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France: Where is the movement to defend pensions going? And where is Macron going?

Strikes and elections redraw the political landscape

(Photo LUCAS BARIOULET/AFP via Getty Images)

The class war continues in France. Since early December a historic workers’ mobilization, the biggest for decades, has seen millions on the streets, workplaces from rail stations to the Paris Opera regularly at a standstill, and a tremendously impressive level of grassroots control and initiative in the mass strikes. Despite Macron’s propaganda offensive, 61% of all French people in the latest polls think he should withdraw his reform, and numbers in the working class are far higher. As the movement continues, but public transport is running again, where can it go now, and, as local elections loom, how much has Macron been damaged politically?


The strike movement has won significant concessions. The most important was when Macron’s government announced the reform would only be applied in full to people born after 1975 (it was going to be 1963). In addition, over the weeks, a series of sections of workers have been excluded from this vicious reform, including airline staff, lorry drivers and workers in the fishing industry.


But we need the whole reform to be scrapped. This week, as the pensions bill is debated in parliament, (and the government announces more tax cuts for big companies), the movement needs to swing back up and knock Macron out.


The revolt has been calmer in February, but is far from over. Public transport is running again after the end of the long train and metro strike. Still, court lawyers have been on strike for seven weeks and are still solid, and in a number of universities the movement is on the rise, and is fuelled by anger at a huge neoliberal law on universities also being introduced this spring. Torchlight processions, concerts to raise money to help strikers, and other protest actions, continue.  On Thursday February 20th, the dynamic demonstrations of an eighth national day of action showed that the movement is not demoralized.


Sham conference


The leaders of the main union federations scandalously agreed in January to join the government in a sham “Pension Finance” problem-solving conference. Macron’s sole aim was propaganda - to make millions think that the problem was how to finance pensions (it isn’t). Union leaders should have told him where to stuff his conference, but they didn’t. The show began on Tuesday 18th February. However, after the first day, one of the main unions, the CGT, pulled out, denouncing the intransigence of the government. The decision to participate in this circus damaged the dynamic of the strike movement, and this withdrawal will make mobilization for the days of action easier.


In parliament, the 17 MPs of the France Insoumise (France in Revolt) are leading what they refer to as a “work-to-rule” and have proposed several thousand amendments to the pensions bill, which is very much slowing down the process. The debate continues, though the government is now tempted by the option of a “49.3” guillotine motion which can cancel parliamentary debate. Such an option could be politically costly.


Macron has been weakened by the movement, and several more of his own MPs have resigned from his ramshackle party, bringing the number of resignations under Macron to over a dozen. He has had other public relations catastrophes recently, as his MPs voted against a bill which would have allowed twelve days of paid leave to parents whose young children die. In the debate, Macronite zombie MPs argued that businesses could not afford this reform, and suggested workmates could be encouraged to donate days of leave to the parents affected!  Even the president of the bosses’ main organization, the MEDEF asked the government to show more humanity!


The future of Macron


There are municipal elections mid-March, which are expected to be disastrous for the Macronite party, La République en marche. The president is now planning the second half of his presidency and hoping to recover from dreadful poll ratings by moving the debate away from pensions and public services. The two issues that he hopes will boost him are ecology and attacking Muslims.


On the first, he has announced a series of “green initiatives” and went off to Mont Blanc for a photo opportunity on the importance of protecting nature. He declares he will put “ecology at the centre” of his policies, but this is mostly greenwashing: Macron has postponed the reduction of dependence of nuclear electricity, and well-known ecologist Nicolas Hulot resigned from Macron’s team disappointed by how non-green major policy decisions were.


More daunting for our side is Macron’s new initiative to build up islamophobia. Macron comes from a modernist current of right wing politics which had not much participated until recently in the national political sport of attacking Muslims. But, hated for his class war policies, the temptation to divide and rule, (since he knows that the Left is often hopelessly confused or worse about islamophobia), seems to be irresistible.


So he has just launched a campaign which mostly involves using scary words with not much meaning, like “communitarianism” and “Islamic separatism”. The idea is to link Muslims and Arabs in general with the danger of terrorism. Government circles are talking about “closer surveillance” of the 8 000 children in France who go to private Muslim schools (this is 8 000 out of five and a half million Muslims, whereas two million children go to private Catholic schools!). The fact is that almost all French Muslims choose to send their children to State schools, and the idea that Muslims wish to live separate lives from the rest of the community is simply a lie. The very small demand for separate Muslim schools has grown in the last twenty years as new islamophobic laws threw girls wearing headscarves out of public schooling, but it remains far less common that in devout Catholic families. But noone is bleating about “Catholic separatism”.


Macron has also just announced he will be closing down the after-school programmes funded by government which allowed children of immigrants to learn their parents’ language. 80 000 children attended these classes to learn Arabic or other migrant languages including Croat, Spanish and Italian. They are determined to spread the suspicion that terrorism is the fault of Muslims. In fact, the typical profile of French “Islamic” terrorists these last ten years has not been that of Muslims involved in the religious community. Serious studies have shown that the young jihadist terrorist were not characterized by strict religiosity, and had not been active defending the cause of Islam in the past. In general they came from a background in petty crime. But why let facts get in the way of creating racist policy?


The effect of the “islamist separatism” nonsense has been to help shift public debate away from pensions and jobs. The leader of the traditional right-wing party Les Républicains waded in, protesting that Macron was not going far enough and there were “150 neighbourhoods in France where the Republic is being attacked”. This racist nonsense is never accompanied by lists of these neighbourhoods, so as not to be proved immediately ridiculous. Marine Le Pen’s right-hand man, Jordan Bardella, was delighted with the new subject of debate. “It’s no longer just separatism” he said “it is a communitarianism which is seeking to conquer.”


Meanwhile Green party and Socialist party leaders openly agreed with Macron’s analysis. Islamophobia is still widespread on the Left in France, and only this week a Socialist Party mayoral candidate in Montpellier excluded from his slate of candidates a Muslim woman, Samira Yakhlouf, because she wears a hijab.


Mélenchon, leader of the left reformist France Insoumise (who obtained 7 million votes at the last presidential elections) mocked Macron, underlined the many privileges with the Catholic church enjoys in France and denounced his analysis as “confused” and insulting to Muslims. This was better than France Insoumise reactions have sometimes been on islamophobia. Revolutionary Left organizations were slow to respond to Macron’s new racist initiative, but are expected to denounce it when they do.


Islamophobia is likely to be a mainstay of the second half of Macron’s term in office. Last November, for the first time, a major demonstration against islamophobia gained the support, at least nominally, of all the major organizations of the radical Left. Let us hope this is a sign that Macron’s divide-and-rule policies will be less successful than those of previous governments.


It is not clear what the outcome of the present movement to defend pensions will be, but if Macron’s party is punished at the local elections in March, and radical left slates make a good showing, it can only help the struggle against austerity and racism in France.


John Mullen is a revolutionary socialist living in the Paris region, and a supporter of the France Insoumise. This article first appeared on John's Blog. Reproduced with permission.