Explosive movement to defend pensions in France – An indefinite general strike is needed

Demonstrations against Macron are getting bigger, and police violence in increasing, National union leaders must act


Thursday the 23rd of March was the ninth day of action called in opposition to 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 far more young people visible than before. Many were demonstrating for the first time, enraged by Macron forcing the bill through without a vote in parliament.

Half the country’s public transport and 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 France-info was playing rock music Thursday morning as its journalists had walked out. Staff at Le Monde, the most respected of the national daily newspapers, had also joined the strike. “We have to throw all our forces into the battle”, radical Left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon declared, “People will not surrender, Mr. President”.

Ongoing strikes against the pension reforms continued into a second week among refuse collectors in at least 15 cities, and 10,000 tons of rubbish 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 organized around the country. Energy workers, under the label of “Robin Hoods”, have taken over electricity distribution in some areas, and are organizing power cuts for Macronist town halls or regional police headquarters, and free electricity for hospitals and similar institutions.

On Wednesday night, 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). Thursday morning, columns of farmers’ tractors were blocking 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.

Every evening this week there have been nighttime 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.

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.

Macron forced his pensions bill through by decree on the 16th of March, avoiding putting it to a parliamentary vote which he would have lost. He then survived a no confidence motion in parliament by nine votes, which would have overthrown the government and its Prime Minister, Elizabeth Borne. After all this, Macron addressed the nation in a major lunchtime interview on Wednesday the 22nd. He warned his listeners of the dangers of “sedition” and tried to compare the young protestors burning rubbish bins in the streets of Paris this week to Trump’s far right putschist thugs who attacked the capitol on the 6th of January 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 showed that 61% of the population thought his interview had provoked more anger. 7% 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. So 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 now technically has the right to sign his bill into law next week. In normal circumstances, it is far more difficult to organize opposition to a law which has already been put into effect. But these are not normal circumstances … and this is France ! In 2006, a law imposing worse conditions for those under 21 years old 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 Juppé running for cover, and forced President 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, and 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 the 28th, and must be used to build broader action still.