France: a million on the street as strikes continue

Yesterday’s interprofessional strike against Macron’s pension reform brought between 800,000 and 1,000,000 workers and youth onto the streets of France, according to the CGT. While this is a drop from the mobilisation last Thursday (which was possibly the biggest since 1995), the turnout was still high, with strong participation by transport workers, teachers, health workers and students.

Recalling the gilets jaunes, the strike penetrated beyond the major cities into the small towns, and continues to enjoy the support of the majority of the population. The question now is whether these strikes will broaden beyond transport and public service workers to the private sector: this will be the decisive factor in determining victory or defeat.

Transport workers and teachers in struggle

The transport workers are still the main part of the movement, and remain on indefinite, all-out strike until further notice. There has been massive disruption across the French rail network since Thursday: the Paris Metro is still shut down (causing gridlock in the capital), and just a fifth of high-speed TGV trains were running yesterday. Many Eurostar trains were cancelled. Walkouts by air traffic controllers resulted in Air France cutting 25 percent of domestic flights and 10 percent of its short-haul international flights.

Hospitals were running on minimum service and lorry drivers have threatened to take action next week. Thousands of police were mobilised in the capital. The impact on Paris (during the economically vital Christmas season) was profound, with many restaurants, shops and hotels losing up to 50 percent of their projected profits for the day. Various shows and performances were also cancelled, with ballet dancers from the Paris Opera being some of the strongest opponents to the pension reform, as they stand to lose the special retirement programme that compensates for the physical toll inflicted by their profession.

Just like last Thursday, firefighters have been at the forefront of the strikes: their role in defending demonstrators from police violence has earned them a degree of authority in the movement. Meanwhile, teachers remain the second-largest column, alongside transport workers. The main teachers’ union, SNES, announced a 62 percent rate of strikes across the education sector, and teachers formed a large bloc on the 150,000-strong march in Paris yesterday.

French teachers have endured years of cutbacks, and have very low salaries compared to their other European counterparts (whose own income is nothing to write home about). For instance, the average pre-tax salary for a French teacher is €30,350 annually, compared to €36,247 (£30,547) for a British teacher, and €48,571 in Germany. In order to compensate for this, their pensions are based on their last six months of earnings before retirement: an arrangement that stands to be scrapped under the new regime.

An attempt last Wednesday by Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer to allay teachers’ concerns, with a letter “explaining” the pension reform, had exactly the opposite effect. Laetitia Faivre, an English teacher at Collège la Grange aux Belles in Paris’ 10th District, said the letter “only made things worse. [It was] was quite provocative, it was proposing €1000 a month. Blanquer should try living on that. It was shocking.” She said that nobody was falling for Blanquer’s antics, pointing out that he has been regularly promising to increase teachers' salaries, but they haven’t improved in two years. “People are realising that what Blanquer says in the media and what actually happens are two very different things.”

Despite a somewhat lower turnout by education staff compared to Thursday (with fewer schools closed), these workers have displayed a high level of determination and organisation. For instance, a general assembly yesterday brought together 200 teachers from 92 establishments across Ile-de-France (including colleges, high schools and primary schools), who voted unanimously to renew their strike.

Moreover, the number of interprofessional assemblies is multiplying. As reported by Le Monde (certainly not a left-wing paper), a number of joint assemblies have been held in Ile-de-France, which have organised such solidarity actions as teachers participating in RATP pickets, and transport workers visiting schools to discuss the implications of the struggle with students and teachers. These rudiments of workers’ democracy are very promising, and must be nurtured in the coming days.

This kind of coordinated struggle also clearly worries the government, who are eager to isolate the transport workers. One prominent education unionist was violently arrested in Aubervilliers, after a week in which teachers had supported RATP strikers by blocking bus depots. Immediately afterwards, a joint demonstration of transport workers and teachers descended on the Commissariat d'Aubervilliers, demanding his immediate release.

Workers and youth out in force

As mentioned, the strikes have not been limited to Paris. For instance, an interprofessional assembly (convened by the local CGT) was raised in Le Havre on 9 December, attended by 200 delegates representing transport workers, teachers, refinery workers, chemical workers, dockers, health workers and metallurgical workers, who voted for indefinite strike action across the city in their respective sectors. Subsequently, there were big demonstrations on the 10th. There are many similar examples in other parts of the country.

There were also thousands on the streets in Grenoble, Lyon and Rouen; and demonstrators faced violent repression by the police in Lille and Montpellier, with images circulating on social media of bloodied and battered protesters. One man in Lille was filmed lying senseless on the ground having been struck in the head with a gas canister.

Despite this brutality, the masses have been very disciplined, and the marches were mostly peaceful. The demonstrations in Marseilles were especially impressive. In the morning, striking dockers closed the ports, and easily 150,000 came out onto the streets, despite a huge police presence. It was the biggest protest in the prefecture since the struggle against the 2016 Labour Law. Meanwhile, in Seine-Saint-Denis in the northeast of Paris, CGT-organised workers at the Montreuil plant prevented the release of diesel, gasoline and fuel oil from seven of the eight French refining sites belonging to Total, Petroinéos and ExxonMobil. Together with the dockers, this is potentially very powerful, as these workers have a grip on France's oil supply. 

Students continue to be a visible presence on the demonstrations, particularly in the capital, where they have been raising their own slogans against precarity and the high cost of living, in addition to supporting the larger fight against the pension reform and Macron. Students marched alongside a procession of RATP strikers from the Ivry depot in Paris, with the workers and youth exchanging slogans with one another, and singing “We are all children of the strike!”

There were also motions of solidarity passed by big student assemblies in places like Toulouse. The gendarmerie have not spared the youth from repression: for instance, a student demonstration in Lille was broken up with batons and teargas.

No concessions by the government

Yesterday’s strike was timed to precede an announcement today by Prime Minister Edouard Philippe about the government’s plans for its deeply-unpopular pension reform. Previously, Philippe told Le Journal du Dimanche that he and Macron are determined to press ahead with their new, unified “points-based pension system”, which will eliminate the “special regimes” and provisions that compensate public sector workers for low pay and unsociable hours with more favourable conditions for retirement. "If we do not carry out a far-reaching, serious and progressive reform today, someone else will do a really brutal one tomorrow," he stated, warning that today’s announcement would contain no “magic announcements” to quell the protests.

As promised, in a platitude-filled speech, Phillipe announced today that the government would continue with the pensions overhaul. All movement was on style rather than essence. A vague point about teachers not “losing a single Euro” of their pensions was mentioned, but not fleshed out. The barely livable €1,000 per month minimum pension will be preserved, assuming workers live until 2027. Women were offered some limited concessions around maternity leave, which will be completely neutralised by cuts and stagnant wages, and were told they would have to have at least three children for their pensions to be guaranteed. 

Soldiers, firefighters, police officers and prison guards would still be entitled to “early retirement”, but all other special regimes for public service workers will be scrapped. The official legal retirement age will remain at 62, but only until 2027, and in the meantime the maximum pension will not kick in until 64, “encouraging” people to work longer (through the threat of starvation).

The only significant change is that the new system will apply to people born after 1975 until 2025, rather than 1963 as previously planned. Those entering the workforce from 2022 will be put straight on the new system, with everybody in between phased in over the course of a few years. This was an attempt to divide the unions, as the CFDT and UNSA had previously said this so-called "grandfather clause" would be enough for them not to strike. 

In short, Macron intends to steam ahead with his plan to make most people work longer for a smaller pension, and eliminate the few benefits that exist for public sector workers, toiling under arduous conditions on low pay. The points system means pensions will be calculated based on wages, rather than contributions. Live in precarity: die in precarity! Even the more moderate CFDT described the plan laid out today as crossing a “red line”, and will be discussing its position tomorrow (as will UNSA). The CGT has stated that it will accept nothing short of a “total u-turn” on the pension reform. For Macron – the hobbled centrist president who vowed “never to bend to street protests” – getting this reform through is a matter of political life and death. He has no intention of giving any ground.

It is clear that the masses see the pension reform for what it is: part of a general policy to make ordinary French workers pay for the crisis of French capitalism by “modernising” public services (i.e. privatisation), “liberalising” pensions and working conditions (i.e. cuts) and “encouraging investment” (i.e. tax breaks for the rich). Despite the union leaders’ emphasis on forcing the government to drop the pension reform, this strike has come to reflect the anger across all of French society against Macron’s government of the rich. This is shown by the fact that, despite all the disruption and poor tactics is the union leaders, 53 percent of the French public still support the strikers.

Public and private workers: unite and fight!

A cross-union summit, attended by representatives from CGT, FO, FSU, Solidarity, MNL, UNEF and UNL, has announced “local strikes and mobilisations” will continue tomorrow, building up to a third inter-professional strike on 17 December. However, despite making a broad call for the “widest participation by both public and private sector workers, alongside students and youth”, the statement simply invites workers to take part in renewable strikes “where they decide” to do so. This passivity and lack of any proper political leadership or perspective from the union leadership highlights a major danger facing this strike movement.

Despite highlighting participation by new layers of the private sector (including refinery workers, agrifood workers, metallurgical workers, etc.), the union leaders are vague on the details. They are very unclear when it comes to concrete figures for the turnout in different parts of France. And as far as we can tell, involvement by private sector workers is still very limited. Life has continued mostly as normal in much of the country. Without a serious and coordinated effort to bring private sector workers into the struggle (explaining the need to resist Macron’s entire policy of attacks on the working class) there is a risk that the transport workers who make up the vanguard of the strike will be isolated. Passive calls for private sector workers to risk wages and sanctions from their bosses are insufficient: the case must be made in a serious, systematic and political way.

Public sector workers remain united for now, but there is evidence of fatigue setting in. The reduced scale of the protests this week suggests a commensurate drop off in the number of actual strikers. If the strike is sufficiently weakened, the government will probably enter into separate negotiations with the teachers’ unions, and more moderate transport unions, in an attempt to divide and conquer the movement. Secondly, while public support for the strike is high, it has fallen by 10 percentage points in a week. If the disruption continues without any clear plan or steps forward, and without a clear programme linking the strike to the struggle against the attacks of the capitalists against the working class as a whole, the government will have more success in its attempt to drive a wedge between the striking workers and the general public.

The workers in struggle must develop and extend their general assemblies, and use these organs of workers’ power to pressure their union leaders to expand the strike against the pension reform into a general offensive against the hated Macron government. There is an appetite for this on the streets. By emphasising the need for “proper negotiations” with the government to reverse the pension reform, the bureaucrats are lagging far behind the radical mood that exists in society, where the people have declared: “no negotiations! Fight to the finish! We want Macron out!” The union tops’ refusal to properly communicate with the workers is a deliberate ploy. They are desperate to keep the strike within safe channels: focused on one particular demand, rather than provoking a political struggle against Macron’s regime. But Macron cannot and will not offer any genuine concessions. The fight against the pension reform therefore demands a showdown with the government itself.

If the bureaucrats’ strategy continues, the strike will become exhausted and fall into defeat. This cannot be permitted. The tremendous revolutionary traditions of the French working class have been on full display in the past week. All that is lacking is the revolutionary leadership to guide them to victory. If such a leadership were to emerge from the struggle, Macron’s decrepit regime would not last a day.