France: Movement to defend pensions building up steam

Eye witness report from yesterday’s protests


In Paris and in 267 other towns around France, there were angry protests on Tuesday 31 January against Macron’s attempt to raise the standard retirement age from 62 to 64. This is eighteen more towns than mobilized ten days ago in the previous day of action. And in every town, numbers were considerably bigger than last time (and last time even the government said more than a million people had hit the streets).

Rail and metro workers, civil servants, energy and oil workers, construction workers, culture industry workers, town hall and hospital workers, and many more struck. Many dozens of high schools were blockaded by school student protestors in order to allow pupils to go on the demonstrations. In dozens of universities, mass meetings are beginning to bring students into action on the issue.

Lorry drivers joined the protest by blockading ring roads earlier this week. Even at football matches, banners defending pensions could be seen. Collections for strike funds, rare in French strike movements, are becoming more common. And in a couple of dozen towns there were evening torchlight demonstrations last week in an aim to keep up momentum. So the movement is still building up steam, despite the refusal of union leaders to call for more than one day strikes.

Three years ago, eight successive huge days of action over a couple of months, and longer strikes in some sectors, pushed back Macron’s attack on pensions, forcing him to make concession after concession before shelving the whole plan. Macron pretended that his retreat was because of the pandemic, but striking workers knew better. To win this time, more determined strike action will be needed.

Macron is shaken. He has just decided to abandon a particularly vicious attack on vocational high schools which would have put them under the control of business interests. This is because the pensions revolt is bigger than he was expecting. Still, three days ago, Prime Minister Elizabeth Borne declared that the plan for two years more work before retirement was “not open to negotiation”.

Macron’s new right party does not have a majority in the National Assembly. To pass the law he needs the support of the traditional right-wing Republicans. They had looked solid, but are now wavering as big demonstrations march in medium sized, traditionally conservative towns across the country.

The latest polls show that Macron’s plan is even more unpopular than it was a couple of weeks back. 61% of the entire population support the strike movement, and the opposition to the movement is concentrated among richer people and those who have already retired. Electricity and oil workers have started a series two and three day strikes, and rail workers are intending to launch a “renewable strike” (where mass meetings of strikers decide every day or two whether the stoppage will continue) next week.

One of Macron’s reactionary ministers, Darmanin, says the Left is trying to “screw up the whole working of society” and blames the protests on “lazy bohemian leftists”. We need to pull out all the stops to make him panic even more.

Two more days of action have been called for Tuesday 7th and Saturday 11th February. I will be reporting on these on in the coming weeks.