Millions of people on the streets around France on January 9 and 11 showed the determination of the movement to defend pensions.
As well as transport workers, teachers and refinery workers — some of whom have been on strike continuously for over a month and others who strike on the days of action — new sectors have also been mobilised.
Court lawyers are solidly on strike, groups of National Bank workers, who provide the currency for cash machines, are walking out this week. Universities, which were slow to start up, are getting involved. Teachers in Paris high schools are boycotting exams.
Smaller, direct action, grassroots initiatives are flourishing: Prime Minister Édouard Philippe, while giving a pompous speech about the reform this week, had the electricity to the building cut by power workers. The education administration in the region I work in was blockaded from six in the morning. Two major ports are still blockaded.
It is in this context that Macron announced concessions last weekend. In addition to earlier concessions delaying the reform for 12 years and excluding a few groups of workers, Macron announced a suspension of the plan to raise the standard retirement age from 62 to 64.
Strangely, the international press headlined it as if this was a major victory for the strikers, which it is not.
There were three parts to the government’s “reform”:
1. Raise the standard retirement age;
2. Reduce pensions by changing the calculation method, so they are based on lifetime earnings and not on the best years (in the private sector) nor on final salary (in the public sector);
3. Not count years worked but credit points, to create a system both easy to privatise further down the line, and a system in which pensions can be cut later, since the value of a point can be altered by the government.
So, we have seen a concession, but on one of the three subjects only. In addition, it is a temporary concession.
This does not mean it has no importance. Conservative voters and bosses’ organisations were very attached to the raising of the standard retirement age. They have been patient with the massive disruption caused by the strikes, since they felt that Macron would never back down — now cracks are beginning to appear in the alliances around Macron.
The fight has to go on. Two of the least combative union federations — Union Nationale des Syndicats Autonomes (UNSA) and the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT) — have welcomed the government's announcement and withdrawn their support for the strikes.
Happily, the Paris transport section of UNSA has rejected the position of the national union leaders and called for the strike to go on. There has been a flurry of posts on Facebook of unionists tearing up their CFDT membership cards.
Percentages of strikers in transport are lower than they were a few weeks back, as family budgets have taken a massive hit. But the demonstrations on January 11 were very dynamic, and the large number of transport workers collecting money for different hardship funds for strikers certainly did not give the impression that the movement was about to give up. Three more days of action have been announced for January 14–16.
The national joint union strike committee has just brought out a press release “Continue until we win!” This was signed by the two most combative federations (Confédération Générale du Travail – CGT and Solidaires), by the national education federation, but also by student unions and the middle management union bloc. In short, both government and strikers are very determined and the conflict is still on a knife-edge.
As well as Macron’s small concession, repression is playing a big role. The police were obviously being told to ramp up the violence. After Saturday’s protests, the extremely respectable national newspaper, Le Monde, tweeted: “The trade union demonstrations of Saturday were once again marked by what we have to call police violence, and there is no need for inverted commas around the expression.” Videos of police beating up passers-by are going viral.
The government has also announced there will be an urgent conference, to report on "How to balance the finances of state pension schemes" in April. This conference will involve boss's organisations as well as trade union confederations.
It is really a propaganda move, to loudly proclaim that the main problem is balancing the budget (which it is not). No doubt, almost all the union confederations will go to the conference.
Radical left political organisations such as France Insoumise (whose candidate got 19.5% of the vote in the previous presidential election) and the New Anticapitalist Party are loudly calling to spread the strikes, and their activists are doing what they can on the ground.
The next week will be crucial — new sectors must be brought into the struggle in order to ensure a clear victory and the scrapping of the pension reduction scheme.
[Abridged from Counterfire.]