike against a set of recently-passed pension reforms that would force them to work for longer and retire later. French president Emmanuel Macron, who used his executive privilege to push the reforms through parliament without a vote, has argued that these changes are required to maintain the supposedly generous French pension system. For Macron, who has bet his legacy on these reforms, raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 is necessary to counter falling birth rates and the shrinking number of French workers paying into the pension system. But these demographic arguments are little more than political cover for the return of a familiar program of neoliberal austerity that was temporarily interrupted by the pandemic, one designed to squeeze more out of the French working class in order to shore up a sputtering economic system that has long outlived its utility. 

While Macron has been pushing pension reform and other austerity measures (including cuts to unemployment benefits) for years now, he is hardly alone. Across Europe, advanced capitalist countries from the UK to Italy, Spain, and Germany have resumed or signaled a willingness to return to pre-pandemic levels of austerity, meaning significant cuts to social services and pensions in particular, even amid continued inflation and interest rate hikes that will only make cuts more painful and public debts even more difficult to manage. As economist Micheal Roberts told Spectre in October, rising interest rates are likely to lead to even more austerity in “advanced economies as governments cut back on post-COVID spending and try to reduce rising debt levels, both private and public.” 

Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which has praised Macron’s cuts, continues, as it did even during the pandemic, to force countries in the Global South, such as Haiti, Ghana, and Argentina, to impose staggering austerity measures on their citizens in exchange for debt relief and loans, all in service of increasing the balance sheets of rapacious national and international companies and corporations, which have been struggling to find new sources of profit for decades. This ongoing attempt to squeeze ever more out of the global working class, however, is nothing new. As Jason Koslowski explains, it is part of a much bigger crisis of profitability and stagnation that has only increased since the 2008 economic crisis.

In the United States, which temporarily increased public spending dramatically during the pandemic, rising interest rates and inflation are also leading increasingly to talk of a return to austerity measures. These measures are already being pushed in local state and city municipalities, where public sector workers are losing wages thanks to inflation and budget cuts. In Los Angeles, for instance, thousands of teachers and school staff walked out earlier this week in a joint strike to protect their wages. At the federal level, like in France, there are also proposals to cut social security spending or further extend the age at which retirees would receive full benefits from 67 to 70. The Washington Post Editorial Board recently joined the fray with an editorial claiming not only that Macron’s cuts are necessary, but that the United States should follow suit. 

Thankfully, the French working class is not having any of it, and what began as protests against the pension reform bill are now quickly transforming into calls for Macron’s resignation. These demands are, in turn, leading a huge percentage of the French population, the vast majority of whom oppose the reforms and benefit cuts, into direct confrontation with the current government, a situation in which the very question of working class power might be put on the table. In this regard, the uprising of French workers we are witnessing represents not only a revolt against the pension reforms, but in many ways, against the very logic of capital accumulation, which the reforms are meant to support. In scenes reminiscent of the spirit of the May 1968 protests that rocked the foundations of the French Republic, millions of workers and students have taken to the streets to demonstrate, airports and bus depots have been shut down, teachers and students are holding mass assemblies to vote on the strike, thousands of tons of garbage continue to pile up in the streets of Paris and other cities, and oil shortages are spreading across the country. 

Although so far held back by the conservative leadership of the union coalitions directing the strikes, which have refused to make any demands beyond the repeal of the pension reforms, the protests are growing considerably and spreading to other sectors, including non-unionized workers and students, and there is a growing movement independent of the union leadership that is beginning to take more militant actions. On Thursday, workers and students from across the Normandy region came out to successfully block the forced requisition of oil workers at the largest refinery in France. Protesters in Bordeaux, where King Charles was scheduled to visit later this week (he has since canceled the visit), set the Town Hall ablaze. And rank and file workers across the country have been meeting to organize committees to build toward a permanent nationwide general strike.

As our correspondent in Paris put it:

This week, the people of France are beginning to take things into their own hands…and we are seeing a radicalization and a sense of urgency not seen since the Yellow Vest movements back in 2018, but this time, the working class is in the driver’s seat giving the weight of the strike weapon and thus a revolutionary potential to this struggle. Many of the sectors going on strike today have never even been mobilized before.

Building on this revolutionary potential and taking it to its logical conclusion is a task for the entire working class in France and abroad. Already, workers in Germany have rallied in support of their French comrades, and on Monday, rail workers and public sector unions across Germany will be leading their own massive strike against austerity wages

In the United States in particular, where public pensions (social security) are also under fire; where more than a million people have died from Covid; where life expectancy has dropped more than three years since 2019; where working people and people of color face increasing levels of exploitation and oppression, cuts to social programs, austerity, and rising police violence; the need for independent mass strikes and demonstrations like those in France has never been clearer. Indeed, as the people of France are showing, it is the workers, not the capitalists and the state, that make the world run. 

But defeating the logic of austerity requires a defeat of capitalism itself, and therefore what we fight for, our strategy, matters just as much as how we fight. Strikes and working class methods of struggle are key, but just as in France, the working class cannot allow itself to be guided by the union bureaucracies or the reformist parties of capital. If we want to create a world run by the working class, without austerity and without want, we must work to build independent working class parties for socialism in the United States and everywhere.

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James Dennis Hoff

James Dennis Hoff is a writer, educator, labor activist, and member of the Left Voice editorial board. He teaches at The City University of New York.

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