Demonstrations in a record number of towns — more than 260 — took place across France on February 11, the fourth day of action to defend pensions, as the Pensions Bill began its four-week debate in the National Assembly.
The dynamism of the movement is inspiring, but even many strikers think that the government will never back down. So, can Macron be beaten, and if so, how?
Movements of mass revolt are complex. It is always extremely difficult to know which will accelerate and send the neoliberal government running for cover and which will tire and fade, helped along by trade union leaders’ determined “moderation” and a few minor concessions.
The present movement to stop Macron’s plan to move the standard retirement age from 62 to 64 years of age certainly has much to inspire anticapitalists across the globe. It is “the biggest movement for over 30 years” according to one union leader — that is, since a month-long strike wave in 1995, in which the Paris metro and the French railway network were shut down for weeks on end until Prime Minister Alain Juppé abandoned in disarray his attack on retirement rights.
At least two million people were on the streets on February 11, following the mass one-day strike of February 7. More than 260 towns held protests, down to places like Avesnes sur Hepe, which has only 4000 inhabitants. On the previous day of action on January 31, the town of Guéret in the centre of France had a particularly impressive turnout: 4300 people demonstrated, out of a population of only 13,700! Guéret is not an isolated case.
Some workplaces — particularly oil refineries, electricity services and docks — have been going further than the official national union strategy of a weekly day of action. The docks of Le Havre (the second largest port in France) and Lorient were blockaded by strikers last week, while electricity workers in a number of regions refused to cut off electricity to families who couldn’t pay, and put hospitals and other such services on cheap rate electricity. “It’s not legal, but it’s moral,” said a local leader.
Air Traffic Controllers at Paris Orly airport called a wildcat strike on February 11, to join the movement, and half the day’s flights were cancelled. Some factories in private industry, such as Mecachrome in Toulouse, are striking for two hours every day. In the Louvre museum, workers posed with a banner decorated with Delacroix’s well-known work “Liberty leading the people”, while at the annual classical music awards “Victoires de la musique” one of the musicians gave a much-applauded speech about the importance of defeating Macron’s attack.
Young people are getting more involved in the rebellion, too. This week there were occupations or blockades in universities in Paris, Toulouse, Montpellier, Lille, Clermont, Grenoble and Mulhouse.
Under huge pressure from the rank and file, some union leaders are more radical than usual, but they are sticking with the extremely risky strategy of building up a strike movement very slowly, striking one day a week.
Union leaders are promising wider and longer strike action in a month’s time. But there is a real danger that workers will be demoralised by regularly losing a day’s wages without seeing a dynamic, urgent and fast-moving movement that can obviously win.
A national joint union statement declared that unions intend “to shut France down on the 7th of March” if the government does not retreat. The careful wording was intended to keep the less combative French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT) on board.
CFDT leaders immediately went on to say that in their view this was not a call for a general strike. The more radical General Confederation of Labour (CGT) leaders said that each workplace will decide how long strike action would go on. Many in the movement think that “General Strike now!” would have more chance of victory.
The union leaders’ official excuse is that the movement is popular, and they do not want to risk its popularity by striking during school holidays, which have just begun and are staggered by region over the next month. This argument is always shaky — public opinion does not really do much to defend workers’ conditions, otherwise nurses, who are very popular indeed, would be the best paid and best treated of employees!
In the present case, it is particularly ridiculous. More than 85% of those who have not yet retired support the movement, and this number has risen over the last three weeks! Sixty-six per cent of the entire population believe that “if the country is blockaded by the strikes the government is mainly responsible”. And only 21% of the population think that the present movement “will quickly run out of steam”.
In the workers’ movement, there is something called the “renewable strike”, which means that strikers meet every day or two and decide whether to continue striking for another 24 or 48 hours. The advantage of this method is that rank and file workers are involved in the discussions, and national trade union leaders no longer control the revolt so much. The disadvantage is that it can lead to workplaces deciding each on their own, with no one putting forward a determined national strategy. How workers are won to renewable strikes, and the links made between the different sectors, will be key to victory.
Political parties of the left and right are being tested by the revolt. Left-wing groupings such as the France Insoumise (FI) and the New Anticapitalist Party have been organising mass meetings around the country. On television and in parliament, FI MPs (there are 74 of them) have been loudly defending the movement.
Although the main long-term strategy of the FI is to win radical change through parliament, they have made it clear that the strike movement is key. Interviewed by BFMTV on Saturday, FI leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon declared “Mr Macron treats people like cattle … but people entering into the struggle are entering into dignity”. In parliament, Rachel Keke, a Black FI MP who worked for many years as a cleaner before becoming an MP, tore strips off Macron; “You have no right to bring to their knees those people who keep France on its feet!” she declared.
FI organised a seven-hour-long online fundraising event on February 12, to raise money for union strike funds. Nevertheless, the FI leadership maintains, sadly, the old idea that it is for union leaders, not political leaders, to put forward a strategy for winning.
Prime Minister Elizabeth Borne has made tiny concessions in order to get the votes in parliament of the traditional right-wing Republican party. The 5% of retirees who started work young will be able to stop at 63, not 64, she promises. The Republicans are worried though — huge demos, even in their traditional strongholds, prey on their minds.
As is generally the case, a rise in class struggle is very bad news for the fascists. Eighty-four per cent of those who voted for the far-right Rassemblement National (RN) in recent elections support the movement, but the RN and its 87 MPs won’t dare to show up at the demonstrations for fear of being thrown out, although they have been flyposting “No to Macron’s Pensions Reform — join the RN!” posters along the demonstration routes.
RN leader Marine le Pen does not call for people to go onto the streets, and in parliament the RN are reduced to appealing to their hardcore extremists, claiming that stopping immigration would save money to pay for pensions, and that the solution is for white French people to have larger families, encouraged by the state. They are being forced to show how far they stand from working-class interests.
Further days of mobilisation have been called for February 16 and March 7, and some sectors such as the Paris metro have already announced renewable strikes from March 7 onwards. Macron can be beaten, if the movement does not listen too much to the professional negotiators at the top of the trade union confederations.
[John Mullen is a revolutionary socialist living in the Paris region, and a supporter of the France Insoumise. His website is randombolshevik.org.]