As upheavals and revolutionary movements have erupted around the world, a major clash of the classes has opened up in the heart of Europe. An angry working class in France is locked in a Gargantuan strike struggle with its government and the hated ‘president of the rich’, Emmanuel Macron. Nearly half way through his first term of office, Macron has the support of less than a third of the electorate while more than 70% support the strikers.
“A revolution…is bubbling up from the streets”, comments the New York Times.
After a year of combative Gilets Jaunes protests, which forced small concessions but inspired widespread admiration, the renowned ranks of the French working class are entering onto the scene in their millions. In spite of the approach of Christmas, this massive confrontation is still building up.
Last Thursday, 5 December, one and a half million took to the streets of Paris and other cities as millions around the country took strike action. Many did not return to work the following day and more millions have been striking this week.
Practically all rail transport has ground to a halt as well as the Paris underground system and many flights have been cancelled. Fuel and other depots have been blocked, schools closed and even lawyers and sections of the police have refused to work.
After another day of action on Tuesday, 10 December, and fruitless so-called “negotiations” with the government, France’s unions are gearing up for another national day of action next Tuesday, 17 December and, even if a pause is called for the holiday period, there is little doubt that the fight is back on in January. The main union on the railways – the CGT – has already warned that there will be no « Christmas truce ».
The casus belli is a proposed ‘reform’ of the French pension system that workers have fought to achieve and to protect over decades of struggle. Towards the end of 1995, a weeks-long public sector strike was successful in fighting off the attacks of a Juppé government with Jacques Chirac as president.
No doubt mindful of this, the present government of Edouard Philippe was proposing relatively minor changes in relation to both pension rates and retirement age and only for the next generation! But the attack is still substantial; large sections of young and future workers face the prospect of a ‘levelling down’ of their retirement income as well as having to work for longer to get a full pension. The trade union leaders are mindful of the reaction of the majority of workers when they are told their system is ‘generous’. They feel they themselves have been generous to the bosses and their governments for too long. With the present ‘government of the rich’, if you give an inch, they will take a mile!
Philippe tried to appear as if he was making concessions after talks on Wednesday, but they were rejected out of hand by the trade union leaders – of the main union federation, the CGT, but also, reluctantly, of the CFDT. Its general secretary, Laurent Berger, said on Wednesday that “a red line” had been crossed with the proposed increase in the retirement age to 64.
These workers’ represntatives are feeling on their backs the pent-up anger of millions of workers who have now got the bit between their teeth and want a complete climb-down by the government.
Generalise the strike
Gauche Revolutionnaire (the French section of the CWI), in a special supplement of its paper, Egalite, points to a breach being opened with the great strike of 5 December followed by a “decisive week”. Far more private workplaces have become involved and young people, blocked from university entrance, are finding a way of expressing their discontent with a society that blocks their ambitions.
The crucial question is how this trial of strength can end in a decisive victory for France’s workers? The Egalite supplement raises the need to extend the strike by systematic visits of strikers to workplaces not yet involved and mass meetings being held in factories, schools, depots and offices. There is a clear need to link up workers across unions and professions on a local, regional and national basis.
The Egalite ‘special’ talks of the need to extend the action into a generalised national strike, citing the strikes and occupations of 1936 and 1968 in France which achieved real gains for workers.
Small concessions from the Philippe/Macron government will not satisfy a working class on the move. “We’re hoping they will back down” said one railway-worker on a demonstration but added that, “Anyway, this is only the beginning!”.
There is a clear rejection both of this attack and of the whole government’s and Macron’s pro-capitalist policies. It is very clear to most people that this attack is part of a wider plan – one to dismantle all the gains that the working class heroically fought for in the 20th century, in order to increase the profits of the bosses. In the end, what is questioned in this movement is capitalist society itself.
The slogan “Macron out!”, that Gauche Révolutionnaire puts forward, is therefore very closely linked to how the strike could develop. If it becomes powerful enough to put an end to Macron’s pro-capitalist policies, the question is immediately posed of kicking this government out and replacing it with a government of representatives of working people.
A fighting party
The working class and the youth need a mass, fighting party that defends their own interests and those of the majority of the population and that brings together all the opposition to Macron and those parties that serve capitalism – from Marine Le Pen’s RN to the very much misnamed “Socialist” Party (PS). ‘France Insoumise’ and its leader, Jean-Luc Melenchon, who got nearly seven million votes in the presidential election of 2015, have raised their voices against Macron and his pension plans, but make no concrete proposals to mobilise a real fight to the finish.
Gauche Révolutionnaire constantly argues for a political alternative to the present rule of the super-rich and puts forward a comprehensive programme of demands to take workers from the exigencies of the present to the need to transform societry along socialist lines.
The experience of the mass strike, its organisation and its extension are the best schooling for workers and revolutionaries in what is needed for victory over the bosses and over capitalism on a national and interntaional scale.
As the Egalite special puts it: “Media propaganda spends its time telling us we can’t do anything and there’s no choice (but to cut pensions)…We are in the process of proving the very opposite!”.