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“We Need Action Committees Everywhere”: Building the General Strike in France

Workers across France are organizing action committees to build a general strike to take down the Macron government and the Fifth Republic.

Arthur Nicola

March 24, 2023
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Photo: RP

On Tuesday evening at the Flèche d’Or, an abandoned train station turned public venue located in a Parisian neighborhood with a long history of militant struggle, the atmosphere was brimming with support for a general strike among the cross-sector workers in attendance. A similar spirit was felt in the remote meeting held at the same time. At the previous meeting, the discussions had focused on the need for a marching strike and preparations for renewable strikes for March 7th. Since then, the situation has changed radically. 

“There is a leap in the political crisis,” explains Adrien Cornet, of the CGT Total Grandpuits, in his introduction. “This is tipping into a pre-revolutionary situation with actions that we never imagined, such as CFDT members burning puppets bearing the government’s effigy in Dijon, and thousands of people protesting at Place de la Concorde saying they didn’t want to go home.”

The meeting began with nearly twenty sectors giving reports on the state of the movement in their sectors and companies, with workers at the state-owned railway companies RATP and SNCF; garbage collectors and sewage workers; nuclear power plant workers at Paluel and Nogent-sur-Seine; electric workers at RTE and Enedis; metalworkers at Airbus, Sidel, Safran, Stellantis/PSA; airport workers at Roissy and Orly airports, workers from Sanofi and Saint-Gobain, education workers, and of course, youth. 

Across all industries, the movement is becoming increasingly radical, with more and more sectors undertaking renewable strike action. Garbage collectors, refiners and energy workers have been taking the lead. Even in companies where renewable strikes are not yet desired by the majority, all workers have expressed a growing anger after Macron’s use of 49.3, an undemocratic constitutional tool that Macron used to push through the bill without a parliamentary vote. 

“The 49.3 has triggered the involvement of new sectors and workers that we would never have thought to enter a social movement. We are in an exceptional phase that I have never known in 22 years of work. We are in an insurrectionary moment, and it’s about time,” said Cédric Liechti, of the CGT Energy Paris. It’s been a similar refrain from all the striking workers: the renewable strike and renewed radicalism have changed the situation in just a few days.

“We can win!” is a widely-held sentiment — which is one of the major changes in the mobilization. One woman railway worker explains that there has been a subjective change among the strikers; before, workers went on strike “because we have to resist;” now, workers are on strike “because we can win.” 

Adrien Cornet of CGT Total continues: “Faced with this situation, we have a cross-union leadership that pursues a strategy of defeat: isolated strikes week after week. With the teachers’ strike, Laurent Berger and Martinez (the general secretaries of CFDT and CGT, respectively) say that we must not disturb the baccalaureate.” 

But none of the strikers and union leaders at the meeting underestimate the difficulties. One of the main obstacles is the police repression of the demonstrations. Another is requisitions, a legal weapon of the French state that forces workers back to work under the threat of six months in prison and a 10,000 euro fine, crushing the right to strike. Faced with this, the network’s call is clear: workers must “constitute a vast network of solidarity capable of facing the repression,” particularly through organized gatherings in front of police stations during arrests, or in front of factories in case of requisitions of strikers.

“We are facing an organized and armed repression, as we saw in Fos-sur-Mer.” For the strikers at the Nogent nuclear power station, the assessment is clear: “Each time we’ve had strength in numbers, we’ve forced them to back down. We must be ten times, a hundred times more numerous. We must resist them, even if they strike at us!” The same goes for Alexis Antonioli from the Normandy refinery: “Faced with requisitions, there is only one solution: the masses in front of the factories to prevent them.”

Hence the importance of the picket lines to ensure that the resistance continues in the face of all forms of repression, to hold the blockades, and to organize points of agreement. Guillaume, a sewer worker at the Paris City Hall, testifies to the strong support for the garbage collectors in front of the blockade of the TIRU — a meeting point of students, unemployed people, retirees, strikers, all determined to come to the aid of the requisitioned garbage collectors. Charles Carlhant, general secretary of the CGT EDF of Nogent calls for these pickets “to become headquarters of strike action, where each sector can link their struggles.”

These increasingly radical methods of struggle have also led to more radical demands. Facing a desperate regime, whose brutality only reflects its weakness, workers believe it is possible to win demands far beyond the withdrawal of the pension reform. This is obvious to Guillaume: “What are we fighting against? Against this pension reform? What about after that? We are fighting against the precarity of the working class and marginalized sectors of society!”

For Cédric Liechti, these days and weeks present an opportunity to start “social recovery”: “We will have to win weeks of paid vacations, retirement at 60 years for all, 55 years for the hardest jobs, for women, and for the most precarious, without any condition of years of service.” 

Among these precarious sectors are obviously immigrant workers, who break their backs in the most thankless jobs; who are condemned to work until death, unable to reach the number of years required for a full pension. The march against Darmanin’s immigration law (which would give the government greater power to deport undocumented people) on March 25th should be celebrated as the first victory of the movement, which led to a shift in the balance of power to definitively bury the project. More generally, it is a clear example of the solidarity of the labor movement with migrants who are dying because of “Fortress Europe.”

Finally, after having discussed the struggle against the repression and how to spread the strike, notably by combining extension of the demands and militant work by going to seek the sectors which are not yet on permanent strike, the network moved the discussion to how to build the network in the movement. 

“This network must be cross-sector, consisting of young people, artists and intellectuals, where everyone puts their positions at the service of class struggle to make this government give in!” says Anasse Kazib from the Bourget yard in the Paris Nord station. “The cross-union leadership of Berger & Cie don’t like what’s happening at the moment. They’re going to look for the first opening to save themselves, and we’re going to have to pick up our comrades in front of the depots, the refineries, the technical centers, and so forth. To avoid that, we have to start preparing to build the Network for the General Strike, with action committees everywhere across the whole country. We must aim to build real cross-sector coordination, organizing all the sectors on strike, with a leadership that will fight until the end!”

The strategy of action committees is as concrete as it is urgent — we must gather workers in all localities determined to fight at the level of what the situation demands. This Network for the General Strike, which is currently composed of a few hundred workers and trade unionists, must spread throughout the country to build the general strike.

Originally published in French in Révolution Permanente on March 22.

Translated by Emma Lee

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