Workers’ struggle in France on the boil

Paris protest (Photo: James Ivens)

After more than 45 days of strikes and 62 weeks of ‘gilets jaunes’ protests, French workers’ appetite for struggle endures.

The trade unions counted 250,000 on the national day of action in Paris on 17 January. The demonstration was angry and very determined, but also with something of a festival atmosphere. Workers marched – often in uniform – behind union vans decked out with banners, flags, loudspeakers and mannequins.

Strikers compare President Emmanuel Macron’s confrontation over pensions to Maggie Thatcher’s assault on Britain’s miners. They see it as an attempt to break the unions and clear the way for unfettered capitalist thievery.

There is majority public support for the strike. It’s fighting a generalised attack on all workers’ pensions: slog longer, get less. But the transport workers have carried the burden of continuous stoppage almost alone.

Long strikes have also developed in schools and some other workplaces. And hundreds of thousands more have walked out on several national days of action. But the strike is not generalised yet.

The movement’s rhythm is becoming intermittent as strikers regroup. But local actions and some small, unrelated strikes still erupt daily, as yet without coordination, like bubbles in boiling broth.

With no recent feeling of a decisive defeat or betrayal in a strike movement, morale remains high. And some are starting to question how to draw more workers into the struggle.

Gauche Révolutionnaire (CWI France) sold dozens of its newspaper, l’Égalité, and discussed with many strikers. There is widespread openness to strategies for building a general strike to oust President Macron, and the need for a mass workers’ party.

Indeed, strikers cheered when we proposed these ideas at the closing rally of a suburban Paris march on 18 January. However, union leaders have restricted their demands to preventing the pension ‘reform’.

The 200 or so marchers on this local demo were appalled to hear of the extended pension age in Britain. They also applauded the idea of a similar strike in Britain to resist Johnson’s new anti-union bill and continued austerity.

In one sense, Macron has already lost. His party, La République en Marche, is facing a drubbing in the March local elections.

So much so that he has changed the rules on how election results are announced to mask it. And the lead ‘En Marche’ candidate in the Noisy-le-Grand Paris suburb, for example, is running without his party’s name!

The Left 

However, there is a vacuum on the left. Workers pour onto strike demonstrations or gilets jaunes marches. But there is not yet a political coordinating body, a workers’ party, to unite the movements and challenge Macron himself.

Those movements include the famous gilets jaunes. Having defeated Macron’s petrol tax, their demands now include the abolition of all regressive taxes, such as VAT.

Their ‘Act LXII’ marched through Paris on 19 January. We joined around 15,000 protesters.

The march endured serious police provocation. Armoured ‘CRS’ riot cops encircled it, intimidating the gilets jaunes, and imposing a painfully slow pace.

In the end, frustrated, the march broke away from the police, and the hated CRS attacked with tear gas and arrests. Police repression is once again becoming a burning issue in France, and not just for the gilets jaunes.

The presidential election is still two years away. The strikers are catching their breath, but the reform is not law yet, and they have zero intention of stopping. “On ne lâche pas,” they chant: “we’re not letting go!”

A conclusive blow does not seem possible for either side for some time yet. But the advantage is with the workers. A democratic, fighting union strategy and steps towards a mass workers’ party are the key.

 

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January 2020
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