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“French March”: The Right to Revolutionary Optimism

Evoking memories of ’68, the students enter the fight against Macron. In our chaotic world, the future can only be built in the streets.

Eduardo Castilla

March 26, 2023
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A group of protesters, in the front of whom are a line of protesters wearing red vests. In the front right corner, a white sign reds "vive la retraite," with a skeleton wearing a red hat in the middle of the sign on a black background with a text bubble on its left that reads, "oiv a bosse, c'est pas pour en crever!"

“We want to show that not even the bankers’ children agree.” Behind the young man is a combative scene: dozens of students blocking the entrance to the Lycée Louis-Le-Grand, one of the most renowned educational institutions in France. Founded in 1563, its classrooms have witnessed the passing of history through personalities such as Molière, Voltaire, Robespierre, Saint-Just, Jean Jaurès, Victor Hugo, Baudelaire, Durkheim, Jean-Paul Sartre, Pierre Bourdieu and Raymond Poincaré, among many others.

Even the children of the French elite are claiming their place in the fight against Macron, declaring war on this pure representative of the aristocratic French ruling class. On Thursday, March 23, they were part of the millions who took the streets of France. The numbers on the streets spoke volumes: it is estimated that, together with the half a million young people who marched throughout France, 400 high schools and some 80 universities were either completely or partially blocked.

In addition to opposing President Macron’s pension reform, they are also marching to stand in solidarity with the striking workers. This growing worker-student unity has taken shape amid the mobilizations in support of the Paris garbage workers. The police repression was almost immediate, with the state seeking to prevent an alliance between workers and students — one which has an important history in France. In this repressive operation, our comrade Leo, member of Le Poing Levé and Left Voice’s sister organization in France, Révolution Permanente, was arrested.

Memories of May 1968 emerge in the smoke of the barricades and are recalled as a combative present. It emerges, as Walter Benjamin said, as the memory that flashes in an instant of danger. Each barricade reminds us that class struggle is the motor of history.

The French bourgeoisie has been fighting against this socially and politically dangerous memory for decades. In an attempt to erase the 1968 rebellion, it rewrites history through a conservative lens. Enzo Traverso recalls the radical history of the French May: “The new role played by young people, the biggest general strike in France after 1936, millions of workers occupying the factories; all this is crushed by this culturalist vision of the 1968 phenomenon.”

To bury the revolutionary substance of the French May implied, likewise, burying the idea of revolution; to turn it into rubble and sweep it under the rug. This conservative revision of history goes back far beyond 1968. It stretches back in time to the Russian and even the French revolutions1Traverso himself problematizes the reading of the Revolution of 1789 by the conservative Francois Furet. In Traverso, Enzo, Revoluciones. 1789 y 1917, después de 1989, in La Historia como campo de batalla, Buenos Aires, FCE, 2012..

These turbulent days were also a reminder of the class character of the State. In peaceful times, democracy is presented as the “best possible political shell for capitalism.” But in great national upheavals, its coercive nature is exposed. State power appears, at every turn, as “special bodies of armed men at the service of capital.” The French Executive, reneging on the formalities of parliamentary representation, stands as the direct will of the interests of the ruling class.

Macron’s contempt for the opinion of the masses has increased the hatred and radicalism of vast swaths of the population. As noted by the journalists of Liberation, “the loathing inspired in the demonstrators by the personality of Emmanuel Macron” has skyrocketed. For millions, the name of the French president became synonymous with “arrogance, conceit, contempt.”

The Gravedigger at Work

Every attempt  — political and ideological — to deny the possibility of revolution operates against the working class. It seeks to silence its social power, its centrality in the mechanisms of wealth production, its capacity to move the world. Time and again, it tries to put workers into vague categories such as “the people”, the middle class, or the poor, taking into account the disparate socioeconomic levels that cut across the working class as a whole2The internal divisions of the working class itself are a strategic problem that revolutionary Marxism addressed from the very beginning..

Countering this obfuscation, the working class in France has been displaying their social power for weeks. The threat to paralyze the country — wielded by different actors of the labor movement — demonstrated this power to disrupt the rhythms of French capitalism. The massive mobilizations and the national strike days made this threat all the more real. However, if this dynamic does not unfold at a larger scale, it is due to the enormous political limitations imposed by the trade union bureaucracies. Macron should be thanking them.

The radicalism of the most militant sectors of the workers’ movement has been nourished by this growing discontent. Like the workers of the Normandy refinery, who this Friday called to strengthen the picket lines in defense of their right to strike. By halting the distribution of fuel, they are showing their potential to disrupt the Paris airports. By paralyzing production, they are demonstrating their capacity to strike a blow to the national and international trade of this imperialist European power.

Included in this growing militancy are sectors such as the energy workers, garbage collectors, teachers, and transport workers. All this fighting power can only offer any hope if it is developed toward a general strike with a political character; if, through coordination and grassroots organization through action committees, it succeeds in forcing the bureaucratic leaderships to put up a persistent fight that can defeat Macron and the capitalist power that backs him.

Right to Revolutionary Optimism

October 1939. The Second World War is just beginning. The world population watches, almost helplessly, a new, brutal struggle between the imperialist powers for world hegemony.

In this critical scenario, reviewing the latest negotiations between France and Germany, Leon Trotsky writes

Both of them, Coulondre 3Robert Coulondre was the last French ambassador to Germany before the Second World War. and Hitler, represent the barbarism which advances over Europe. At the same time neither of them doubt that their barbarism will be conquered by socialist revolution. Such is now the awareness of the ruling classes of all the capitalist countries of the world. Their complete demoralization is one of the most important elements in the relation of class forces (…) these gentlemen are convinced in advance of the collapse of their regime! This fact alone must be for us the source of invincible revolutionary optimism! 4Trotsky, León, Again and Once More on the Nature of the USSR. In Defense of Marxism and other articles, Buenos Aires, Ediciones IPS, 2019, p. 83.

Eight decades later, imperialist France navigates the horizon of disorientation. Its executive power, embodied in the weakened Macron, faces a massive social rebellion that, for now, shows no sign of weakening. Social revolution is not, as yet, on the immediate horizon. However, in the heat of the struggle on the streets, we can see that this ruling class has no future to offer the vast majority. If this is happening in the world’s seventh largest economy, as well as the seventh largest military power, what is left for the poor nations of the planet?

A week ago, we wrote that the world is facing the economic tensions of an increasingly unstable capitalist system. This Friday, the shock came from Germany, just a few hundred kilometers east of Paris. This time, the crisis hit the giant Deutsche Bank. There is no peace for the old continent, which saw Credit Suisse collapse a few days ago.

The geopolitical terrain is not looking any more promising for the global bourgeoisie. The protracted war in Ukraine is still far from over. Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow proposes another formal challenge to U.S. domination. It is proof to the world that global tensions are mounting.

On this chaotic planet, the streets of France offer a promise of the future. At workplaces, schools, and universities, the French March defends the right to an invincible revolutionary optimism.

Originally published in Spanish on March 25 in La Izquierda Diario.

Translation by Emma Lee


1 Traverso himself problematizes the reading of the Revolution of 1789 by the conservative Francois Furet. In Traverso, Enzo, Revoluciones. 1789 y 1917, después de 1989, in La Historia como campo de batalla, Buenos Aires, FCE, 2012.
2 The internal divisions of the working class itself are a strategic problem that revolutionary Marxism addressed from the very beginning.
3 Robert Coulondre was the last French ambassador to Germany before the Second World War.
4 Trotsky, León, Again and Once More on the Nature of the USSR. In Defense of Marxism and other articles, Buenos Aires, Ediciones IPS, 2019, p. 83.
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