Strikes, protests and occupations are breaking out everywhere. Sam Wainwright writes that resistance to French president Emmanuel Macron’s austerity plans is gathering pace and its development will determine the future of the country.
Macron and his big business patrons complain that France has failed to “modernise” like Britain did during Margaret Thatcher’s reign. A key turning point that explains why the French working class has been able to slow this process was the huge social movement and strike wave of 1995, in which millions of people took to the streets.
The president’s party La République En Marche! and its allies have a thumping majority in the National Assembly, holding 359 out of 577 positions in the country's lower house of parliament. Opponents of his plan for cuts, privatisation and deregulation know that stopping him will require a similarly huge and united mobilisation of working people across sector, political affiliation and age group.
The left is calling for an urgent “convergence des luttes” (a coming together of struggles), but Macron’s ministers stress the need to prevent a “coagulation” of opposition.
Macron’s plan hinges on two tactics. The first is his proposal to corporatise the national railway system in preparation for privatisation. This involves closing one-third of the network and cutting rail workers’ conditions.
This is his equivalent of Thatcher’s attack on the miners in the 1980s, hoping to inflict a generational defeat on the union movement and demoralising all opposition. Macron and the pro-capitalist press prepared this assault with the predictable divide-and-rule tactic of hyping up the supposed “privileges” of rail workers.
Secondly, Macron has unleashed multiple “reforms” on a whole range of fronts at the same time. He is hoping to overwhelm opponents with a blitzkrieg attack.
These include cuts to public health, housing and transport; slashing public sector jobs; plus a plan to dramatically change university entrance requirements. The education changes would move France away from its system of entrance as a right based on grades obtained in the final year of school. It would move the system towards Australia’s, where individual universities control selection and admission in order to progressively “marketise” this sector.
The key features of Macron’s 2017-18 budget were €15 billion in cuts to services combined with a €10 billion tax cuts benefiting big business and the rich. It also proposes to cut the corporate tax rate from its current 33% to 25% by 2022.
There’s no doubt that Macron was emboldened by the failure of the union movement to mobilise sufficiently to stop his far reaching changes to France's workplace laws in 2017.
There were some big demonstrations, but the various union confederations failed to present a unified front against the attack.
However, signs are emerging that Macron’s “crash or crash through” approach may be galvanising the resistance required. Importantly, a call at a public meeting by La France insoumise (France Unbowed) parliamentarian François Ruffin and left-wing economist Frédéric Lordon for an all-in demonstration in Paris on May 5 is gathering momentum.
It short-circuited the jostling and negotiations normally required to get all the unions and left-wing parties to agree on a date. The more than 50,000 protesters that took to the streets of Marseilles in a preparatory demonstration on April 14 suggests that it will be huge.
The rail workers have gone on the offensive, industrially and politically. They are imposing a series of rolling strikes over April, May and June; launched with well-attended nationwide demonstrations on March 22.
This has been accompanied by a campaign to educate commuters about the real causes for the deficiencies in the rail network. These are due to an accumulated underspend on infrastructure and the skewing of investment towards high speed trains at the expense of urban and regional services.
An online strike fund launched by well known left-wing academics and media personalities passed more than €2 million in about two weeks, proving to be a publicity coup in its own right.
The second most widespread point of resistance has been on campuses, where students have occupied about 50 universities. On March 28, the dean and a senior lecturer in the law department at the University of Montpellier granted building access to masked right-wing thugs. They locked the doors of the lecture theatre and beat the occupying students with planks of wood. The dean and lecturer have since been charged.
Despite this PR disaster, riot police have been sent in to remove students from several other campuses. This only caused the occupation movement to spread.
Conscious that for the moment, they are at the cutting edge of the resistance to Macron, the students and rail workers have organised solidarity and sent contingents to each others’ demonstrations.
Simultaneously, there has been strike action by workers across a diverse range of industries. At Air France, workers who put up with years of wage freezes while the company went through a difficult time are demanding a significant rise now the airline is pumping out an annual profit of over €1 billion.
Workers in the waste and recycling industries have struck and protested for improved conditions and the establishment of a national publicly owned waste and resource recovery service.
Aged care and postal workers have also taken action against the cutbacks that are making their jobs impossible. On March 30, Carrefour supermarkets were shut down as workers at the retail giant protested plans to cut thousands of jobs.
Added to all this were the surreal images of attempts by riot police to break up the occupation of land that had been earmarked for a new airport near the city of Nantes. The site at Notre-Dame-des-Landes has been the scene of an epic environmental struggle that has spanned decades.
Farmers and environmentalists have battled to preserve agricultural land and protect a nearby wetlands. It became known as the ZAD (Zone to be Defended), in turn coined a new word for the occupiers — “zadistes”.
The government made the decision to abandon the project in January. Yet it was keen to be seen to have the last word by evicting the various cooperative farming ventures established on the land that had been resumed by the state.
It imagined that the more “moderate” sections of the movement would stay at home while the media broadcast images of the police mopping up a few hundred dread-locked squatters. Instead, the farmers and environmentalists came to their defence.
Two-and-a-half thousand police were deployed at a cost of around €400,000 per day over eight days. The dominant image of the first week of April was grey haired environmentalists being pushed to the ground and tear gassed as helicopters circled above and farmers blocked roads with their tractors to stop the armoured cars.
Macron finally put an end to this circus, effectively calling a truce by announcing that attempts to clear the ZAD were on hold. Then, in an unprecedented move for a very monarchical president, he felt it necessary to do two daytime TV appearances in a week.
On the back foot for the first time, he used much more conciliatory language about the railway workers. But apart from a softening of his language, he conceded nothing. In fact, legislation to restructure the railways sailed through its first reading in the National Assembly.
The social movement struggles have to spread and build even more momentum. All eyes are on May 5, but much will have to happen both before and after if French people are to once again block the neoliberal assault.