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French Movement on a Knife Edge

The Movement Is on a Knife Edge as Mass Strikes Move into Second Month

John Mullen, 6 January 2020

The train and metro strike in France is now the longest transport strike for over 50 years. As the strike wave in transport and elsewhere moves into its second month, there is still a fair chance of blocking Macron’s pension-cutting crusade, and, just as importantly, putting the brakes on the dozens of planned neoliberal attacks he has in the pipeline.


The movement is a long way from defeat. It is notoriously difficult to keep activism going through the holiday period, so the number of grassroots initiatives has been impressive, indeed, unprecedented. Local farmers organized a banquet for strikers in the town of Tours. Blockades of bus depots, motorway toll booths and supermarket warehouses, docks, postal depots and oil refineries have been organized, and there have been local demonstrations in many towns, including torchlight processions in Poitiers, Carcassonne and Marseilles, orchestral concerts in Paris, and a rally in front of the HQ of Macron’s party, La Republique en Marche.


Combining class struggle and Christmas spirit, many groups of strikers organized barbecues or parties for homeless or impoverished people. Strike funds (not normally a strong tradition in France) have raised millions of euros. Although far more cash is needed, this success has boosted morale tremendously.


Strikers and supporters are aiming for a big push this week. Airline staff have been called out, as have local buses in a number of towns, and all the big oil refineries. Some areas are already seeing petrol shortages after partial strikes in the oil industry during the holiday period. Tens of thousands of lawyers are on strike for the week from the 6th January and this may well be extended. The National Library is still only opening part-time due to strike action.


A national day of strikes in all sectors will take place on Thursday 9th, with most schools closed, and action in many universities (in Toulouse, Bordeaux and Paris in particular). Several universities are already blockaded, and exams have been cancelled in some. There will be a mass national demonstration in Paris on Saturday 11th.


Concessions


Macron has been forced to make significant concessions. Rather than being applied to all those born after 1963, the scheme, he has now announced, should only apply to those born after 1975. Specific opt-outs have now been offered for police and military, for airline staff, prison officers, lorry drivers, workers on fishing vessels, and the dancers of the Paris Opera. Only a few months ago, Macron declared that there could be no opt-outs whatsoever, so he is looking weaker now.


The Paris Opera ballet dancers rejected his latest proposal with a magnificent declaration: “We have been told we can ourselves escape this reform and only see it applied to following generations [hired after 2022]. But we do not want to be the generation which sacrifices those who follow us.”


There will be more concessions, and Macron may well abandon the decision to move the standard retirement age from 62 to 64. But workers need the entire scheme to be scrapped. It is, after all, the fact that working-class militancy has been able to defend retirement conditions in France which explains why France has three times less pensioner poverty than the UK.


Macron has been weakened by a series of political events, too. In his list of New Year Honours (people who receive the Legion of Honour for services to France) figured this year Jean-François Cirelli, director of Blackrock, a financial firm whose speciality is … managing private pension funds, and who has been advising the government on how to promote private schemes. This has not gone down well with public opinion. Meanwhile, a group of fifteen MPs from Macron’s own jerry-built party, La République en Marche, have been getting cold feet and calling publicly for serious concessions on the standard retirement age.


The latest polls show people’s views are polarizing, but a clear majority are still with the strikers. People are not believing media lies about “privileged train drivers”. Naturally, the media have misrepresented existing pension schemes. Train drivers, for example, after decades of shift work, have the right to retire at 52, but if they do, they receive half a normal pension. Very few can afford to, and, in reality, they work several more years so as to have a reasonable pension.


The movement is also a long way from victory. Macron has many strengths. The bosses are willing to be extremely patient with him, despite billions of euros in lost business. They are determined to crush workers’ power so as to accelerate their plans for full-spectrum Thatcherism. The right-wing president Sarkozy (2007-2012) and the Socialist Party president Hollande (2012-2017) both crashed and burned after some defeats for workers. Their political parties were write-offs. Macron, the smooth-talking social climber, and his band of unprincipled centrists, are one of the ruling class’s last cards.


What are the union leaders doing?


France’s union leaders have always been divided by political colour and level of combativity or lack of it. In most workplaces you can choose to join one union or another depending on your views. The leaders count on two sources of influence: the number of union members, and the number of votes their union gets in elections to company committees and other institutions, elections at which all workers can vote, whether unionized or not.


More combative trade union leaders are calling for spreading strike action. Philippe Martínez, head of the CGT federation, has called for “all French people to join the strikes”. Leaders of other confederations have supported Macron’s scheme to cut pensions by basing them on lifetime salary, but are unhappy at the standard retirement age being shifted from 62 to 64. Some of them called “a truce” over the holiday period.


But all of the union leaders have been continuing this week to meet with government officials for discussions and negotiations. The movement would be in a considerably stronger position if they had refused to negotiate and called clearly for a properly organized general strike.


What is the Left doing?


Activists from radical and anticapitalist parties are making an important contribution to organizing the movement, setting up city-wide coordination committees where possible, for example. The main Left reformist grouping, la France Insoumise, has called for a national action committee to be set up by the unions to lead the movement, and this call has been backed by one of the leading personalities of the New Anticapitalist Party, Olivier Besancenot.


The number of strikers on the trains has fallen somewhat in early January as workers struggle with family budgets, but a powerful surge this week, if it can rapidly reach new sectors of the workforce, especially in private industry, is the best chance to give Macron a bloody nose.


There are sectors of the private sector striking on the big days of action, in particular in chemicals and in retail, although the centre of gravity of the movement has remained among public sector workers who have even more to lose from the scheme, and are better protected from employer retaliation against strikers.


In such a tense situation, activists tend to swing between optimism and pessimism, but what is certain is that we are seeing a huge demonstration of class power. The enormous French strike waves in 1986 and in 1995 were dismissed by fashionable “left” commentators and intellectuals at the time as the last gasp of class struggle in France. The present movement shows that workers have power, and, even with the weak leadership of the trade union movement, are capable of winning.


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