The pension protests in France are a powerful example of collective action. Macron’s government is in danger. For Selma Oumari, the protests go beyond this specific issue in the fight against capitalism.
Since Macron’s coming to power, we have witnessed an unprecedented wave of resistance. From the gilets jaunes’ movement to the ongoing strike against pension reforms, broad layers of the society are learning how to take political action. This general disobedience is an expression of a deep economic and political crisis. Even though Macron’s rise to power came in a political vacuum, he united the right-wing around an aggressive neo-liberal project and the destruction of the welfare state. Previous attacks were mostly directed against a few sectors seen as ‘privileged’, but now there’s enough confidence to launch a global attack against the working class as a whole. That’s the meaning of the pensions reform.
The current electoral system is showing its inability to take people’s interests into account. In the 2017 presidential election, the traditional left and right-wing parties were severely defeated. The rise of Macron’s newly formed party ‘En Marche’ was made possible in a context in which the classic shift between right and left parties didn’t work: the inability from the left in power to challenge neoliberalism disoriented its traditional electoral base. At the second round of the presidential election, the choice was between Macron or the fascist Marine Le Pen, so he was elected amidst despair. He rapidly became the illegitimate president, which is the only thing that the Fifth Republic produces.
Set up to prevent dissent and disorder, this republican system made sure that the president holds most of the power. Even the National Assembly has a large majority of Macron’s supporters. In fact, change can only be achieved through social movements and this is what we’re currently experiencing. Yet, the issue of an electoral left alternative can be a matter of debate, but right now there’s a political necessity to counter Macron’s ‘reforms’, especially the pensions reform.
Why is the pensions reform a central issue? It’s always been a point of contention between classes, and notably in 1995 when the government was defeated by a powerful wave of strikes. As a result, France has the lowest poverty rates among the retired in Europe. When the strike started in early December, many kept in mind the 1995 victory.
But more recently, 2018 has seen an unexpected destabilisation of Macron’s rule by the Gilet Jaunes’ movement. It was driven by a ‘silent majority’ of people not acquainted with social movements, but critical of the trade unions’ lack of resistance. Their powerful demonstrations and relentless blockades, despite the heavy winter, has radicalised the trade union rank and file activists. The strike started from the Paris Metro trade unions on September 13th. It was successful and the rail workers joined them to launch other successful days of strike. Both of them were the backbone of the movement, as they started an unlimited strike for more than a month. They managed to block the country, even on Christmas and New Year’s Eve. They gave confidence for other sectors to join the strike.
Despite government and media propaganda, the majority has been in solidarity with the movement. The strike fund received up to 2 million euros. Millions of people took to the streets and blocked their workplaces. It converged with the health sector who have been striking for almost a year against the budgetary cuts in hospitals. Some unexpected sectors, like culture, lawyers and firefighters staged inspirational forms of disobedience. Opera dancers and symphonic orchestras turned their backs on their upper class spectators to perform live shows on the street. Culture is a powerful tool to unite the class, and it is used as another form of demonstration. Lawyers gathered in hundreds to throw their robes, doctors and nurses were inspired as well and threw their coats. Electricity workers organised cuts too, targeting businesses, official buildings, and police stations.
For months now, there has also been attempts to build local committees in solidarity with the strikes. This is an interesting feature that could help building resistance to austerity on a long term basis; it unites people living or working in the same area from different sectors. There are electricity workers, transportation workers, unemployed, teachers and families. They discuss a global strategy and common actions to make the anger visible. It could be as simple as sharing breakfast with workers on strike, or night marches with torches. We still don’t know how the fight against the pensions reform will end, but by resisting we’re building class resistance against the whole system. This movement has shaken the governments’ legitimacy so much that we can possibly win. As a result, the debate in the Assembly is a never ending one: the Communist Party and France Insoumise deputies proposed 40 000 amendments to sabotage the law, which needs 150 hours of debate. Macron’s prime minister can use his veto, but will he apply it safely?
The government doesn’t feel safe anymore, yet it goes on adopting extreme neoliberal measures. These measures are unleashing social anger among the masses, even among the middle class. The fight against pension reform goes beyond this specific issue, it is about our ability to resist Macron’s vision of the state, which is mainly based on authoritarianism and the destruction of social redistribution of wealth. Political experience and solidarity between the exploited is being learnt on a wider level. It has also helped the progress of feminist and anti-islamophobic movements.
The emergence of anti-global warming movements such as Extinction Rebellion raised awareness that the political solution has to be dealt on a global level, not just within the French borders. The global revolts and resistance to capitalism, in Hong Kong, Chile, Sudan, Lebanon and elsewhere are long term movements and influence each other. It is crucial in these times to argue for the need to end capitalism, to learn from these movements, and to argue for a socialist perspective.