France: third general strike in a row reaches new heights

For the third consecutive week, French workers from dozens of professions (train drivers, teachers, doctors, nurses, firefighters, factory workers – even opera singers!) downed tools and hit the streets, alongside hundreds of thousands of supporters, to oppose the reactionary Macron regime. While the government has been downplaying the turnout, claiming only 600,000 took part, the protests were at least as big as on 5 December. The CGT union federation claims they were even bigger, citing a figure of 1,800,000 demonstrators, which would be hands down the biggest mobilisation since 1995.

More important than the absolute quantity was the quality of this interprofessional strike, which was notably more radical and better organised than two weeks ago. Crucially, workers from the private sector are tentatively starting to join the fight, alongside their brothers and sisters from the public services (although currently only from a few industries). It is clear that the mood on the streets is for the downfall of Macron, despite the union leadership trying its utmost to focus exclusively on stopping the hated pension reform. But the masses are pushing the fight forward, while the bureaucrats drag their feet.

Provocations and scandal

Last Wednesday, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced the government’s intention to press on with the pension reform (with a few superficial adjustments). The reaction from the masses was immediate. The proposal was rejected out of hand by the CGT, but also the moderate CFTD (because of the pressure of rank-and-file railway workers), which had previously held back its forces and signalled it was open to negotiations over the pension reform. Yesterday, it officially joined the strike for the first time.

In the run-up to Tuesday, transport workers (still the heart of the movement) remained on all-out strike, crippling train and bus services across the country, while airports are still hobbled. The unions called for “local action” after Phillipe’s announcement, to continue from 10 December up to yesterday’s mobilisation, and demanded “proper negotiations” with the government. Despite this passive attitude by the union tops, the workers organised themselves to continue the fight.

Workers at France’s biggest (privately owned) oil refineries have been on strike for over a week, which has very serious implications in terms of the country’s fuel supply and exports. Local chapters of the CGT in places like Le Havre and Marseille have been very proactive, organising big general assemblies of workers from different sectors to coordinate joint action.

The port in Le Havre has been blocked by CGT-affiliated workers since last week. “There is no port activity at all. The entire industrial area is closed," Agence France reported. The local CGT secretary said that the Prime Minister’s announcement was a provocation that only “increased the mobilisation.”

The access doors to the Grand Maritime Port of Marseille were also blocked last Thursday. "We let the passengers out of a ferry this (Thursday) morning, but otherwise there is no activity, nobody comes in or out, and the blockage will continue all day," said Pascal Galéoté, local CGT general secretary. The commercial port of La Rochelle was also affected, with picketing workers preventing trucks and freight trains from entering or leaving.

Édouard Philippe 2019 Image Jacques PaquierÉdouard Philippe's announcement that the government will press ahead with the pension bill has only enraged the masses further / Image: Jacques Paquier

In Versailles, a joint statement from the CGT Associations of railway, transport, energy and chemical workers swore joint action during and after Christmas, with no reprieve until the government backtracked on the pension reform. True to their word, on the eve of the interprofessional strike, pickets made up of postal workers, teachers and energy workers blocked the St. Quentin bus depot and held a local general assembly, alongside a delegate representing RATP workers, to prepare for yesterday’s action.

As with the struggle against the fuel tax that provoked the gilets jaunes in 2018, the battle against the pension reform is bringing all the grievances of French citizens to the fore. On Monday, an open letter by 600 doctors said that funding cuts had brought the French health system to the brink of collapse. “Public hospitals in France are dying,” it read. These workers threatened to resign en masse unless more funding was allocated to the health service. Nurses and doctors were a visible presence during the demonstrations yesterday.

The government’s dread before Tuesday’s strike was exacerbated by a scandal in its own ranks. On Monday, Macron’s pensions chief, Jean-Paul Delevoye, was forced to stand down over corruption allegations, after failing to declare over €120,000 from private sector appointments, while earning a government salary. This was a humiliating blow for the government, but worse was yet to come.

Delevoye’s replacement, Laurent Pietraszewski, held the position of human resources manager at Auchan France (a massive retail company) until 2017. At his old job, he gained notoriety for sacking a till operator (and CFDT union rep) who made a €0.80 error while cashing up. It seems Macron has chosen to replace Fagin with Ebeneezer Scrooge! It has also been reported that Pietraszewski maintained his position at Auchan for two months after being elected as a deputy, claiming an additional salary of €71,000 on top of his state wage. This farce intensified the masses’ indignation at Macron’s government of the rich as they took to the streets yesterday.

Power of the working class

When the strike day came, CGT activists at RTE (the electricity grid operator) gave a taste of the power of the organised working class by cutting power to 100,000 homes and offices across the country. There were targeted blackouts by electricity workers around Lyon and Bordeaux, which disrupted both work and travel. Francis Casanova, a CGT activist at RTE, said the government should “take this as a first warning” and threatened “more massive cuts”. In response to accusations from the government and press that this action was taken in spite, he countered:

“We don’t consider it to be spite, but a way for RTE staff to show that if there’s electricity in this country it’s because they go to work every day.”

As a wise Marxist once said, not a wheel turns, not a lightbulb shines and not a telephone rings without the kind permission of the working class!

Primary and secondary school teachers (60 and 50 percent of whom are respectively striking) also walked out yesterday, meaning many schools were closed. Although it appeared education workers were in slightly fewer numbers than last week. Public transport ground to a near halt, while pickets and supporters blocked roads across France, wreaking havoc on the morning commute.

There were protests and strikes in 260 locations across the country, a fact that was finally clearly communicated by the CGT via their website, which published a map of France showing where and how many of their members had come out. Turnout was variable around the country, but the protests in the capital were clearly the biggest yet. The Metro was barely running and there were huge columns of demonstrators throughout the day at Place de la République, Place de la Bastille, and Place de la Nation. Protestors raised slogans for Macron to resign, and brandished placards of the president dressed up as Louis XVI, with the caption “Restoration of the French monarchy”. Macron should perhaps take note of King Louis’ fate at the hands of the people.

Many students were out on the demonstrations, in addition to a large number of hospital workers, who walked out from over 200 institutions nationally. Tourist hotspots like the Eiffel tower were shut down, and performers from the Paris Opera, whose special pension regimes face the axe under Macron’s new scheme, assembled in front of the Opéra Bastille, delivering an incomparable rendition of La Marseillaise. They also performed “Va, pensiero” (sometimes known as Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves) from the Verdi Opera Nabucco: a song of resistance against oppressive tyranny.

While the picture from the rest of France was patchy (the press has deliberately underestimated the turnout), there were big demonstrations in places like Marseilles, Lyon and Toulouse. But even in small towns there were significant strikes and protests. For example, radiologists in Nîmes declared an unlimited strike, and at least 8,000 demonstrators hit the streets in Evreux, 6,000 in Besancon, 2,500 in Montluçon etc.

Critically, private sector workers are beginning to come out in bigger numbers, particularly petroleum workers, sewage workers, dockers, chemical workers and some factory hands. In a very significant development, oil refinery workers organised by the CGT filed notice for an unlimited strike, starting on 17 December.

refinery strike Image CGTRefinery workers across France are on unlimited strike / Image: CGT

In Angers, workers from Valeo, Chassis Brakes International, Scania and Eiffage came out on the protests. In Lille, it has been reported that metallurgical workers were on the streets. In Montluçon, workers from Dunlop and Amis were present, along with legal workers. Meanwhile, in Besancon, there were strikes at several major companies like Camelin Décolletage Industries, Derichebour, FCI, Maty and Les Francas. And in Bayonne, workers from Dassault and Safran joined the protests.

We should not exaggerate these developments: public workers still make up the backbone of the strike. However, the involvement of private sector workers remains crucial to the strike’s success, and must be nurtured and developed in the coming days and weeks through political explanation, and radical slogans aimed at the heart of the hated Macron government.

The police are becoming increasingly aggressive as the strike goes on. They have been filmed using teargas and stingball grenades against crowds across the country. The savagery displayed during the gilets jaunes movement is beginning to reemerge, with footage circulating on social media of them charging and beating the crowds. One particularly disturbing video shows a CRS thug in Paris grabbing an elderly protester by the throat and holding him against a wall, while other police attempt to prevent news reporters and protestors from filming the assault. The firefighters continue to display courage and discipline as defenders of the strike, marching at the head of the protests to shield the people from the police.

This increased aggression by the state forces is evidence of weakness, not strength. They had hoped the movement would start to dissipate by now, but it is holding firm. During the height of the gilets jaunes movement, the vicious behaviour of the state forces (and especially the BAC, Brigade Anti Criminalité) served as a whip of reaction to drive the masses forward. Perhaps conscious of this, the police have been showing a bit more restraint this time, but their patience is starting to wear thin. This is a dangerous development for the government given the depth of anger already on the streets.

Union bureaucrats hold back the tide

So far, the state shows no sign of backing down. “My determination, and that of the government and that of the entire majority, is total,” Philippe said, despite entering into negotiations with the unions today in Matignon. A joint statement by CGT, FO, CFE-CGC, FSU, Solidaires, UNEF, MNL, FIDL and UNL has declared there will be no “Christmas truce” until the pension demand is reversed. It did not, however, set a date for a fourth interprofessional strike, instead calling on “local strikes and demonstrations, wherever possible, until the end of the year.”

This announcement represents a double betrayal. On the one hand, the unions previously said they would not enter into negotiations without preconditions. Well, the government has set the condition that it will not cancel the pension reform, which is the unions’ only stated objective! Macron’s intention is plainly to break up the unions’ united front, leaning on the weaker links like the CFTD by offering some small modifications. As we have written, Macron recognises that the question of the pension reform is existential: he has staked the legitimacy of his regime on passing it. Moreover, he has received a stern warning from the European Commission to complete his “reforms” to pensions and the labour market “by 2020 at the latest”, in order to reduce France’s financial deficit. Macron is caught in the teeth of a crisis of French, European and world capitalism. His masters in Brussels have given him an ultimatum. He cannot and will not surrender – so he must be thrown out altogether.

On the other hand, the mandate from the street is clear: “no negotiations! Down with Macron!”. The masses want to go all the way. And with the strike starting to spread (for which 100 percent of the credit lies with activists on the ground, rather than the bureaucrats at the top), the union leaders are submitting to negotiation at precisely the time when the government is vulnerable. They should be pushing to build on the progress the workers have made, to spread and strengthen the strike in the private sector, and force the government onto the backfoot. Instead, by accepting talks and not even setting a date for a new, national mobilisation, they risk losing the initiative.

In truth, this attack on pensions was just the straw that broke the camel’s back after a longstanding policy of cuts for the working class and youth, while the wealthy receive handouts. It is necessary for the working class to reach a final confrontation with the Macron regime. If their leadership cannot and will not organise this struggle, the workers on the ground – through their general assemblies – must take the initiative to build and deepen the strike to more and more sectors. This can be achieved by connecting with the insurrectionary mood on the streets, and finishing what the gilets jaunes started last year: “Macron, demission!”