John Mullen: ‘To defend pensions in France, we need a general strike’

March 25, 2023
Protest in France
One of the many protests held this week in France. Photo: John Mullen

A ninth day of action was held on March 23 in opposition to French prime minister Emmanuel Macron’s plan to add two years to everyone’s working life.

Millions of demonstrators protested in hundreds of towns: more than in previous weeks, and with young people far more visible than before. Many were demonstrating for the first time, enraged that Macron forced the bill through parliament without a vote.

Half the country’s public transport and half its schools were closed; several universities and hundreds of high schools were blockaded. Major tourist sites, such as the Eiffel Tower and the Palace of Versailles, were on strike.

The public 24-hour news radio station, France-info, played rock music on Thursday morning as its journalists had walked out. Staff at Le Monde, the most respected of the national daily newspapers, also joined the strike. “We have to throw all our forces into the battle”, declared radical left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon. “People will not surrender, Mr. President”.

Ongoing strikes against the pensions reform continued into a second week among garbage collectors in at least 15 cities, and 10,000 tons of rubbish are piled up in the streets of Paris. Continuing strikes by dockers, energy workers, airport staff and others show no signs of slowing down, and blockades of motorways, fuel depots, bus garages, wholesale distribution centres, tax centres, power stations, rubbish incinerators, ports and railway lines have been organised around the country.

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Protest in France
Protesting the attack on pensions in France. Photo: John Mullen

Energy workers, under the label of “Robin Hoods”, have taken over electricity distribution in some areas, and are organising power cuts for Macronist town halls or regional police headquarters, and free electricity for hospitals and similar institutions.

On Wednesday night (March 22), the posh audience at the first evening of a contemporary dance show in the prestigious Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris had their leisure interrupted by theatre union demonstrators waving banners and singing songs (Some of the audience left in disgust).

On Thursday morning, columns of farm tractors blocked main roads in some regions, while a group of 300 actors and personalities from culture and entertainment published an open letter asking Macron to withdraw the law.

All week there have been nightly demonstrations in a score of cities, with violent police chasing thousands of young demonstrators, and rubbish bins being burned in the streets.

Thursday night the doors of the town hall in Bordeaux and parts of a police station in Lorient were burned. A teaching assistant had her thumb blown off by a police grenade at a demonstration in Rouen.

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Protest in France
Protesting the attack on pensions in France. Photo: John Mullen

It is impossible to list all the different strikes and protests, but important to note that the general strike we need has not yet arrived.

After having forced his pensions bill through by decree on March 16, avoiding putting it to a parliamentary vote he would have lost, and after surviving a no confidence motion in parliament by nine votes, which would have overthrown the government and its Prime Minister, Elizabeth Borne, Macron addressed the nation in a major lunchtime interview on March 22. He warned his listeners of the dangers of “sedition” and tried to compare the young protesters burning rubbish bins in the streets of Paris to Donald Trump’s far-right putschist thugs who attacked the capitol on January 6, 2021. He insisted that his reform was necessary to save our pension system.

The least one can say is that he convinced practically no one. Opinion polls show that 61% of the population thought his interview had provoked more anger. Seven percent felt it would help to calm things down, and 27% thought it would change nothing.

Even the mainstream press were highly critical. “It will be hard to find a way out of the situation now,” wrote one major editorial. Laurent Berger, leader of the least combative of the major union confederations (the one which, four years ago, had supported Macron’s previous, failed, attempt to slash pensions) accused Macron of lying and declared that the movement must continue.

Police violence is on the rise and the government has even been trying to requisition oil refinery workers to force them to work, which has provoked more anger and led other groups to join the strikes.

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Protest in France
Protesting the attack on pensions in France. Photo: John Mullen

The movement shows no sign of calming down, but at the same time the national union leaders who have been fixing the regular days of action are still refusing to call for an indefinite general strike. Given the present level of anger, and the fact that 90% of employed people are opposed to the pension reform, this should be the obvious option.

Foreseeing the future is not easy. Macron has now technically the right to sign his bill into law next week. In normal circumstances, it is far more difficult to organise opposition to a law that has actually been put into effect. But these are not normal circumstances … and this is France.

In 2006, a law imposing worse conditions for under 21 year-olds on work contracts and instituting a two-year trial period for young people in jobs was voted and signed into law, before a huge social explosion sent then Prime Minister Alain Juppé running for cover, and forced President Jacques Chirac to throw his law in the rubbish bin.

Macron no longer seems to have a plan beyond police repression and blaming the left for the “terrible chaos in our streets”. Three million people demonstrated Thursday, and Thursday night 172 were arrested by the police. Not exactly the apocalypse!

We need to put as much pressure as possible on national union leaders to call an indefinite general strike very soon. They do not want to do this, because they see the world through the eyes of professional negotiators. But the general strike is necessary, and no other body has the prestige and authority to make it happen. There is still everything to play for.

The next day of action is set for Tuesday March 28, and must be used to build broader action still.

[John Mullen is a revolutionary socialist living in the Paris region and a supporter of the France Insoumise. His website is]

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