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‘This is only the beginning of the struggle’: Interview with a Healthcare Worker about the Strikes in France

Last Thursday, two million workers across France went on strike to protest the Macron government’s attempt to raise the retirement age. Left Voice spoke to Feargal McGovern, a worker at a hospital in Grenoble, France, and a member of the new organization Révolution Permanente.

Left Voice

January 23, 2023
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More than a million people demonstrated across France against President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to raise the country’s legal age of retirement to 64 from 62.
Image: Benoit Tessier/Reuters

Last Thursday, you and about two million other workers in France went on strike. How did you experience it?

For me it was a particularly proud moment. I work as an orderly in a small private hospital. We have a union, but it doesn’t have a very visible presence. The national strike against the pension reform gave me a reason to start talking openly with all my colleagues about politics. I was able to convince a few of them to come out on strike, and we participated in the demonstration as a group. It’s one thing to go to a rally as an individual, but I was very proud to be standing alongside my coworkers, not just as colleagues, but as camarades — a word that we have been increasingly using with one another. When I was back at work, a number of nurses approached me to express regret about not having participated. The emerging fight against the reforms goes much further and deeper than the number of striking workers last Thursday would indicate. Polls show 80 percent of the population opposing increasing the retirement age.

What were the strikes like in other parts of the country, and which sectors of the economy were particularly affected?

The strike truly was huge — both the number of people but also the number of cities participating. In Paris, 400,000 people mobilized. What really impressed me was the size of the demonstrations in smaller cities. For example, in my city, Grenoble, with 450,000 inhabitants, union rallies might bring 5,000 onto the streets. Last Thursday, there were 35,000. I saw reports as well from Gueret, a town of 12,000 people, that 6,000 people had participated in the demonstration. 

Overall, there were mobilisations in more than 200 cities across France. Many strikers were on the streets in their work uniforms or with banners indicating their workplaces. This included firefighters, workers from the state electrical company EDF, healthcare workers with banners from their hospitals, and students and teachers with banners from their schools. 

The biggest participation was in transport: trains, trams and buses. I know that many of my coworkers who did not strike still were not able to get to work because many bus and tram services were canceled. In the state train company SNCF, 80 percent of drivers were on strike, 50 percent of the controllers, 42 percent of signallers, and 47 percent of station managers. The Paris metro had three lines completely shutdown, and 10 others with significantly reduced service, while one in every three buses were canceled. 

At EDF, 30,742 out of 52,736 employees were on strike. In the nuclear power plants, it was 13,000 out of 19,000 workers.

How is the Macron government proposing to reform the pension system? 

Macron is planning to raise the legal retirement age from 62 to 64. He wants to abolish special pension plans for workers in the public service and some other sectors which in some cases enable people to retire earlier. In an effort to divide workers, he has proposed applying the reforms to the special pension plans only to new entrants. Yet he also wants to keep special pension plans for the police, army, and prisons, in a move designed to ensure the support of the state’s repressive apparatus. 

Macron claims that France can’t afford for workers to retire at 62. Of course this is completely false. The day after the strike, he announced a further 100 billion euros to the French military budget. Many of the largest companies in France aren’t paying any taxes despite record profits. The money is there to pay for retirement not just at 62, but at 60 — which many unions are calling for. More professions, such as cleaning, care work, and factory jobs, could also be included in the special pension plans.

Macron’s last attempt to attack pensions was in 2019, a bit more than three years ago. What has changed since then?

One big difference is the size of the strike itself, particularly in small- to medium-sized cities. The national strike on December 5, 2019, was set almost two months in advance and drew around one million people. Last Thursday, the strike was called nine days in advance and mobilized two million, including in many cities that have not seen rallies for a long time. This shows the depth of the anger towards Macron and his austerity policies. Macron was first elected as the “lesser evil” compared to the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. Yet after nearly six years of austerity, workers are realizing just how hollow the differences between the two are. That was highlighted in the last presidential run-off between Macron and Le Pen: voter turnout was less than 52 percent in the second round, the lowest since 1969.

While there may be a profound apathy when asked to choose between Le Pen or Macron, the strike shows that people are still very interested in politics. They are participating on the street rather than at the ballot. The elephant in the room is the global economic crisis. Over the last few months, inflation has been really visible, with prices in the supermarkets rising by 12 percent. Energy costs have exploded and wages have stagnated. The national strike represents opposition to the pension reforms, but also a lack of confidence in Macron and a protest against inflation and wage stagnation. 

France has many different union federations, so there are many competing union bureaucracies. Are they all standing together against the reform, or are some union leaders negotiating with Macron?

Back in 2019, the CFDT — the most right-wing of the main union federations — refused to support the national strike against pension reforms, instead choosing to negotiate with Macron. Now the CFDT is mobilizing as well, and this contributed to the numbers. The CFDT are nonetheless still the weakest link in the Intersyndicale coordination committee, and there is always the risk that they will jump ship for talks with Macron as soon the struggle starts to intensify.

Despite the massive protests, the Intersyndicale hasn’t proposed anything in the way of a strategy to defeat the reforms. Without pressure from rank-and-file militants within the unions, there is a risk that the bureaucracies could simply use a handful of big rallies as pressure for their negotiations with the government, rather than trying to stop the reforms in their entirety. 

There is another national strike called for January 31. In light of the success of last Thursday, this seems like a long pause, especially as there is nothing proposed for in between. The students are not stopping their actions, with numerous school blockades.

There is a rank-and-file drive to escalate the strikes, most notably from the oil refinery workers in the union CGT Energy. They are calling for ongoing and renewable strikes, as well as escalating from single-day strikes to 48 and 72 hours. They have indicated that starting February 13, they will consider cutting energy production and distributing energy for free to poor people.

How do you think the protests will continue?

This is only the beginning of the struggle. We need to be prepared for repression by the government. While the French constitution does include a right to strike, there are numerous laws limiting that right. Macron used these laws most recently against the oil refinery workers when they went on strike last year. There are, however, also numerous occasions in the last 20 years where the anti-strike laws have been rendered null and void because workers refused to be intimidated and did not return to work. There is a clear popular support for workers in key sectors (such as energy and transport) to resist anti-strike orders and escalate their struggle against the pension reform.

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Left Voice

Militant journalism, revolutionary politics.

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