What’s Behind the Revolts in France?

Are we experiencing another May 68? A French socialist reports


There is a deep political crisis in France: in the 2022 presidential election the Socialists and the Right (most recently under the branding of Les Republicains), who had dominated politics the last 60 or so years, totalled between them less than 7%. Both the far-right and the radical-left candidates obtained more than 20% each.

In the 2nd round, Macron’s score of 60% was 6 points down from 2017. 4 voters out of 10 preferred the neo-fascist Le Pen. Macron had promised to break the mould. His slogan in 2017 was “neither left nor right”, though sometimes he would say “both left and right”. Five years later, most left-wing voters have abandoned him. He is 40 MPs short of a majority in parliament and his government only survives because the opposition is divided. Macron claims to have a mandate for his pensions reform, but the main reason people voted for him was to stop Marine Le Pen. 

Prime minister Elisabeth Borne had been close to the Socialist Party. A workaholic and ruthless manager, she worked as boss of the Paris transport authority. As transport minister, she pushed through a neoliberal reform of the national railway company, opening it up to competition and attacking railway workers’ conditions.

Gérald Darmanin, the hardline interior minister, had been a member of Les Républicains. He opposed equal marriage and has led the strategy of demonising so-called Islamist separatists and what he calls the ‘woke’ left. He has been accused of rape and sexual harassment.

The law would also force employees to work 43 years to qualify for a full pension. So for financial reasons many workers will have to go on beyond the nominal retirement age, a crucial detail ignored in international reportage.

A bill on Asylum and Immigration, named Darmanin’s law, is designed to crack down on migrants  It is also tailored to the needs of the labour market. Temporary permits would be granted to migrants to work in industries where wages and conditions are so bad that bosses have difficulty in recruiting. 

Fighting a difficult battle over pensions, Macron has now decided to postpone, but not abandon, the debate on the migrants and asylum bill. The right-wing MPs that Macron depends on for a majority are demanding an even tougher policy. The left needs to take the question of racism, and support for migrants, much more seriously.

Macron’s Pensions “Reform”

So now to the question of pensions. Right-wing president Sarkozy raised the retirement age from 60 to 62 thirteen years ago, despite working class resistance. Now Macron’s new reform would raise the age to 64. Like the left, the unions are often divided, but they have unanimously opposed the reform. The more radical unions want a return to the retirement age of 60. This is also the most popular slogan on the demonstrations. The law would also force employees to work 43 years to qualify for a full pension. So for financial reasons many workers will have to go on beyond the nominal retirement age, a crucial detail ignored in international reportage. Macron has insisted that the age of 64 is not open to negotiation. The leader of the ‘moderate’ CFDT union, who had actually supported Macron’s pre-Covid plan, was furious. 

In previous movements the CFDT has often sold out the more militant sections of the class. The joke is that if slavery still existed the CFDT would try to negotiate the weight of the chains. But it has been able to grow by following a strategy of obtaining small advances through negotiations without strike action. It’s been able to recruit workers in smaller companies with no militant traditions and replace the more radical CGT as France’s biggest union. 

But Macron’s intransigency and arrogance have made it impossible, so far, for the conservative leaders to break ranks. They are prepared to support one-day strikes but are not urging workers to take longer strike action and disapprove of more radical methods. The role of the union leaders has not been entirely negative. The existence of a broad front containing all the national union federations – even the managers’ union and the Christian trade unions – gives people confidence to take on the arguments. 

On each day of action there have been marches in 200 or more locations… On one remote island off the coast of Brittany with a permanent population of 200 there was a march of 80.

Macron has tried to divide workers. He wants to abolish the special pensions schemes of so-called “privileged” groups of workers. The argument that transport or refuse collection workers, for example, are “privileged” because they can retire earlier has worked with the public in the past – but much less so this time. Unions and left-wing parties have instead succeeded in putting other questions on the agenda: difficult working conditions, unsocial hours, low wages, precarity, health and safety and inequality in general. 

The current movement and the Yellow Vests

Nine days after the government announced its plan, the union federations called the first national day of strikes and demonstrations. By last Tuesday there had been 10 – that’s one every 7 days on average, usually involving a million or more people. And hundreds of local demonstrations took place in between. The movement is incredibly inspiring and popular. French workers are very creative. The spontaneous Yellow Vest movement is one example. The use of roadblocks and the occupation of roundabouts destabilised the government and put new questions on the agenda, such as the closure of public services in rural areas and small towns.

Fundamentally, though its politics were confused, the Yellow Vest movement called into question the whole way the country is organised and decisions taken. This time, unlike during the Yellow Vests protests, the unions have played the key role. But there are similarities. For one thing it isn’t limited to the big urban centres. On each day of action there have been marches in 200 or more locations, often towns of a few thousand people in rural areas. On one remote island off the coast of Brittany with a permanent population of 200 there was a march of 80.

These are places where alternative jobs are in short supply, public services have been run down, there is a shortage of GPs, fuel and petrol costs are important etc. Raising the retirement age has been the proverbial straw which broke the camel’s back.

The response to the demos called at a few days or a week’s notice has been terrific. On Tuesday’s 10th day of action, the numbers were down on the previous peak, but people were just as determined. There had always been small groups of high school and college students, but not in massive numbers. 

However, this changed on 23rd March, after the 49.3, the no-confidence vote and Macron’s TV interview. It was the same this Tuesday the 28th. Schools have been blocked and colleges occupied. The government was afraid of a massive revolt of young people like the one in 2006 which forced Chirac to withdraw a law that had already been passed. Its reaction was to send in the cops. I also met older people who were demonstrating for the first time since the movement began.

The strategy of days of action may seem like a dead-end, but it has the advantage of keeping the issue on the boil. So far there is no sign of ‘demonstration fatigue’. French demonstrators have a great deal of humour. One demonstrator had a placard saying she wanted to retire at 49 years and 3 months. French workers also have a great sense of history. So placards called on Macron to retire to Saint-Helena, the island where Napoleon was exiled by the British. The French revolution and the guillotine are an obvious reference, though not to the taste of Macron’s supporters. More obscurely, one demonstrator told Macron to prepare his helicopter, in a reference to the flight of American officials from the embassy in Saigon. And there’s the slogan “You give us 64 (or 49.3) we’ll give you May ’68”. 

People are waging not just a defensive struggle, but a positive one for a better world, one in which we have more leisure and work takes on a new meaning – the very opposite of a society dominated by people like Borne the technocrat, Darmanin the racist and misogynist, and Macron the hypocrite, who told an unemployed protester that he only needed to cross the road to find a job. A common expression is ‘No to Macron and his world’.

The role of trade unions

Union contingents have formed the core of the demonstrations, but they have attracted people in unorganised workplaces and people in precarious jobs. There are many low-paid women workers and immigrants on the demos, including undocumented migrants, many of whom work in terrible conditions under false names. 

If you are a nursery assistant or a part-time supermarket cashier, a hotel cleaner or a delivery worker, a nurse or a waiter, you may not be in a union or be able to strike, but you are motivated to go on the marches, and the sheer numbers help build confidence. Some have been joining unions. 

There has been extended strike action and blockages in some industries and places, though relatively few workers are on indefinite strike. Many are only on strike on national days of action, or for 2 or 3 days. Many can’t afford to strike for longer, though collections have helped in some cases.

Train drivers, refuse collection and incinerator workers, oil refinery and fuel depot workers, gas and electricity workers, dockers, air traffic controllers and some others have taken militant action. There have been a few shortages, but it hasn’t been enough to block the economy, as some top union leaders had promised.

The force of previous movements has been the transport strikes. They have an immediate impact on the economy and on the public. This is a weakness of the present movement. Inter-city trains have been affected the most. Up to 30% of flights have been cancelled at some airports. But in Paris, even on national days of action, most suburban trains are running and the buses are hardly affected.

Refuse collection is another key sector. Rubbish has piled up in the streets in some areas, while others are hardly affected. The unions have now suspended the strike in Paris, but they say it is only on pause. In education, only a minority of teachers have been on strike. There have been no generalised power cuts, though workers have developed the (illegal) tactic of selective cuts targeting, for example, government MPs while restoring power to people who have been cut off for non payment. A little over 10% of petrol stations are currently affected by the strike of refinery workers

Macron’s response

As well as using the police against pickets and roadblocks, the government has now begun to requisition key workers (they face prison and a 10 000 euro fine if they refuse). There’s no doubt that strikes in some sectors have rattled the government, shaping the potential power of the working class to impose its own priorities. This is why they have stepped up the use of the heavily armed police.

Most union leaders are loath to support other than limited strike action, or to encourage workers to organise mass meetings, flying pickets, roadblocks and so on. Most of the current actions are local initiatives, though the top union leaders have not opposed them – publicly at least. The more radical unions, like the CGT and Solidaires, and even local sections of the CFDT, have been in the forefront. The situation is very uneven and it cannot be resolved by a simple call for a general strike.

The revolt is contagious. Only this morning workers threatened with redundancy replied to their bosses with cow dung. In the west of France thousands of protesters at a mega basin were attacked by riot police using military-style weapons. Two demonstrators are currently in a coma.

To conclude, the movement is far from over and the future of the reform is still in doubt. The Constitutional Council, which must ratify the reform, is due to return its verdict on April 14th. Meanwhile union leaders are set to meet the prime minister for the first time. But the government continues to insist that the retirement age is not up for discussion. 

We say ‘No to 64’, ‘Retirement on a full pension at 60’. The next demonstration is next Thursday, 6 April.

This is an edited version of a talk at the recent meeting: French workers in revolt: Lessons for the UK strike movement