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Historic Protests in France: Where to for the French Working Class?

After two of the largest days of protest in over a decade, with unprecedented union support and student turnout, the workers and youth of France must push unions to take up a militant strategy to defeat not only this latest pension reform but also Macron and his government.

Antoine Ramboz

February 6, 2023
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High-angle view of protests in France on January 31 against President Macron's pension reforms.
Image: Alain Jocard/AFP

Two million people were in the streets nationwide on January 19, with 2.8 million on the 31st. The excitement was in the air on the first day when the march route had to be split for the first time since 2010, with one side going along Boulevard Voltaire (the normal way for Parisian mass protests), and the other going along Boulevard Beaumarchais, stopping at Place de la Bastille, with all protesters meeting back up at Place de la Nation for a final rally. Yet there was a tension; whereas the now well-known recent movements under Macron, such as the Yellow Vests, were often spontaneous and led from below, this was simply a one-day affair, called by the union officials with little to no preparation from the rank and file, or from the more radical student movement. Importantly, there was no overarching call for neighborhood and workplace general assemblies where people could collectively decide how to proceed. Though some assemblies cropped up in the following weeks, this may be a major reason why a majority of the French populace going into the 19th and 31st thought Macron’s new pension plan was a fait accompli, despite its widespread unpopularity. So whence this discontent, and where to next for the mobilizations? After all, this isn’t the French working class’s first rodeo.

The Pension Plan

Photo: Bertrand Guay/Maxxbop

Élizabeth Borne, the first woman prime minister in French history and a member of President Macron’s Renaissance party (renamed for his second term, with the irony predictably lost on all involved), announced the new pension plan in early January. She declared that over a 10-year period, the retirement age would be raised from 62 to 64, in a direct insult to the generation born of the radical days of 1968, during which the largest general strike in French history and mass student solidarity paralyzed the economy and nearly brought France to revolution. But to receive the full benefits of one’s pension, one would have to have worked a minimum of 43 years, up from the current 40.5 years. Immediately many could foresee several problems; take, for example, students who pursued higher education and thus graduated at about age 24 or older, having done so to be more competitive in an already-saturated job market. These workers would be forced to work until age 67 for a full retirement. In fact, only people who began working at age 21, with no lapses in activity, would ever see their pension at 64 — a mere sliver of the population.

With French capitalism finding itself increasingly insolvent, exacerbated by instability from war and inflation, the state is demanding more and more from the aging population. Yet life often takes different paths, and the numbers bear that out: at 62, the poorest 25 percent of male workers are already dead, and only 35 percent are still on the labor market The majority leave far earlier because their bodies have been damaged, often by the work itself, and in ways that don’t necessarily count toward their benefits or allow early retirement. Those intensive jobs (laborious, one might say) whose poorer conditions are recognized by the pension system and would thereby merit an earlier retirement are so difficult to come by that they constitute more of a formality than an attainable reality for most French workers. This reform will have a ripple effect on other aspects of French welfare and employment. As Anthony Hammel, refinery worker at CGT Total Normandy, notes,

When [the retirement age] passed from 60 to 62, we had 300,000 more people become unemployed, because there is a certain age level beyond which certain businesses are no longer willing to hire. And so you can’t tell me that we should push up two more years, that we’ll have less unemployment. We’ll have even more. It’ll have an effect on social security too as they’ll look to privatize the insurance schemes because there’ll be a discount rate on insurance. So I think this reform will impact quite a few things, and so we have to fight, fight against all this.

The proposed pension reform, though roundly rejected through protests and strikes in 2019, was defended by the government as a way to bring parity between the real retirement of men and women. This reform was presented, of course, by Borne, the latest girl boss of French neoliberalism, to little fanfare. Given the role women are forced into as agents of social reproduction for the capitalist system — literally reproducing the working class and well as being tasked with feeding, clothing, and managing the private household — women who decide to have children and thereby require a substantive pause in labor, further pushing off that golden 43 years needed for a full retirement, will immediately be put at a disadvantage compared to their male coworkers who require no maternity leave. This, among others, may be a major reason for the unanimous disapproval of the reform. And this poses still more complications for groups such as the undocumented, immigrants, or simply those at the end of the barrel of French racism or marginalization, for whom consistently declared salaries are far more difficult to attain than their native/white/heterosexual/cisgender counterparts. To boot, in the works is Minister of the Interior Gerald Darmanin’s new xenophobic proposal to expedite deportation proceedings and change work visa regulations to render already-marginalized migrant laborers even more precarious.

The rollout for this more brutal pension reform bespeaks the French government’s many internal crises, which have been pushed far beyond the more desirable late-2022 calendar, which would have made strike actions during the holidays more difficult to mobilize, perhaps splitting a strategic consensus among the workers. In his second term, Macron is the first president of the Fifth Republic to not attain an outright majority in Parliament, which is creating significant obstacles for the Renaissance party to realize its agenda, and the lukewarm election cycle and his general poll numbers are at an all-time low. This newest reform is even more despised, with at least 70 percent of French workers opposed, and it seems an especially baffling move when we see that youth unemployment is nearing 20 percent. Yet it is part of the dark vision this new Renaissance has in mind, a vision that requires a reserve army of labor combined with increased productivity from those hidden away in the abode of production, in order to maintain competitiveness and order amid the state’s myriad crises, external and internal. War, inflation, lack of legitimacy, recent social and labor unrest, etc. — all this is giving French capitalism less and less leeway. The Macron regime’s “organic crisis” (which puts in question the totality of the state apparatus) is finding new expressions as the different bourgeois parties attempt to capture, channel, and tame the frustration among the French populace, which has yet to be fully unleashed. Hence, what we saw on the 19th and 31st …

The Protests

Photo: Loic Venance/Le Monde

As stated above, these two dates of protest were an overwhelming success in terms of turnout. Two and then almost 3 million in the streets, according to the CGT, the largest union confederation in France (1.1 then 1.2 million, according to the National Police); reports on the 31st trickled in during the day of 16,000 off the gray shores of Dunkirk, 20,000 off the yellow beaches of Nice, 75,000 in quiet Bordeaux, 80,000 in pink Toulouse, 150,000 crowding the old port of Marseille, 500,000 darkening the streets in Paris, and even a strong 10,000 in the French departmental colony of Réunion Island. We saw student and union representation not seen since the public-sector strikes of 1995 (themselves the largest of their kind since May ’68). Not only that, but some rates of strike participation in the private sector, where strikes are far less common, were incredibly impressive, with some morning shifts hitting 80 percent and higher, notably in petrochemical, energy, the gas depots, and the refineries (more on them later). In fact, many workplaces noted for their precarity (and thus often neglected by union leadership) that have recently led exemplary strike actions participated at a rate of 100 percent on the 31st, including the sanitation staff at Onet. One maintenance worker said to Révolution Permanente (Left Voice’s sister organization in France, which recently reconstituted itself as a new revolutionary party), “We have a raise thanks to the struggle, but we want more because we are the lowest paid. And we don’t want to die at work. It’s not possible!”

We saw great moments of solidarity in the days leading up of the 31st, with the workers of the CGT Energy union offering free power and gas for “hospitals and clinics, ice rinks, municipal pools, public sports centers, some associations, libraries, middle and high schools, nurseries, universities, and social housing” (!). On the eve of the march, they even turned on power for 50 or so housing units late on their energy bills, and turned off thousands of household energy monitors so the energy companies wouldn’t know what to charge, and they even turned off some roadway speed monitors. These kinds of illegal actions were an unprecedented show of interprofessional solidarity; these acts of monkey wrench jubilee were offered for not only consumers but also bakeries. Given that this is a segment of the economy dominated by an increasingly pauperized French petite bourgeoisie, who have also seen their energy bills skyrocket with inflation this winter, this action broke with the corporatist business unionism imposed by many of the union heads, which seeks to organize solely among “workers” in the narrow sense and avoids coordination between sectors. The action sent a powerful message that the rest of the labor movement should heed well, revealing our collective power and our aims toward the self-organization of the working class, in alliance with the other oppressed and exploited segments of society.

The march saw the usual rallying of union caravans, their large balloons swaying under the blue sky, blasts of contemporary pop and trap from the different associations and youth groups in procession, the myriad banners of several left and center-left parties and micro-organizations with their dense flyers, handheld flares, revolutionary chants, etc. The primary change from the 19th was, of course, the palpable increase in size. But whereas the 16th’s affair was also noticeably calm, police repression escalated on the 31st, with the infamous CRS riot police pepper-spraying and beating workers in the Solidaire union contingent before being successfully parried by other union workers who swarmed in to the rescue. Protesters in Rennes weathered a barrage of tear-gas canisters, black bloc contingents sparring in their usual fashion, shielded with umbrellas in a phalanx as they forcefully pushed against helmets and plastic shields amid burning garbage. Despite the oft-cited unpopularity of the reform among law enforcement (repeated notably by their unions), the police do not constitute an ally in this or any fight on the side of the workers.

The Role of the Unions

Given the enthusiasm implied by the turnout, the “strategy” put forward by the union heads has been largely the same as the symbolic, routine limited-strike form that has predominated for the last 25 years. This is a losing strategy. While the two days of protest were an unanticipated success, there has been little attempt to capitalize on the energy in the streets by proposing an escalation. This last cycle of protests — starting from the strikes in 2016 against the labor reform, to the yellow vest movement in 2018, to Macron’s first attempt at a pension reform in 2019 — were largely organized outside the strict confines of union decisions from above, and the protests today reflect the will and energy to do something concrete in that manner. Yet the main strike calendar offered to the general organized public is still the one suggested by the union higher-ups with weekly single-day “beaded” strikes as the only plan d’action.

Sébastien Mariani, deputy general secretary of the railway workers of the more conservative CFDT union, declared recently that “we want a popular movement more than a union one” — in other words, one that doesn’t lead toward a general strike — just as the inter-union coalition announced a calendar of protests dates focused more on Saturdays in order to lower the toll of workplace interruption in their negotiations with the government. They fear that public opinion might sour if the strikes affect the coming vacations, yet this is exactly what did not happen last time around when the strikes continued through Christmas in 2019. For the union heads, this is merely a pressure campaign, with no political content, to attain a single reform, and they are thus determined to renounce the full capacities at their disposal. As a comrade at Révolution Permanente jokingly noted, only a union bureaucrat can see 3 million people in the streets and deduce that nothing political is going on.

But, of course, this is part and parcel of the union bureaucracy’s sordid role as negotiator to the bourgeois class. They adapt themselves to the government’s logic and aim to keep the union membership docile. But this can only mean, at best, a few added crumbs sprinkled atop an already-unacceptable proposal, and it will take going beyond the union bureaucrats for us to win. As stated by Anasse Kazib, a key coordinator of worker solidarity with the 2018 Yellow Vest movement and a decisive figure in the strikes of 2019, himself a railway worker for the SNCF and spokesperson for Révolution Permanente:

There are 2 million people, strike rates at 80 percent, but in the general assemblies, there’s nobody! We don’t decide on anything. It’s 10 guys at the top. They’re playing ping-pong between themselves to choose the next date! The strike must belong to the strikers, or we’re dead!

Looking back to the protests, we may surmise that a major catalyst to break the deadlock will come in the form of the growing dissent spreading among another key social group: the youth.

The Kids Are All Right

Photo: Le Poing Levé

Actions on the 31st started early, with dozens of high schools occupied across the country, their entrances blocked by the students in support of the movement, buckets to collect strike funds in hand, chilled in the January morning air, their calls for a future for themselves and their parents spreading throughout social media and ricocheting off the dark, wintry buildings. But when doors opened at 7:30 a.m., before the sun comes out and the streetlights click off, police were already charging at the known troublemakers of Hélène Boucher high, who have often proved themselves as radical and steadfast militants. Dressed in black, the students stood their ground as well as they could, chanting “Police casse-toi!” (Police piss off!), but reinforcement from the machinists at the local RATP subway station came to their aid to fend off the agents of bourgeois “order,” a thank-you to the students who had been showing solidary to the strikers all morning across the country.

Police repression of a radicalizing student movement is unfortunately nothing new: on the 23rd, police violently arrested, detained, and abused 29 students who were mobilizing at Campus Condorcet in the Parisian suburb of Aubervilliers against the reform. On the 20th, a general assembly at the University of Strasbourg was prematurely ended by riot police. Police are not allowed on campus unless the president calls them in, a further sign of the shaky position the state finds itself in: it must call on its repressive arm to bend events back on track. Unfortunately for state functionaries, this has not dampened, but has perhaps amplified the students’ motivation to organize against Macron and his reform. Noticed by many was the much-increased presence of high school and university students in the streets on this second day of protests. With cries of “Macron, t’es foutu, la jeunesse est dans la rue” (Macron, you’re screwed, the youth are in the streets), spirits were high. Unity between the student and worker movement would be an explosive force, and it will be a critical link of mutual radicalization in the days to come, a lesson harkening back to May ’68. Unfortunately, the union bureaucracy is seeking no such unity.

What’s Next?

Photo: Révolution Permanente

The 31st confirmed that the struggle is growing, with strike rates increasing and more people in the streets, but critically we’ve also seen some promising starts at self-organization from below with several large general assemblies held between the two dates. Four hundred and fifty students from most every university in Paris assembled on the 30th, debating and discussing next steps, and calling for a new day of action with the workers on February 7. At Gare du Nord, one of Paris’s major train stations, 150 railway workers, historically the motor force in successful strike movements, assembled on the day of the 31st to discuss strategy, with 30 or so coworkers in more precarious contract work such as sanitation present, as well as some students. In Saint Denis, a professor called out the union leadership (notably Laurent Berger, secretary-general of the French Democratic Confederation of Labour) at an interprofessional general assembly of about 100, saying, “The general assemblies are slowly beginning. We have to discuss in our workplaces, and here on the calendar of the struggle, why is it up to Berger to decide?”

The comrades at Révolution Permanente are calling for a program of full retirement at 60 for all, and 55 for intensive work. Such a program could unite not only the stable salaried workers but also the more precarious segments of the workforce, as well as the underemployed, often due to marginalization, and the youth who still dream of a better future. But such a program requires a strategy to win, unlike that being proposed by the union bureaucrats. Early on, Révolution Permanente called for the rest of the unions to mirror the strike calendar of the most combative sector, the refinery workers of CGT Total, who gained great legitimacy and proved their role at the vanguard of the union movement in October for their historic monthlong strike, which halted 60 percent of oil production in France, with long lines of cars waiting at empty gas stations proving the strength of this key strategic sector. Their proposal to fight the pension reform is one of steady escalation, with one day of strikes in the first week, two on the second, three on the third, before going open-ended in week four. Their strike rate last Tuesday was 100 percent. Next week, as promised, they are ready to completely shut down the refineries.

Since this schedule was proposed, CGT federations representing energy, petrochemicals, railways, and docks have issued a joint communiqué announcing their interest in coordinating an unlimited strike. Other radical calls on the 31st came in the form of chants from the feminist contingent in Toulouse for a strike until March 8, International Women’s Day. These developments are promising, yet much must be done to prepare a proper generalization of the strike, one that the entirety of the French proletariat can wholeheartedly take up. With a program such as that proposed by Révolution Permanente noted above, with their additional demands for universal employment, with the hours of labor shared according to ability, we could win huge segments of the population over into fighting for a dynamic battle plan that increases the agency of the collectively organized working class, transcending the passivity instilled by employers and union bureaucrats and preparing them for their historic task in inheriting the world they themselves build. After all, this new struggle isn’t just about overturning a reform but about beating Macron and winning a new society that can suit our collective needs. A program with this in mind is a weapon that can work in the long run only if it successfully leads the workers to go further and to realize that they will attain everything that is theirs only by overthrowing the current state of affairs.

***

Early morning on the 19th, I found myself in the lounge (really a glorified locker room) of the subway workers of the RATP. I overheard a worker, exasperated, complaining, “I am sick of going on strike. I don’t want to keep doing this just to pick up crumbs. What kind of world is this where we can’t even decide among ourselves what happens before we die?” This is in line with something noticed by many comrades speaking to those who marched and rallied and struck across the country: there is an explicit political nature to this movement, going beyond this single reform. As I write, half a million in the UK are on strike in response to, among other things, a pension reform of their own, proving that the revolutionary waves that once broke on the shores of England under Thatcher are now returning in the form of a tsunami. Not only is there a wholesale rejection of Macron and his latest slight against our future, but a rejection of the system it implies, one in operation not just here in France but across the globe. While billionaires saw their bank accounts burst with unprecedented riches during a period of COVID and war and inflation, we saw our fridges empty, our classes crowd, our siblings beaten and shot, our rivers dry, and our forests burn. To paraphrase Révolution Permanente journalist Juan Chingo’s characterization, this movement is in many ways the accumulation of the French working class’s frustrations, hopes, and experiences of revolt since 2016. We can only hope that it moves onto the plain of revolution. But what is hope without action?

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Antoine Ramboz

Cobalt Tolbert Antoine Ramboz is a French-American revolutionary socialist based in Paris. They are a member of Left Voice’s sister organization Révolution Permanente, and write primarily on major French current events for an international audience, as well as culture and cinema from an interdisciplinary Marxist perspective. Their favorite word is propinquity.

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