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It is Possible to Win: The Pension Reform Crisis in France

A French socialist reflects on the way forward after Macron invites Article 49.3 to pass pension reform.

Paul Morao

March 20, 2023
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Massive mobilization in France against Macron's pension reform.

On Thursday, the French government invoked Article 49.3 of the country’s Constitution to force through President Macron’s deeply opposed pension reforms. Sometimes referred to as a “nuclear legislative weapon,” 49.3 allows a bill in Parliament to be passed without a vote or parliamentary support149.3 further states that only a motion of censure that is signed by at least 58 MPs and submitted within 24 hours can stop the law from being accepted.. It is a decidedly antidemocratic offensive and a glaring example of a parliamentary process that has imposed many attacks on working-class people. Now this latest attack opens a deep political crisis.

Macron’s pension reform raises the minimum legal retirement age from 62 to 64. It also stipulates that people will need to have worked at least 43 years to be entitled to a full pension, meaning that women (as well as other marginalized and racialized sectors of the working class) who may have to step away from the workforce will be cornered into working longer and for less.

Less than a year after his presidential reelection, and after six months of negotiations and compromises with the Republicans, Macron failed to gain majority support to pass this attack on the working class. The president’s resort to 49.3 demonstrates that this measure is unpopular not only among the population but also in Parliament.

Mobilizations all over France have responded to this underhanded show of weakness. In Paris, thousands of people flocked to demonstrations, many called by the “Inter-facs” (or inter-university coordinating body). Similarly, in Marseille, Grenoble, Lyon, Strasbourg, Lorient, Clermont-Ferrand, and many other cities, protests brought together thousands of people.

Whether mobilized by trade unions or political organizations, these rallies were marked by strong elements of spontaneity, expressing fervent radicalism and a refusal to stop the mobilization. “We have to answer the call of history. Being here tonight is just the beginning of what can happen. We can be even tougher. The pacifist strike is no longer acceptable,” explained Jordan Robichon, of CGT Energie on the Place de la Concorde. Founded in 1895, the General Confederation of Labor (or Confédération Générale du Travail-CGT) is a national trade union center (the first of the five major French confederations of trade unions). CGT Energie is the union branch composed of workers in the electricity and gas industries. Robichon’s words expressed a state of mind widely shared by the demonstrators after two months of a mobilization heavily supervised by the Intersyndicale, or “inter-union.” 2Intersyndicale” refers to an “inter-union” — an unofficial structure having no legal status and unable to exercise the rights of a union organization. Each member organization maintains its sovereignty and is committed to the decisions of the inter-union only after having given its consent.

Union leaders could not be more at odds with the situation and these aspirations. In the evening, the union leaders proposed a strike and national mobilization on March 23, a meager proposition in contrast with the unwavering protesters flooding the streets. Although collective anger was widely expressed on Thursday throughout France, and on Monday motions of censure will be examined — with the possibility of proposing the overthrow of the government — the Intersyndicale deliberately chose not to call for demonstrations either on Saturday or Monday in order to avoid any radicalization of the mobilization.

This attitude highlights the inter-union’s prolonged refusal to “politicize” the battle of the pension reform, as well as its opposition to building a real relationship of forces through the strike and the street. In other words, the response of the Intersyndicale is exactly the opposite of what we need in the face of a weakened government. The rage and the strength of our class must continue to express itself in order to demand the immediate withdrawal of the reform, the departure of Borne (France’s  prime minister), and the resignation of Macron, in the same way as was chanted by the Yellow Vests and in many demonstrations. The government’s weakness is an opportunity to go on the offensive, with perspectives to build the balance of forces by relying on the striking sectors that continue to block a part of the economy: from the garbage dumps to the refineries via the energy workers and the railroad workers.

We cannot wait until next Thursday to continue the struggle: the militant trade union and political organizations determined to push back the government, the general assemblies, the networks of strikers — all must reinforce the frameworks of self-organization and coordination and call for actions starting Friday and the coming days. Macron is in great difficulty: we must seize this advantage so that the reform is withdrawn, as well as use this momentum to think beyond the current situation and figure out how to achieve much more.

Since the beginning of the movement, there have been many grassroots aspirations: on pensions, wages, working conditions, public services, and more. We must raise all these issues and thus broaden the demands of the movement. After a day marked by a new autocratic decree, we must also strategically envision abolishing the Presidency, the Senate, and to the whole antidemocratic regime of the Fifth Republic. The system must be replaced by a single chamber, concentrating legislative and executive powers, one whose elected representatives are impeachable and paid the average salary.

All these are policies that the mass movement has the strength to impose, as the demonstrations of the last two months have shown, provided it adopts a strategy that breaks radically from the one that has dominated until now.


1 49.3 further states that only a motion of censure that is signed by at least 58 MPs and submitted within 24 hours can stop the law from being accepted.
2 Intersyndicale” refers to an “inter-union” — an unofficial structure having no legal status and unable to exercise the rights of a union organization. Each member organization maintains its sovereignty and is committed to the decisions of the inter-union only after having given its consent.
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