France: 5 December strike – what strategy and what programme?

5 December may mark a turning point in the development of the class struggle in France. Since the RATP and SNCF unions have made this day the starting point for a indefinite strike, calls are multiplying from trade unions in other sectors to join and strengthen this movement, including in the form of indefinite strikes.

It is true that a union call is not always followed by a solid strike when the time comes. Over the last 20 years, there have been many "days of action" and "inter-professional strikes", which in fact mobilised only a tiny minority of workers in the strike – and even only a small part of unionised employees. The fault lay not with the workers, but with the trade union leaders who issued the slogan of "inter-professional strikes" in a mechanical way, without preparation or a serious plan. It was more a hollow formula than a true slogan. Trade union leaders did not believe in their chances of success themselves – and workers even less. The routine repetition of "interprofessional strikes" led Nicolas Sarkozy to quip in 2008: "From now on, when there is a strike in France, nobody realises it".

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It will be quite different on 5 December. Many sectors will probably be mobilised. At the very least, there will be a solid strike by the SNCF and RATP, whose employees have already clearly expressed their determination to fight – not by declarations, but by previous strikes: first, the massive one from 13 September by the RATP, then those of recent weeks by the SNCF workers.

The government understands and dreads the upcoming action. But it is unlikely that, by 5 December, it will make significant concessions to the workers of SNCF and RATP, in the hopes of defusing their movement. Macron has tried a small manoeuvre by stating that, on the issue of pensions, concessions were possible, but the vague statements by the head of state engaged only those who are willing to believe him – and that is not a big cohort. But Macron can not go much further than vague statements, because backing down against the threat of a strike would encourage other sectors of the working class to follow their example. A showdown on 5 December – and in the following days – seems inevitable.

The government and its media spokespersons have begun to sing us their old song. They describe the railway workers as "privileged", only out to defend their special benefits. The aim is to mobilise public opinion against strikers who, by paralysing transport, will "hold the country hostage", etc. This strategy can work, sometimes, when the government is attacking only railway workers. But the counter-reform of pensions does not only concern railway workers. It concerns all employees, who therefore have an interest not only in supporting the railway workers' strike, but in mobilising themselves.

In order to focus the people's attention on special privileges for rail workers, the government is burying central elements of its reform – such as the "points-based" system, which is a source of concern for everyone. But many workers interpret this ambiguity as proof that something very ominous is coming. A recent survey pointed out that the 5 December strike is supported by 74 percent of workers and 70 percent of civil servants.

The government attacks these so-called "privileged" workers in the name of "equality". But many employees understand that the kind of egalitarianism the government has in mind is to put us all on dry bread and water, along with the railway workers. Only the wealthy parasites that control the economy are truly privileged.

General anger

Despite all of their manoeuvres, the government is stuck with the content of the pension reform, which will spare no one. On top of that, they are facing widespread social anger that has accumulated over many years. It has reached levels such that an exceptional mobilisation of youth and the working class is entirely possible in the short term. As a result, there is a lot of potential for 5 December to be explosive.

In the last 12 months, social instability has increased by several levels. The yellow vests movement marked the spectacular awakening of the most-exploited and oppressed layers of the population. A movement of this nature and scope could not be a mere flash in the pan. It opened a new phase in the course of the class struggle. The sudden and massive wave of anger that erupted on 17 November 2018 did not subside, it is still there. And it is enriched by the experience of a long struggle. The call of the yellow vests for a mobilisation on 5 December and the favourable reception that this call has received in the union rank-and-file underlines the progress made since November 2018. Fictitious opposition between yellow and red vests is nowhere to be seen.

Retraites greve generale Image RévolutionGiven the immense accumulation of popular anger, 5 December has every chance to be explosive / Image: Révolution

The mobilisation of emergency physicians and firefighters, among others, points in the same direction, as did the recent suicide of a school principal and the attempted suicide of a student. In both cases, these acts explicitly targeted government policy. In response, the government dared to declare, in the person of Gabriel Attal, that "ending one’s own life is never a political act". Such cynicism can only exacerbate the anger of teachers, students and all those who no longer support the contempt of the government towards ordinary people.

The huge success of the mobilisation against Islamophobia on 10 November should also be recorded as an expression of the growing combativeness of the masses. Of course, the mainstream media did everything to discredit this event, before, during and after. But no one will be surprised at this, since these media outlets are themselves the main mouthpieces of Islamophobia. In fact, 10 November was, above all, a demonstration of strength and unity of our class. Its message was clear: the so-called "debates" on Islam will not prevent social anger from expressing itself in the form of great struggles. This diversionary operation, conducted under the guise of secularism, has therefore gone down like a lead balloon.

Finally, the various spontaneous strikes that have broken out from the SNCF in recent weeks are a very clear indication of the attitude that prevails in large sectors of the working class. In a context of great social ferment, the meaning of such walkouts cannot be reduced to the demands of the workers concerned. These strikes indicate a level of fighting spirit that necessarily exists in other areas of our class. The bourgeois press exclaim with anguish: "Explosive social situation at the SNCF". This is clearly so. But the social situation is explosive far beyond the SNCF. It is perfectly possible that, on 5 December and the following days, several decisive sectors will embark on a solid, indefinite strike. Then, the class struggle would enter a whole new phase, which would open the possibility not only of burying the pension reform, but also putting an end to the Macron government.

The role of the unions

All of the above points to the possibility of a very large movement. But the combativeness of the workers can be proved only in the struggle. We already have specific indications of the combativeness of certain sectors: SNCF, RATP, hospitals, firefighters... For other sectors, it is the fight itself that will provide the answer.

However, we must not be content with such generalities. A central element of the struggle is the role played by the organisations of our class, starting with the unions – and in particular their leadership. The strategy and programme of the union leaders weigh heavily in the balance, as workers can hardly do without their unions when engaging in a large-scale fight.

Once again, they will have to do without the CFDT, whose leadership has rallied behind the government. It is a lamentable betrayal, but it does not change much the ratio of forces on the ground. As soon as the leaders of the CFDT change sides, they weigh virtually nothing. If the CGT leads the fight correctly, it will find inexhaustible reserves of support in the working class, including among workers who feel "close" to the CFDT. The CGT is the most powerful and militant union: it is from this union, first, on which the conduct of the struggle to come depends. It is therefore the policy of the CGT’s leadership that we will analyse here.

In recent times, Philippe Martinez (CGT) has insisted that employees will "decide for themselves" in their workplaces if they will rally to the mobilisation of 5 December. He is pushing against an open door. Of course, the workers will not strike against their own will following a nod from Martinez. But the role of the leadership of the CGT must be to do everything in their power to convince workers to engage in the fight, because when it comes to "deciding for themselves" if they will take part, despite the risks involved, they will look towards Martinez. And if the latter is content to invite them to simply "decide for themselves", we will just go around in circles. The leadership of the CGT must present to all workers a clear and combative strategy and programme, in line with the concrete situation in the country. It must make clear under what conditions we can win, and what stands to be won.

Instead of repeating that "the workers will decide themselves" if they engage in the strike, the leaders of the CGT should explain the following: the government will abandon its pension counter reforms only if the movement of indefinite strikes develops beyond the SNCF and RATP. If the rail workers’ and RATP agents’ strike remains isolated, the government will have two options: either to make concessions to the sectors in strike only, or to bet on the exhaustion of the strike, as it did in 2018, helped along by the government mobilising ‘public opinion’ against it. In both cases, the mass of the population would lose. On the other hand, the more sectors that are on strike, the less the government will be able to engage in this kind of manoeuvre. This was effectively demonstrated by the December 1995 movement, for example.

The programme of struggle

While rejecting the slogan of a "general strike", Philippe Martinez calls for a "generalisation of strikes". This kind of subtlety may seem trivial, but it stems from the "let the workers decide for themselves" approach. Anyway, one question remains: what programme should the call to generalise the strikes be based on?

GJcgt1 Image fair useThe fight against the pension reform naturally leads to a fight against the Macron government. This should be front and centre of the CGT's programme of struggle on 5 December / Image fair use

The leaders of the CGT are focusing their fire on the pension reform. It goes without saying that the rejection of this reform must be one of the objectives of the mobilisation that will take place on 5 December. But it is very insufficient. On the one hand, if the government backs down tomorrow, it will return to the offensive the day after tomorrow. On the other hand, the pension reform is only one of the reactionary reforms of this government, among many others. For example, the unemployment insurance reform, which came into effect on 1 November, represents social carnage. According to Unedic's calculations, 240,000 people will be deprived of compensation rights, 424,000 will receive an allowance lower on average by 20 percent, and 291,000 will be compensated for a shorter period. Therefore, why not link the mobilisation of 5 December to the need to repeal this miserable reform?

The same question arises with regard to the two "Labour laws”, the privatisation of ADP (Aéroports de Paris), introduction of university selections, the attacks on the public sector – and many other past and future outrages. Similarly, what of the recruitment deficit for hospitals, nursing homes, the postal service, the fire service and schools (among others)? And what about the growing demand across all of France, in all sectors, for substantial wage increases?

In collaboration with other trade union and political organisations (Solidaires, FI, etc.), the CGT leadership should put all these issues at the heart of the mobilisation of 5 December, in the form of a clear and offensive programme (and not only defensive). This would not be an obstacle to mobilisation. On the contrary, in the current context of a growing combativeness of our class and of a massive opposition to the whole policy of the government, such a programme would be a powerful lever to mobilise broad layers of young people and workers.

It is obvious, for example, that youth will mobilise more easily around demands that go beyond the issue of pensions. But this is not only true of youth. When the time comes to "decide" whether to take the risk of losing days of pay by striking, many workers will be more willing to fight if the objectives are worthwhile.

Finally, it goes without saying that the Macron government will not implement the progressive measures of a programme defended by the CGT. The implementation of such a programme therefore presupposes, at a minimum, the fall of the Macron government. This political perspective should crown the 5 December mobilisation call. Here again, the mobilisation would be strengthened as a result. Let's not forget that the goal of overthrowing Macron has resonated throughout the country, Saturday after Saturday, since 17 November 2018. Linked to the mobilisations of 5 December, this objective would bring to the struggle new, numerous and vibrant forces, given the depth of hatred felt towards Macron all across France.

By limiting itself to the objective of a "generalisation of strikes" to force the abandonment of the pension reform, the CGT falls into a flagrant contradiction. Indeed, let us admit that a powerful movement of renewable strikes is developing not only at the RATP and the SNCF, but in other key sectors of the economy such as the civil service, road and air transport, the Post Office, energy and ports. The entire economy would be paralysed. The government would be on its knees. On the basis of a balance of power so favourable to the workers, it would be absurd to demand only the abandonment of the pension reform. The fall of the government would be at hand, and therefore on the agenda. This would also raise the question of a left-wing government taking over the CGT's programme.

This perspective is not fanciful. It is determined by the deep crisis of capitalism – and, consequently, by the determination of bourgeois governments to carry out their reactionary policies. In response to the many attacks it has faced, the working class can no longer be content with demonstrations or partial strikes, because none of this is pushing back the government. It will be forced to mobilise in such forms and at such levels that the struggle against the government's policy will turn into a struggle to overthrow it and replace it with a "people's" government – that is, a government of the workers. This is the dynamic that can develop from 5 December. Only this will allow us to bury the pension reform, on the way to an even-greater objective.