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Workers in France Escalate Fight against Macron’s Pension Reforms

Protests continue in France against President Macron’s pension reforms. To win, the working class will need to develop its own organizational bodies to coordinate further actions across workplaces, as well as on the street and in communities.

Feargal McGovern

February 22, 2023
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Protesters in France against Macron's pension reforms.

Since the middle of January, the French calendar has been marked by a series of one-day strikes and rallies. They have formed part of a campaign jointly coordinated by the various French union confederations against President Macron’s reforms to raise the age of retirement and to abolish special pension regimes for workers in industries such as rail, electricity, and the public service. 

The reforms are part of the French state’s efforts to advance neoliberal austerity and to finance ongoing imperialist wars (be they in West Africa against “Islamic insurgents” or in Eastern Europe against Russia). The state aims to cut its expenditure on social welfare, forcing workers to work longer in life. The reforms will result in women, as well as other marginalized and racialized sectors of the working class, to work longer and for less. 

On February 16, 1.3 million workers participated in a strike, the fifth in a series of demonstrations in response to Macron’s reforms. On Saturday the 11th, 2.3 million protesters were on the streets; on February 7, just under 2 million participated in a strike called by a union alliance; and on January 19 and 31, more than 2 million participated in strikes. While the most recent strike on the 16th has had the lowest turnout thus far, trade union confederations have attributed this to workers being absent during school holiday period, as well as workers saving their energy in anticipation of an escalation on March 7.

These strikes and rallies are the biggest since the 1980s — with less lead time, they have surpassed the rallies and national strikes in 2010 against the pension reforms, in which the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy government raised the retirement age from 62 to 64.

Although Macron’s reforms have sparked the protests and strikes, it is more than retirement reforms that have brought people onto the street. The national strikes also represent an opportunity to protest inflation and the rising cost of living, from food to rent and electricity, as well as to protest the stagnation of wages, increasing job insecurity and precarity, and, more generally, neoliberal austerity politics imposed on social services.

Particularly noteworthy is the strikes’ depth and spread throughout the country. The biggest demonstrations have, as expected, been in Paris (from 400,000 — 500,000 on each day), with large demonstrations in other large cities (on February 11, 80,000 in Bordeaux, 150,000 in Marseille, 100,000 in Toulouse). But demonstrations have also been held in many small and medium-sized cities, these demonstrations being by far proportionally larger than those in the larger cities. In some cases as much as one-quarter to one-fifth of the population has taken part.

The large numbers owe in no small part to a somewhat unexpected solidarity between the various French trade union confederations. In 2010, the leadership of the CFDT (Confédération française démocratique du travail, a right-wing collaborationist union federation) stabbed the working-class movement in the back, negotiating with Sarkozy to break the movement against retirement reforms and helping the government raise the pension age from 62 to 64. This time, at least for now, this union leadership is supporting the movement against the pension reform, calling its members to the streets, with rallies in many cities being composed of up to one-third CFDT members.

One question that emerges is, How will the struggle be escalated? Further, how long will this unprecedented interunion cooperation last? Is it simply a question of time before the CFDT (or any other federations, for that matter) turn on the working class and negotiate with Macron, in an effort to help introduce a more “palatable” series of reforms to retirement?

Union Bureaucracy, Reformists

Up to this point, the CFDT leadership has used its influence in the union alliance to pursue an explicitly pacifist, reformist, and electoral strategy, hoping to impress Macron with large turnouts and to persuade him to abandon the reforms in the interest of democracy.

But if one thing is becoming clear, 2 million people peacefully demonstrating in the city one or two days a week is not enough to force Macron to drop his attacks on the working class. Further, if French history has demonstrated one thing, it is that there are no worse fair-weather friends than union bureaucrats, whose role in the administration of capitalism is to help broker social peace between capital and labor. While this means they seek to improve the conditions by which labor is exploited by capital, they don’t seek to abolish capitalist exploitation. Further, union bureaucrats can act as a brake on worker militancy and revolutionary movements, like the CGT did (under direction of the French Communist Party) during the general strike of May ’68. Despite worker insurgency having paralyzed capital and forced president Charles De Gaulle to flee the country, the union leadership helped break the strike, convincing workers to return to work and securing De Gaulle’s return to the country in return for small wage rises. And of course right-wing unions like the CFDT are no exception.

One potential outcome is that the reforms will nonetheless pass Parliament, and the CFDT, as well as the reformist left of the NUPES, will bemoan the decision yet insist that it must be respected, attempting to demobilize the working class “until the next election” or at least split and isolate the most radical union confederations.

Already at this point in the movement, there has been an example of this. On February 12 in the city of Rennes, the Socialist Party (PS) city mayor called the police to evict students who had occupied the town hall to hold a permanent general assembly to coordinate local actions against Macron’s reforms. To add insult to injury, the day after the eviction, the NUPES issued a press release condemning the students’ action, with not a word spoken of or against the police brutality that led many students to be hospitalized and six minors arrested.

The “polite socialists” of the PS call the cops on sections of the working class that dare advance the fight, and the “left reformists” of NUPES shake their finger and tut tut, all in effort to prove that their form of protest is “respectable.” It has nonetheless been heartening to see that, despite the two-facedness of the PS and NUPES, around 100 students representing various student groups and organizations held a demonstration in Rennes on February 17 denouncing police violence and the PS mayor’s repression of the student movement.

Concerning the union bureaucrats: even at this point amid one of the largest workers’ movements in France in decades, some of the union confederations are already starting to change their tune and negotiate with Macron. On February 17, the CFDT and the CFTC (Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens, a right-wing Christian trade union) signed a deal with Macron and the MEDEF (Mouvement des entreprises de France, a French bosses’ union) agreeing to a system of bonuses linked to company profits, an effort to make employees feel they have a vested interest in the process of capitalist accumulation and exploitation, while avoiding the question of wage increases to keep up with inflation.

But it is against the popular sentiment of workers in France to collaborate with Macron and the French bosses, limiting the struggle to symbolic actions or electoralism. This is evident in comments from workers around the country, both those participating and those who haven’t joined the national strikes yet. They indicate a clear sentiment that one-day strikes are not enough. One such example is a testimony from a member of the CFDT collected by the news agency:

We have to make a mess. In the morning, two protesters from Nice aged 69 and 74. In Lyon, Fred, 47, an employee in a laboratory in the hospital sector and an activist for the CFDT, thinks like them: “It’s almost too structured for it to be revolutionary. There we have fun, we’re nice, and it’s cool, but that’s not enough,” he believes. “We have to take back the pressure of Saturdays like during the yellow vests. The 11th will be a real test. But it is the only way, because after three days of strike, people are sticking their tongues out.”

The unions need to offer a clear strategy as well as escalate the fight. Just some of the proposals are prolonged strikes, transport blockages, and power outages for industry. Above all, we need to be prepared to make a mess. There is a potential for this movement to be huge, perhaps not quite as large as the general strike of May ’68, which paralyzed capital in France for close to two months and put France on the cusp of a revolutionary situation, but not far off the huge three-week strike in 1995 against the Chirac government’s neoliberal reforms to social security.

Escalating the Fight

To win the fight against the reforms, the working class will need to develop its own organizational bodies to coordinate further actions across workplaces, as well as on the street and in communities. Throughout the country these are developing already, albeit unevenly, with the emergence of interprofessional general assemblies. The AGs have a historical precedent in the three-week strike of 1995 against the neoliberal reforms proposed to social security proposed by the Chirac government. The AGs allow rank-and-file workers across professions and union federations to coordinate with one another, working collectively to bring other workers into the strike. As a result of strong rank-and-file organization, the strike forced the Chirac government to back down on its reforms. At this point, the movement could go either way: the union bureaucracy, with its lack of strategy and effort to keep the movement pacified, could cause it to fizzle out. Or there could be a huge escalation.

And it should be said there are indeed more militant sections of the union movement pushing for this, particularly in rail and electricity, where workers’ militancy has already gone well beyond participation in one-day isolated strikes.

Student participation in the movement has also been exemplary, with permanent general assemblies being established in multiple universities through student occupations across the country, with the aim of supporting, building, and escalating the fight against Macron’s pension reforms. Over the past week, however, many of the university occupations have been subject to violent state repression, with police evicting students from universities Lille and Tolbiac on February 16. Nonetheless, despite the repression, students have continued their mobilizations and university occupations.

Where Is RP in All This?

For our part, in addition to providing coverage and analysis of the fight against Macron’s reforms to retirement, militants of Révolution Permanente have been playing an active role in our workplaces and universities to build participation in the strikes and general assemblies, as well as to convince workers of the need for a “renewable strike,” a strike with no determined end date, to be extended day by day through democratic decision-making of the union rank and file each day until demands are met, to commence March 7

Further, we work to ensure that the demands put forward by the union leaders are not restricted to opposing Macon’s reforms, but are broadened to reflect the issues being raised by striking workers. We want to create a program that reflects what everyone wants to fight: the rising costs of housing, electricity, and living, wage stagnation, work insecurity, Macron, neoliberalism, and the destruction of public services.

Better organization of the union membership through an emphasis on rank-and-file democracy will enable the escalation and coordination of our militancy. And for our fair-weather friends among the union bureaucracy and neoreformist political currents such as NUPES, it will also act as a security against their tendency toward collaboration, pushing them to take a more radical and sure stance against Macron’s reforms. If they try to stab us in the back by negotiating with Macron over reforms to retirement, then we will be ready go on and go harder without them.

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Protesters gather during a demonstration on Place de la Concorde in Paris on March 17, 2023, the day after the French government pushed a pensions reform using the article 49.3 of the constitution. - French President's government on March 17, 2023 faced no-confidence motions in parliament and intensified protests after imposing a contentious pension reform without a vote in the lower house. Across France, fresh protests erupted in the latest show of popular opposition to the bill since mid-January.

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