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Where now for the French strike movement ?

After the Seventh national day of action, what happens now?


After more than a month of severe disruption, trains and metros were running again in France this week, but the movement is far from over, and an unprecedented number of insurgent grassroots initiatives have erupted. A seventh national day of action Friday 24th, with demonstrations in 350 towns, is, once again, huge. Where can the strikes go now?

Train and metro workers mostly voted to suspend their indefinite strike earlier this week, after over a month, although they are massively involved in today’s day of action. ‘It’s not a movement which is exhausted, it’s just getting its second wind. I’ve never seen anger like this,’ said one metro striker this week.

The movement did not succeed in spreading massively and becoming a general national strike. This possibility was very much hindered by trade union leaders of the various confederations. Leaders of the CFDT called off the movement after a few concessions by the government. Philippe Martinez, leader of the far more combative CGT, although he called for a generalisation of the strike, continued to attend negotiations with the government and has agreed to take part in a grand and ‘urgent’ ‘Conference on the Financing of Retirement Pensions’ called with much fanfare by Macron, which is to report back in April. This conference is a disgusting propaganda trick. Its aim is to make the public think that retirement pension financing is in crisis (it isn’t) and so to make slashing pensions look inevitable. The plan is to get trade union leaders together, give them strict instructions not to suggest that employers pay more into their workers’ retirement schemes, and then ‘listen to’ any other suggestions they might have.

Trade union leaders should boycott this conference.

Sadly, despite the tremendously dynamic involvement of rank and file strikers in the movement, the national union leaders maintain essential influence and radical networks have not  the kind of legitimacy which would allow them to organize a real general strike over the heads of the leaders.

A rapidly spreading general strike was the best way to guarantee victory for our side, and with 61% of the population in general opposed to Macron’s reform (far higher numbers among the working class) this was a realistic proposal. Now that financial hardship has led transport strikers to suspend their indefinite action and limit themselves to the weekly days of action, it will be harder to win. But the fight is far from over as this unprecedented movement continues to find new ways of scaring Macron’s elite.

Spreading strikes

Oil refineries have been on strike or blockaded this week. Dockers called a three-day strike and blockaded ports in Lorient, Marseilles and Ajaccio. In Le Havre in the North, strikers occupied the Port Administration H Q, while the biggest hydroelectric plant in the country, in the East, (1600 MW) was closed down. All six of the huge incinerators which burn refuse from the Paris region are being shut down by strikers this weekend.

Teachers, city refuse workers and employees at the Bank of France are on strike. In a welcome involvement of private sector, hypermarket workers from Carrefour struck for half a day on Tuesday, while retail workers held their own demonstration in Paris on Wednesday.

Energy unionists have been showing their power by deciding who should have electricity and who should not. Visiting ministers have found their meetings plunged into darkness while thousands of poor people whose houses had been put on strictly limited power because they were in debt have been given back full access in the South West of the country. When the police arrested one power worker on a demonstration Bordeaux, they suddenly found that all electricity had been cut off to the police station!

Ministers can hardly move without being harassed by protesters. Macron had to scuttle out of a Parisian theatre last week when activists discovered where he was. Strikers and supporters, sometimes organized into city-wide strike committees bringing together many different professions, have been behind innumerable grassroots initiatives, set into motion without asking the opinion of the professional negotiators who lead the trade unions.

An insurgent movement 

Dozens of towns have had nighttime torchlight processions. In Lille the procession was banned by the police chief, but went ahead anyway. My town of 100 000 inhabitants, Montreuil, just outside Paris, had a local feeder march to last week’s Paris demonstration. Two days later the high school students set up a torchlight demonstration, and hundreds of us were singing and chanting anti Macron and anti capitalist slogans. ‘Even in 1968, I never saw this,’ said one local veteran activist.

Concerts to raise money for strikers’ hardship funds are common. Bus and tram depots were blockaded, the Louvre museum was closed down by protestors, as was the National Library on Thursday. Main roads were blocked in the town of Rouen in Normandy. In Bayonne in the South, the train lines were blocked; elsewhere town council meetings have been occupied, and many city mayors who support Macron have not dared organize their New Year ceremonies, traditionally held in mid January. One who tried found dozens of strikers turned up and scoffed the petit fours !

Some left-wing town councils have voted to give money to help strikers in financial hardship, and strike funds have collected several million euros from the public (although of course this makes up only a tiny proportion of lost wages).

Self-employed lawyers, generally rather well-paid, but set to lose a lot if the pensions attack goes through, have joined the revolt. The vast majority of court lawyers are on strike, and cases are now routinely cancelled. The National Bar Council, which represents some 70 000 lawyers, has refused to meet with the Minister of Justice and say they will only negotiate with the Prime Minister. A group of lawyers brought banners to a major rugby match in Toulouse to help get their message across. Others protested two weeks ago by throwing  their robes on the floor in front of a visiting minister, and the symbolism has caught on. Health workers have been symbolically discarding their uniforms, and teachers have been dumping mountains of briefcases and text books in front of regional education headquarters. One such headquarters was bricked up last week, and a regional police HQ was barricaded by farmers with bales of hay.

Now exam season is over, universities are heating up. A national coordinating meeting was held on 18th January, with delegates from 30 universities, and there will be a weekend meeting on the 1st February, which aims at having far more institutions present. The University of Tours was blockaded, as was Nancy, and Paris Tolbiac and Nanterre are on strike, among others. Mass meetings in these universities debated the situation and planned future action. Other universities are slowly moving into action. Even a whole network of academic journal editors (this is generally an unpaid job) are meeting today to discuss what action they can take. Dozens of high schools are mobilized too.

All of these events keep the eyes of the public on the hatred for Macron’s attacks.

A choice of society 

Media lies claim the strikers are defending ‘privileges’. On the contrary, it is a tremendous example of class consciousness. Since Macron’s concessions in mid-December, the main victims of the attack on pensions would be those born after 1975, since the new calculation method will only apply to them. TV commentators cannot understand why hundreds of thousands of over 45s continue to join strikes and demonstrations. It is because people are thinking of their younger colleagues, of their children, nieces and nephews, of their class. As left wing MP Jean-Luc Mélenchon said at a mass meeting in Amiens last week: ‘This struggle is about what kind of society we want to live in, whether it’s every one for themselves, or whether it’s about everyone together’.

Macron’s response is threefold. Firstly, propaganda initiatives like the Retirement Financing Conference; secondly, waiting for the strikers to tire; and, finally, vicious police violence. Police thugs know they will be covered by their superiors and so give free rein to their thuggery. Horrific videos circulate every few days showing extreme violence, using clubs, rubber bullets aimed illegally at people’s heads, and so on. Some show protesters lying on the ground with blood streaming, while police continue to beat them.

The bill is being discussed in cabinet today, and the day of strikes will again show the anger – hundreds of schools will be closed and public transport and services will be hit. The latest poll figures, yesterday, show that 70% of the population think the movement will continue, while the conservative magazine, Le Point, published a report Thursday saying that 80% of people retiring would lose money if the bill becomes law! An eighth national day of action has just been called by four of the biggest national union confederations and four student and high school unions for January 29th.

A second wind in the private sector and among young people could yet bring us victory. But Macron knows that if he loses this one, his whole plan for full spectrum Thatcherism will suffer a hefty blow, and the bosses are still behind him despite billions of euros of lost economic activity this last month. The struggle will be a long one, and will impact the local elections due in March. We need the insurgent spirit of this movement to continue to develop.

Photo Gallery – Luxemburg-Liebknecht Demo 12/01/2020

Photos by Julie Niederhauser


Photos by Julie Niederhauser

David Bowie Obituary

On the anniversaries of David Bowie’s birth and death, we reproduce an obituary by Phil Butland from our old Website


He released milestones of pop music, and fought against racism and homophobia. Now David Bowie has died at the age of 69. An obituary by Phil Butland


David Bowie is dead. I can’t think of any other artist who produced such a variety of excellent music, or a body of work approaching the 12 original albums that Bowie released between 1969 and 1980. Every single album from this period is a serious candidate for any list of the best records of all time.

It is even more impressive that these records were so diverse. Let’s start with “David Bowie (Space Oddity)” from 1969. Most people know the title track, a song about the alienation of an astronaut. The BBC used it as the soundtrack of the coverage of the moon landing. Yet the whole album from the then 22-year old contains a series of impressive beautifully written short stories performed in a folky style.

This was rapidly followed by albums of pop, glam rock, soul, alienated electronica and the first New Romantic record “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)”. There’s not the space here to describe them in sufficient detail. It’s better to listen to them yourselves.

Bowie spoke openly about his bisexuality

Bowie was not just a musical innovator – he was the voice of the outsider, and particularly of LGBT people. On the sleeve of “The Man Who Sold The World” album he was photographed wearing a dress; on “Top of The Pops”, then one of the most popular television shows, he wore a leotard and make-up, and his stage performances with guitarist Mick Ronson were clearly homoerotic.

In interviews he spoke openly about his bisexuality – at a time when homosexuality was still considered scandalous. In “Rebel, Rebel” he hailed the rebels of indeterminate sex (“not sure if you‘re a boy or a girl”). The gay musician Tom Robinson tweeted following Bowie’s death about the importance of his performances for young gays and lesbians of this era.

Bowie’s half-brother was schizophrenic

Bowie’s lyrics covered other socially excluded groups. The artist Grayson Perry wrote that “he was a megastar, but his power came from the fact he was the champion of the outcast in the bedroom. The loner, the misfit.”

Bowie was particularly concerned with mental illness. His half-brother Terry was schizophrenic and committed suicide in 1985. Bowie wrote several songs about Terry, including “All The Madmen”, and “Aladdin Sane” (A lad insane).

Another recurring metaphor in Bowie’s lyrics is of space travel – an area that is as far away from the “real” socially acceptable world as you can get. Major Tom, the hero of “Space Oddity returned twice – in “Ashes to Ashes” and “Hello Spaceboy”. Other early song titles included “Starman”, “Life on Mars” and “The Prettiest Star”.

Alienation from reality

This metaphor is partly a wordplay on the word “star” (which can be both an astrological and a cultural phenomenon), showing the increasing distance from reality that accompanied Bowie’s growing celebrity. This is also the subject of the song “Fame” that Bowie wrote and recorded with John Lennon in 1975.

It would be wrong, though, to see Bowie’s alienation as being purely the product of his fame. Already on his first “proper” record in 1969, you can see it on the song “Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed”. Here Bowie presents himself to a beautiful rich woman:

“I’m the Cream / Of the Great Utopia Dream / And you’re the gleam / In the depths of your banker’s spleen / I’m a phallus in pigtails / And there’s blood on my nose / And my tissue is rotting / Where the rats chew my bones / And my eye sockets empty / See nothing but pain / I keep having this brainstorm / About twelve times a day.”

This song – deeply poetic and careering between arrogance and self-hatred – shows a lot about Bowie. It also helps us understand one of his darker phases. Because this really needs an explanation.

Bowie gives a Hitler salute

In an interview with the magazine “Playboy”, Bowie said the following: “I’d love to enter politics. I will one day. I’d adore to be Prime Minister. And, yes, I believe very strongly in fascism. The only way we can speed up the sort of liberalism that’s hanging foul in the air at the moment is to speed up the progress of a right-wing, totally dictatorial tyranny and get it over as fast as possible. People have always responded with greater efficiency under a regimental leadership. A liberal wastes time saying, “Well, now, what ideas have you got?” Show them what to do, for God’s sake. If you don’t, nothing will get done. I can’t stand people just hanging about. Television is the most successful fascist, needless to say. Rock stars are fascists, too. Adolf Hitler was one of the first rock stars.”

Rosemarie Nünning and I have already written about the consequences of this statement in our article about Rock Against Racism in the Winter 2015 edition of marx21 magazine. I won’t repeat the story here, except to reiterate that Bowie gave the interview in 1976, when the British Nazis of the National Front were gaining an alarming amount of support. Earlier in the same year, Bowie had also apparently made a Hitler salute at London’s Victoria station.

How could it be that someone who had stood up for gay rights and for the rights of the mentally ill was suddenly making fascist statements? Some people blame the copious amounts of drugs that Bowie was taking at the time. They may indeed have made a contribution, but I find this explanation insufficient.

Bowie’s rebellion was always individualistic. He was highly gifted and felt intellectually constrained. In the song “Quicksand”, he called himself a “mortal with the potential of a superman” who was “sinking in the quicksand of my thought”, terminology that he took from Nietzsche.

Preoccupation with Nietzsche

Bowie had shown significant interest in Nietzsche’s philosophy. In 1970, he wrote a song called “The Supermen”, and the last line of his 1971 hit “Oh You Pretty Things” states “You gotta make way for the Homo Superior”. Although Nietzsche himself was not a fascist, the Nazis adopted many of his ideas, including the terms “Homo Superior” and “Superman”, or, as they preferred to call it, the “Übermensch”.

At a time which was experiencing a degree of class struggle, Bowie came neither from the proletariat nor from the ruling class. His father was a teacher and head of the art department, and his mother had been an active member of the British Union of Fascists as a teenager. They lived in Bromley, part of the Commuter Belt around London, home to many middle managers. Bowie came from precisely that class of society which is open to both progressive and fascist ideas.

Notwithstanding his mistakes in the 1970s, Bowie was eventually won over for progressive ideas. After his racist comments, his acquaintances from the radical Berlin scene had words with him. Later, he would not just have black friends (like his musical collaborator Nile Rodgers and his wife Iman), but he also clearly spoke out against racism.

Both Rock Against Racism, and later the Anti Nazi League (ANL) were formed as a direct response to Bowie’s remarks. In 1994, with a renewed fascist threat, the ANL reformed and organised a festival in London. Bowie sent a cheque for £1,500. Attached was a note with a single word. “Sorry”.

Fight against racism

Bowie did not just fight against racism in the UK. He said the following about Australia, where he briefly lived: “As much as I love this country it’s probably one of the most racially intolerant in the world, well in line with South Africa.” He made a clear stand for Aboriginal rights. When “Let’s Dance” was released in Australia, its video clearly depicted racism against Aboriginal people. Since Bowie’s death, one of the most shared videos is of his appearance on MTV, where he attacks the US- based media giant, where he attacks for allowing little space for black musicians.

I have written little here about Bowie’s music after 1980. In the past 36 years, he has released 12 more solo albums, plus 2 records by his band Tin Machine. Nearly every one has been hailed as a “return to form”, and some have been very good indeed.

Yet for me, Bowie’s greatest musical contributions comes from the 12 records that he released in and around the 1970s, and from the albums by other artists in that decade on which he was a producer (at least 3 of these are also candidates for a list of best albums of all time – Lou Reed’s “Transformer” and Iggy Pop’s “The Idiot” and “Lust for Life”).

By 1980, Bowie was finding other interests – including as a painter an actor. He was impressive in films like “Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence” and “The Hunger”, and on television as Berthold Brecht’s “Baal”. He may not always have maintained the quality of his early epic work, but he still developed a tremendous quality and range – in all genres from drum and bass to heavy metal.

A few days before his death, Bowie released his last album “Black Star”. It was – once again – hailed as a return to form. Experience has taught me that we should wait a little before we make our final judgement. But I hope that “Black Star” will affect us every bit as much as Bowie’s earlier works.

With David Bowie’s death, one of the greats has left us.

This obituary was originally published in German on the marx21 Website: