France: Macron plays ‘double or nothing’ on pension attacks

Issue 
French strikes
French workers strike on March 7. The banner reads: "On strike. Salaries, retirement — same fight!" Photo: John Mullen

After a three-week period of relative calm, all trade union federations in France called on workers “to bring France to a standstill” on March 7. Key workers’ sectors promised ongoing strikes.

Radical left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, speaking to student mass meetings, asked them to “blockade everything you can”, and high school students also mobilised. Electricity workers blockaded ring roads with their vans on March 6, and nuclear power station workers made their plants work at half power. Some universities and roads were blockaded on March 7, while demonstrations in 300 towns were planned for that day.

Support from the general public is unprecedented. With at least 70% of the population supporting the strikes, and a far higher proportion among under 60s, even mainstream news channels (attempting to remain relevant) are inviting radical union reps on air, where they defend in detail the need for a general strike.

Macron’s bill, now being debated in parliament, has two aims. Firstly to raise the standard retirement age from 62 to 64, and secondly to scrap several better sectional retirement agreements which have been won over the years by workers with the strongest trade unions (Macron calls these “special regimes”). This is his flagship reform.

Many mainstream analysts have shown there is no economic need for these changes: the Commission for Pension Strategy, set up by the Prime Minister, says that, despite an ageing population, the percentage of GDP needed to pay pensions will remain steady for many years. But the present attack is a crucial symbol that workers, not bosses, are expected to pay for the economic crisis and that Macron’s “gifts for billionaires” fiscal policy will in future be even more generous to the rich.

His bill guarantees a historic clash. Unlike the plan he put forward three years ago, which was shelved after huge strikes, this proposal is very simple — it will add two years to our working lives. His previous plan, based on a complicated points system, might have allowed him to make concessions and save face, but the present bill is a black and white “when will you be able to retire?”. It has provoked rage everywhere. The least combative union confederation, the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT), got its railway worker members to vote on whether or not to go for renewable strikes after Tuesday. Eighty percent voted in favour.

After several tremendous days of action, some of Macron’s ministers seem pretty terrified. One of them, Olivier Veran, said: “Bringing France to a standstill ... will risk an ecological catastrophe, a catastrophe in farming, even a human catastrophe. Bringing France to a halt means risking the health of our children, and missing the train of the future.” Meanwhile, another minister seems to have lost all contact he might have had with reality, declaring: “this is a left-wing reform”.

Union leaders

Union leaders in the various confederations have differing strategies, but none are giving anything like a sufficient lead. They took the risky decision of suspending action during the three weeks of staggered school holidays, using the excuse that they did not want to alienate the public, even though most French people cannot afford to go on holiday in February, and the movement is in fact wildly popular.

A rare united call from all unions initiated the slogan “Bring France to a standstill on March 7th”. The leaders of the CFDT explicitly say this is not a general strike (they concentrate on hoping shops will close for the day). The more combative General Confederation of Labour (CGT) is asking workers to meet the following day in each workplace to vote on renewable strikes.

The popularity of the cause would have allowed union leaderships to call an indefinite general strike, but their attitude as professional negotiators prevented this. National CGT leader Philippe Martinez even criticized radical left MPs for going too far, in obstructing parliamentary “debate” on the attacks!

Fortunately, some union federations in particular industries — under pressure from the rank and file — are more determined. Renewable strikes (typically voted on in mass meetings every day or two) have already been announced in railways and the Paris metro, in ports, in chemical plants, and among garbage collectors and shop workers. Electricity workers and oil refinery workers began the strike a day early. The list gets a little longer every couple of hours.

Left organisations

The large organisations of the radical Left, and particularly the France Insoumise (FI), have thrown themselves into the battle. In parallel with arguing in parliament, FI MPs have been organising meetings in universities and popularising their posters and stickers, which declare “Until retirement at 64 is withdrawn, BLOCKADE EVERYTHING” and “Solidarity with the strikers: Give money to the strike fund!”.

FI activists are also producing solidarity posters for shopkeepers to put in their windows. One Conservative politician announced yesterday she was suing Louis Boyard, an FI member of parliament, “for inciting violence”.

Various other political movements have been trying to make up for the timidity of the union leaders. On March 8 — International Women’s Day — feminist groups and others are calling for strikes to continue to underline the specific harm done to women (who often take years out of paid employment to raise children) by the new bill. Once this idea became popular, student and youth organisations got together to call a day of action on pensions on March 9. We are hoping all these initiatives help add up to an unstoppable dynamic.

What next?

Macron is hoping that when the amended text is voted through parliament, the movement will fade and die. This is not the most likely outcome, but we certainly need strategic thinking about how to win.

Many of the most radical activists rightly emphasise the need for autonomous rank and file mobilisation, but neglect to mention national political forces. This could be dangerous: if Macron prefers to dissolve parliament rather than retreat on pensions, the question of national mass political organisation, and how to support the radical left while defending anticapitalist politics, will become central. Minister for Employment Olivier Dussopt said last week he found Marine Le Pen of the fascists to be “more respectful of our institutions” than the FI. Such statements might be a sign of horrific future alliances.

[John Mullen is an anticapitalist activist living in the Paris region and a supporter of the France Insoumise. His website is randombolshevik.org.]