France: Battle over pension rights threatens Macron presidency

Workers' protest over Macron's pension plans, Paris, 4 January 2020 (Photo: GR)

The mass strike movement in France against government attacks on pension rights is now the longest since the revolutionary general strike of 1968. After more than a month, it has also lasted longer than the public sector strike of 1995 that ended in victory over the Chirac-Juppe government.

During the holiday break, train drivers of the national rail and Paris underground systems maintained their action. Other workers spent time with their families and waited to see if the obdurate government under President Macron would drop the so-called ‘reforms’ – increasing the pension age for all workers and scrapping early retirement for those in particularly arduous and stressful jobs.

In his New Year speech, however, Macron made it perfectly clear he had no intention of stepping in to ease the situation and a dramatic escalation of the movement is already underway. An article by Cecile Rimboud on the site of Gauche Revolutionnaire (CWI in France) points to the significance of what is unfolding:

“The strike that broke out in France on 5 December last year has already seen hundreds of thousands of workers on the move in a struggle that has been threatening for a long time. In 2019 there were already thousands of demonstrations, strikes and struggle – some of them very long and drawn out as in the hospital sector…

“The stakes are so high that the entry into the battle of millions helps us to see that it is we – the industrial workers, transport workers, building workers, shop workers as well as teachers, nurses, firefighters, civil servants – who are the ones who make everything function, that without us nothing happens. We have to fight for a general strike that says ‘workers, youth, pensioners, we are the majority in society, we are the power!’ The potential for getting rid of Macron is very real.”

Roll call

The list of those already participating includes not only the traditional militants in the docks, the factories, the depots, but also teachers, care-workers, telephone operators. Just before Christmas, striking singers and dancers from two famous opera houses in Paris showed their determination to fight against having their pension rights undermined by performing on stage at Paris protests. Lawyers are staying at home.

This week, it is reported that five out of eight refineries are not just blockaded but involved in the strike. Workers in the chemical factories are joining in. Last week a collective called ‘SOS Pensions’ announced that its 700,000 members will be joining the protests. These include self-employed doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, airline staff and accountants. (Air France’s second-largest pilots’ union is now joining the strikes after the larger union at Air France called off its action after getting agreement from the government to retain full pensions at 60!)

All this has echoes of the historic strikes and occupations of both 1936 and 1968, though not developing to the same extent from below and, so far, without the workplace occupations. The Russian revolutionary leader, Leon Trotsky spoke of a “roll-call” of workers joining the action in 1936. To some extent, history is repeating itself – the magnificent history of working class struggle in France.

Today’s movement does not have all the characteristics of the mass strike wave of 1968 which nearly brought down the ‘strong state’ of General de Gaulle. That revolt began amongst the student youth and was taken up by workers across the country. Today, university and school students are yet to become fully involved, including taking their own ‘strike’ action but the potential exists.

The coming week is crucial. Nothing is expected to come of talks on Tuesday 7th January. In fact, the main trade union leaders will not be participating. Instead, they have made calls for all-out strike action and mass demonstrations on Thursday and Friday (9th and 10th). Philippe Martinez at the head of the CGT union federation is playing an important role in now calling on all French people to mobilise, attend demonstrations and go on strike on both the 9th and the 10th”. The traditionally more moderate CFDT federation has joined the call and there will also be nationwide protests this coming Saturday. Yves Vevrier of the FO union federation says, “There’s no reason to stop the mobilisation”!

Many activists in the unions and on the left are using time on TV and radio broadcasts to put the workers’ case against the pension ‘reform’. What is seen as possibly the most ‘generous’ pension scheme in France is itself the result of decades of struggle by the French working class.

Still the ‘President of the rich’

Emmanuel Macron, regarded two years ago as a rising star – or Jupiter, as he once called himself – capable of taking a middle path and reconciling the interests of all classes in society has patently failed. His early concession to the ‘Yellow Jackets’ movement failed to allay their feeling that he knew nothing of the problems of the abandoned population of the small towns and the countryside. Their struggle has lasted more than a year now and those who are still active have joined enthusiastically in the marches and blockades of the workers’ movement.

Macron’s forays out of the capital to hear the gripes of local people have seen little or no progress in winning them to his policies. Seen as the president of the rich, he lived up to his name by carrying out immediate tax concessions to the top businesses. The nature of the class he represents is indicated by the sentencing towards the end of last year of former bosses at France Telecomm to (brief) terms of imprisonment and modest fines for workplace bullying. Horrific levels of workplace harassment, aimed at reaching cost-cutting targets after privatisation, in 2004, were responsible for the suicides of 35 employees in just two years (2008 and 2009).

Macron’s government has been beset by scandals and resignations of key advisers and ministers, the latest being that of the ‘Pensions Czar’, Jean-Paul Delevoye. The High Commissioner for Pensions, one the most trusted of Macron’s allies in his cabinet, was found to have no fewer than a dozen undeclared highly paid posts. Placards on the demonstrations ask “Who’s next?”.

The demand for Macron to resign is gaining more and more traction. Opinion polls show barely one-third of the population supporting him. Opposition to his proposals on pensions remains well above half of the population, and nearly two-thirds support the strikes.


In this situation, what are the parties of the left saying? Incredibly, they have been more preoccupied with the municipal elections of March, this year, than the chance to bring down Macron and his majority in parliament, the En Marche ‘movement’. The once-ruling Socialist Party has almost vanished from sight, only creeping up a little in polls because of its left-sounding alliance with the ‘Communist’ Party on local council lists.

Jean-Luc Melenchon of the FI (France Unbowed) has condemned Macron’s New Year “Declaration of war against millions of French people who reject his reforms”. Melenchon has called for stepping up the blockades and says this government cannot stay in power. He has conducted a petition of support for the strikes inside parliament. Melenchon, who got seven million votes in the first round of the presidential election two years ago, is recognised as a voice in the movement but is not a great agitator for a real socialist alternative, including calling for nationalisation of the top companies and banks, in the way that Gauche Revolutionnaire (CWI France) argues.

Nor does the New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA) or one of its well-known spokespeople, former worker, and NPA presidential candidate, Olivier Besancenot, put forward a clear class programme. The NPA did not have confidence that the strike movement could even be sustained through December 2019. But it has been, and it has been seen to be accumulating strength, by the day. Schools are back and teachers and hospital workers are on the move again.

The 9th could see the biggest response ever to an official call to strike action. (In 1968, although 10 million participated in the most significant general strike in history that lasted for more than a month, the only official call by the trade union tops was for a 24-hour strike early on in the movement!)

The far-right party of Marine Le Pen – the National Rally – has condemned Macron’s speech as “once again, nothing!” It is literally side-lined by the present mass movement of workers, banned from demonstrations because of its divisive racist policies.

Gauche Revolutionnaire believes the time is right to link the calls for generalised strike action and Macron’s resignation with a clear programme for establishing a workers’ government. As GR explains, the more the movement grows, the more the question is raised of who has the power in society. It puts on the agenda the idea of linking up elected representatives of strikers at a local, regional and national level not only to strengthen the strike and build an all-out, general strike but to discuss the possibility of a workers’ government to replace that of Macron and what its policies should be.

“Such a government”, writes GR, “Could rapidly renationalise the privatised public services, take into public ownership, under democratic control and management of workers and consumers the big sectors of the economy – notably finance, energy, transport, distribution. The hundreds of billions of euros coming from the fortunes of the ultra-rich and the profits of the multinationals and tax evasion would be used to give employment and housing to everyone”.

Finish with capitalism

It is time to build a party with a programme to finish with a society in which a handful of very rich company directors and their representative in the president’s palace try to dictate terms to the rest of the population. Enough of mealy-mouthed parliamentary ‘representatives’ who represent no-one but themselves! Time for a government of workers that will clear away the government of the bosses and implement the truly democratic form of workers’ rule envisaged by the heroic Communards of Paris in 1871 and implemented by the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917.

With today’s vastly elevated level of communication and technique, how much easier to introduce democratic workers’ control in the economy and in government – direct elections and the right of immediate recall over representatives, at each level, up to and including leaders of a workers’ government.

Political activists with socialist ideas can rapidly gather support when a generalised strike of this nature develops at a pace. Like individuals, a movement – even a small party with a clear-sighted leadership and socialist programme – can grow rapidly as its tasks grow greater.

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January 2020