The mass movement to defend pensions in France has impressed the world, and is one of the biggest mobilisations in Europe on class issues since 1968.
Many millions, in hundreds of towns, have been on the streets. Mass strikes and smaller wildcat strikes, occupations, school blockades, direct action and riots have all been part of the mix. The movement has not yet either won or lost, but it has retained the support of the vast majority of the population, who do not believe the government’s squeals about the need for us all to tighten our belts and work for two years longer.
This movement has revealed once more a widespread political class consciousness in the country. Large numbers of people not affected personally by the reform have joined the struggle, just as in 2006, the movement that forced the abrogation of a law imposing precarious work contracts on all those under 26 involved workers of all ages. This class consciousness has, among other effects over the years, allowed the rise of the radical left France Insoumise (“France in Revolt”, FI), which got seven million votes in last year’s presidential elections.
But another particularity of France also echoed around the world in the spring of 2022. Thirteen million people (41% of voters, making up 25% of the entire adult population) voted for the far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, at the same presidential elections. This is a candidate whose party promises to stop non-French residents of France from receiving welfare benefits or social housing, to ban Muslim headscarves on the streets and which puts the “unity of the nation” at the centre of its racist program, as well as maintaining discreet links with street fighting Nazis, like those who set fire to the mayor's house in a small town in the country’s west, after he defended building a centre for asylum seekers.
Le Pen’s “National Rally” party often claims to be “the leading working-class party in France”.
Obviously there is a sharp polarisation working its way through society, helped along by the bankruptcy of the traditional right and of the Socialist Party left, who, between them (though one or other had governed the country for decades), got fewer than 7% of the votes at the 2022 presidentials.
Playing the racist card
Racism and Islamophobia will be the key options for Macron’s new right as it attempts to undermine the class unity shown in the present movement. The fact that Macron originally came from a current of right-wing thought which did not make a priority of attacking Muslims faded in importance as he realised how profitable such attacks could be. This is why we saw the introduction of last year’s ludicrous “law against separatism” — making life harder for mosques and for Muslim charities — and other attacks whose main aim is simply to say to those who are voting Le Pen “Vote for us, we mistrust Muslims too”.
This month, local education authorities in Toulouse asked teachers to cooperate with a police questionnaire which aimed at finding out how many pupils took the day off for Eid, a major Muslim festival. Any excuse is used to suggest that the big problem of the day is the presence of Muslims in our society. In this context, the capacity of the activist left and of trade unions to loudly prioritise their antiracism is of the first importance.
But the French radical and revolutionary left has been traditionally weak on actively fighting racism. Recently a right-wing smear campaign against a student union which sometimes organises seminars reserved for Black members found far too few defenders on the left. And for decades no left organisation took fighting Islamophobia seriously; even today they are often disappointing.
In 2016, when right-wing mayors banned full-body swimsuits worn on their beaches by Muslim women, the left replied with paper denunciations at best. At worst, left organisations — including parts of the FI — relayed the ludicrous idea that such swimwear was part of a sinister political campaign. In 2020, when the legal aid organisation, the Collective against Islamophobia in France was banned (a government decision denounced by Amnesty International), no Left mobilisations were organised beyond lukewarm media releases. In 2021, FI invited a well-known Islamophobe, Henri Pena Ruiz, to speak at its summer school (though this fortunately caused an uproar). In 2022, a vicious right-wing campaign against full-body swimsuits in municipal swimming pools, backed up by the courts, was met with half-hearted opposition from the left.
Nevertheless, real progress has been made over the last decade. The changes in the speeches of FI leader Jean Luc Mélenchon in particular have been very notable, and he will now loudly defend Muslims against racism in general TV interviews and speeches, which helped lead a large majority of Muslims to vote for him last year. The New Anticapitalist Party (NPA) has also made progress, since the times when, in 2011, women who wore the niqab were insulted on the front page of the NPA newspaper, with an article that referred to them as “birds of death”. A first ever mass demonstration specifically against Islamophobia was held in Paris in 2019. Both the FI and the NPA were very much present, although the two organisations certainly had many members who refused to support the march. Still today, practically all left and far-left organisations contain a significant minority who do not want to fight Islamophobia, and national leaders are therefore reluctant to make much noise on the question.
The weakness of the left and the far-left on these issues led to the emergence of independent activist networks among non-white citizens, mainly in multi-ethnic suburbs, often prioritising the fight against police racism. These networks have a strong anticapitalist component, as can be seen in the recent book by Houria Bouteldja, Rednecks and Barbarians, (Beaufs et Barbares) in which she hopes for unity between provincial white working-class “rednecks” and Black second-class citizens. Yet one can also hear in such circles the idea that “white trade unions” and “the white left” can never be trusted. These networks could have been much closer to the main anticapitalist left if the latter had not been so weak on fighting racism, Islamophobia in particular.
The combativity of the movement to defend pensions, and some good mobilisation work has led to a recent upturn in antiracist demonstrations. On the first of May in Le Havre, Marine Le Pen’s “Banquet for the nation” was the subject of a fine counter demonstration; there is another antifascist mobilisation (to defend the mayor mentioned above) next week and at the end of April there was a day of action against racism and in favour of the rights of undocumented migrant workers. On that day, dozens of towns saw sizeable rallies, with wide trade union support.
Some commentators have claimed that the present movement to defend retirement pensions has not mobilised the non-white population in the poorer, multi-ethnic suburbs. This has only a small grain of truth in it. It is certainly the case that workers on less stable contracts find it harder to go on strike (and non-white workers have on average significantly more precarious work situations). Furthermore, if you are Black or Arab, you are quite aware that if there is police violence you will be the preferred target, and this will obviously dissuade some.
But many Black workers in trade unions were fully involved in the strikes. In a few towns, demonstrations demanding papers for undocumented migrants joined up with the pensions demos. In April, fifty rappers, including some of the best-known in the country, played a concert in the Paris suburbs to raise money for the strikers. This symbolised the mobilisation of a culture strongest in multiethnic areas alongside established trade unions.
Macron’s people are far more frightened of class struggle and of the radical left than they are of far-right racists, and they have an urgent need to divide a combative working class. So we can expect more racist provocations, and there is a real danger of right-wing parties and fascists working closer together. Fierce antiracist mobilisation is what can advance unity within the working class.
[John Mullen is a revolutionary socialist living in the Paris region, and a supporter of the France Insoumise.]