French workers will take to the streets for another general strike tomorrow in protest of President Macron’s proposal to raise the pension age from 62 to 64. Catherine Curran Vigier writes about the strength of the movement and the challenges the workers are facing.
The demonstrations against Macron’s pension reform reached a new high on March 7th. On the 6th day of action, up to 3.5 million people marched, went on strike and blocked access to industrial zones and transport networks. According to the CGT trade union, 700,000 marched in Paris, 240,000 in Marseilles, 100,000 in Bordeaux, 80,000 in Nantes, 45,000 in Le Havre, and 40,000 in Rennes. Though police figures were only 25% of union figures, even bosses’ paper Les Echos had to admit that the demonstrations were a success. Even in smaller towns and villages, people came out in hundreds and thousands. According to the police, 7200 people demonstrated in Lannion, 6500 in Pontivy, 6200 in Roanne, 5500 in Alès and 4000 in Douai. CFDT leader Laurent Berger spoke of a 20% increase in the number of demonstrators since the last big date, February 16th. Left of centre online newspaper Mediapart said that since the demonstrations began on 19th January, the country has never seen so many people out demonstrating. More people marched on the 31st of January and the 7th of March than on any two days since the end of the second world war. Olivier Besancenot, NPA (New Anticapitalist Party) spokesperson said “We can win,” adding that he had ‘never seen a movement like this one.’
Predictably, but disappointingly, the union leadership’s response to the massive turnout on March 7th was to call for an immediate meeting with Macron, and to repeat the demand that the retirement age should not be raised from 62 to 64. They left the question of a general strike unanswered, simply adding that members should continue with strikes and blockages in their workplaces. This satisfied no-one and failed to provide the level of leadership needed to take the struggle to the next level. On March 10th, Macron was back from a trip to Africa, and announced after a meeting with Rishi Sunak on immigration that he would not meet the trade union representatives.
Government Waiting Games
The government is banking on workers not having the financial resources or the confidence to stay out on strike. One minister confided to journalists that the continued rise in the cost of living would play in the government’s favour. But public support for the strikers is so great that the La France Insoumise party was able to collect 400,000 euros for the strikers and the CGT announced it had received over 600,000 euros for its strike fund.
The government and the media are focusing on a slight fall in the number of strikers, with just 39% of railway workers out, compared to 46.3% on January 19th, the last big day of action. Nevertheless, 76% of train drivers and 55% of ticket collectors were on strike on March 7th. According to the Snes-FSU, the main teachers’ union, 60% of teachers were out in secondary schools. The government said that 24% of civil servants were out. At electricity provider EDF, 41.5% were on strike compared with 44.5% on January 19th.
Despite the slight fall in the number of strikers, and the excessive caution of the union leaders, there is a strong determination to continue the fight. All over France, workers are meeting in general assemblies to decide what further action to take. Thus, rail workers at Paris’s Gare de Lyon voted to continue with strike action on Tuesday morning. At TotalEnergies, workers also voted to continue their action, and public sector refuse collectors in Paris did too. The refuse workers are demanding retirement at 60 and blocking the Porte d’Ivry incinerators so rubbish is piling up in the streets of Paris.
All 8 oil refineries were shut down on March 7th and one CGT delegate said in Le Monde newspaper that “we will soon be facing petrol shortages.” TotalEnergies refineries were still on strike on Friday 10th, though Esso-Exxon Mobil in Normandy went back to work. The government has threatened to intervene to end the picketing and blocking of access to refineries. But refineries are not the only places they have to worry about.
Roadblocks were set up on key routes, like at Miramas in the Bouches-du-Rhone. In Rennes, hundreds of demonstrators set up a roadblock on the road to the port of Lorient, This was later dismantled, but a new barrage was set up in Lorient. In Marseilles, fifty or so militants from La France Insoumise blocked access to a shopping centre near the port.
Around a hundred EDF (Electricity supplier) employees took control of an EDF lock on the Rhine, stopping navigation on the river. The strikers locked themselves in until they were finally expelled by the gendarmerie. In Normandy, dockers refused to allow lorries to enter port zones in Rouen, Europe’s biggest port for cereal exports, and in Le Havre, France’s biggest container port. The ports of Marseille-Fos and St Nazaire were also blocked. When these actions ended, others began, with electricity workers giving free electricity to hospitals while cutting off the residence of Olivier Dussopt, the minister in charge of the reform. Other workers made motorway toll gates free, or cut down speed cameras and radars along the road. Air traffic controllers, Radio France employees, teachers and healthcare workers also took strike action.
Not everyone is out on strike, and we will need to get many more people out next week, but the pensions issue is giving a focus to other fights in society and allowing different groups to come together in struggle: not only has the trade union leadership maintained its unity, but it has reached out to these other groups – women, ecologists, and students, for example.
On March 8th demonstrations for women’s rights focused on equality at work and in life, with 150 demonstrations around France, a considerable increase on last year. The CGT, FSU and Solidaires trades unions called for a “feminist strike,” to underline the need for equality. The march organisers wanted to highlight the fact that the pension reform will penalise women in particular. The Family Planning Association has said that the pensions’ reform will make women’s lives even harder and has identified itself with the opposition to the reform.
Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne is making a lot of noise about reducing inequality between men and women. But the government was forced to admit that women are going to be worse hit by the reform than men are, due to career interruptions, part-time work to fit with childcare, and low-paid jobs leading to low pensions. At present, women are over-represented in sectors that have low pensions. As one 54-year old nursing assistant said on the March 7th demonstration “I work at night, from 9pm to 7am, do you really think I’m going to be able to work until I’m 64?”
According to a study by the DREES, (Direction de la recherche, des études, de l’évaluation et des statistiques), 44% of women born in 1950 retired without the number of annuities required for a full pension, compared with 32% of men.
Climate activists and ecologists have also joined the movement. Since January, Extinction Rebellion, Youth for Climate, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and The Greens – (EELV) have called on supporters to get involved. They argue that global warming will make working conditions much harder for many employees, and that Macron’s reform shows little consideration for these workers. They also argue that the pensions reform will incite the better-off to invest in private pension plans. These are often financial products based on investments in fossil fuels and their derivatives, offered by companies like Macron favourite BlackRock, which has lobbied hard for workers’ to be forced to put money into ‘supplementary’ pensions at work, which funds would be invested on the stock exchange.
Climate activists point out that one way to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases would be for us all to work less. France is faced with another drought like last year’s, with a sharp reduction in rainfall last winter compared with seasonal averages. The government’s lack of interest in combating climate change is creating serious concern and pushing people to take to the streets.
Students are also getting involved in the fight: university and secondary schools demonstrated on Thursday 9th. Over 20 universities, and around 300 secondary schools were temporarily blocked. Secondary school students have said they are protesting against the changes to pensions but also against the new system allocating places in University, Parcoursup, which is weighted heavily in favour of students from ‘good’ (middle-class) schools, regardless of students’ exam results.
Handouts for Business, Harassment for Workers
While the government is ignoring the demonstrations and Macron plans to sit them out, sending in the police where conditions permit it, there are a number of factors underpinning the struggle that he can not wish away.
The rebellion against his pension reform comes as a large number of workplaces are engaged in conflicts over wages, where different groups of workers have tried to regain the loss of purchasing power caused by inflation. (For example, Géodis, L’Oréal, Trisalid, a Veolia subsidiary, Sanofi, or in retailers like Castorama, Leroy Merlin or Brico Depot, in hypermarkets like Carrefour or Monoprix.) At EDF, workers gained an increase of 200 euros per month, before joining in strikes over pensions.
While holding down wages, the state has handed over €160 billion in public aid to businesses in the last year, including money given to Pension Fund manager BlackRock, which wants this pension reform more than anyone. Companies like Total announce record profits while not paying one penny of tax and resisting wage increases for their workers.
The police have up to now had free rein to harass trade unionists and activists, with militants getting prison sentences, losing their jobs, or being held in custody for no reason other than taking part in a demonstration. The government has allowed employers to increasingly requisition workers to break strikes, whether in hospitals or refineries. A worker who refuses to be requisitioned could face prison. But the sheer size of the current demonstrations has marginalised the police for the moment.
The government has not had things all its own way. Macron’s first attempt to introduce pension reforms had to be shelved in the face of popular resistance before Covid shut things down. He is attempting to reintroduce it after failing to win a majority at the last general election. He won the presidential elections only because people’s only alternative was to vote for the fascist Marine Le Pen. He is not in a strong position to start with. He is depending on traditional Conservatives Les Republicains to support his reform and counting on Marine Le Pen’s fascist Rassemblement National not to get in the way. But the size of the demonstrations has shaken the political classes, leaving many deputies worried about saving their seats. While Macron is rumoured to have a cosy job lined up with BlackRock for when he goes, not all his deputies will be so lucky.
Le Pen’s Pension Reform Flip Flops
In particular, there were big turnouts in places where voters traditionally favoured the FN, with 25,000 marching Toulon and 30,000 in Nice. The RN says it is against the reform, but it has denounced the strikes and demonstrations, accusing the trade unions of wanting to block the country. The RN was clearly told by CGT leader Philippe Martinez that its deputies were not welcome at the demonstrations and that they had better not show up.
But Le Pen is forced to oppose the bill because most of her working-class supporters are against it. She knows that many of them are out demonstrating and even striking. This causes her to zig-zag permanently between saying she’s against the reform while not doing much to oppose the government in reality.
According to a Toluna Harris interactive poll published on January 30, 65% of French people are against the government’s project. This percentage rises to 77% among RN sympathisers and 80% of LFI voters, 81% of Socialist party and 82% of EELV sympathisers.
During the 2022 Presidential elections, Marine Le Pen started out saying she was for retirement at sixty with 40 years’ annuities for a full pension. She then made a u-turn and argued that only those who started work before age 20 could retire at 60. Someone starting at 25 or more would have to work until they were 67. Her final position is not very different from Macron’s. This means that the RN has little to say in parliament, apart from trying to present itself as the ‘respectable’ opposition while the Macronists vilify the left-wing NUPES alliance and J-L Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise as ‘violent,’ ‘disrespectful’ and ‘chaotic’. Marine Le Pen has taken the same approach and defended the minister responsible for the reform, Olivier Dussopt, when he was called an ‘assassin’ by LFI deputy Aurélien Saintoul.
While not contesting the government, but rather cosying up to it, the RN is pushing forward its own agenda. It proposed a series of amendments to the pensions bill which propose to increase financial incentives for having children, and to reserve them for French families. Following the Hungarian model, an interest-free loan of up to €100,000 would be offered to help young couples set up home, provided at least one of the parents is French. The debt would be cancelled on the birth of the third child. This is a racist, anti-abortion agenda that goes against any notion of equality between men and women.
For the RN, like Meloni in Italy or Orban in Hungary, the question of birth rates is crucial to their defence of national identity. Thus the RN proposed a resolution in Parliament aimed at increasing the French birth rate. This document underlined the “threat” of a declining birth-rate in France and affirmed that French women wanted to have more babies but couldn’t for economic reasons. The proposal held up the examples of Hungary and Poland as models to follow, while going on to denounce immigration as a false solution to the problem of population decline. The resolution asked the government to make increasing the birth rate the “great national cause” to be promoted in 2024.
Meanwhile, the RN has voted with the government against any kind of progressive taxes on wealth – the proposed tax on incomes over €3 million, the tax on superprofits, the increase in VAT on luxury goods, the increase in means of combating tax evasion, against the reintroduction of the wealth tax on top incomes. The RN also voted against an opposition demand for an increase in the minimum wage.
Parliamentary Opposition Is Not Enough
This means that the only real parliamentary opposition to the pensions reform is the Left NUPES alliance and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise. They have been under constant attack for their alleged lack of respect for the institution of parliament, their rowdiness and obstruction of the parliamentary process with multiple amendments to slow down the bill’s progress. Jean-Luc Mélenchon replied that the ‘violence’ in the National Assembly is a reflection of what the country feels when faced with a reform considered by a majority of people to be unfair and unhelpful. While LFI’s strategy has caused some tensions with its NUPES Green and Socialist Party allies, Mélenchon believes that voters will appreciate the fact that the LFI fought fiercely against the reform, while the RN went along with it in silence. According to some media, Mélenchon wishes to make the country ungovernable, so that Macron will have to dissolve parliament and seek a parliamentary majority in a new general election. His group’s tactics in parliament and outside it, like organising a contest for the best photos of a blocked school or university on social media, have been denounced by the right but also by the ‘respectable’ left of the PS and Greens.
However, a source close to Mélenchon said:
“The country demands a radical opposition. If some groups want to go it alone, so be it, they can take that risk…but if parliament is dissolved, we’ll see who belongs to the NUPES and who doesn’t.”
Mélenchon said that to stop Marine Le Pen from capturing the anger, the left opposition must not be lukewarm.
Speaking ahead of the Marseilles demonstration, Mélenchon called on Macron to either dissolve parliament or to put the reform to a referendum. Either way, he is hoping to provoke a new general election and to have a left government elected. He says that Macron should do this to avoid having the country blocked, but the country will have to be blocked to force Macron to do anything, especially to dissolve parliament.
In 1995, the unions were able to call off the demonstrations and strikes because political demands, like calling for the Prime Minister’s resignation, were not supported by the dominant party on the Left, the Socialist Party. Mélenchon seems willing to take the struggle further and his deputies are pushing the Macronists very hard in Parliament. There are signs that some are cracking under the strain, with ex-socialist Macronist Barbara Pompili jumping ship and saying she won’t vote for the law. It now seems that Elisabeth Borne may not get the majority she needs to get the bill through parliament next week, and with more mobilisations in the week up to Wednesday 15th March, the government is in for a rough ride. If Borne uses article 49-3 the special legislation that allows her to force a bill through parliament without a vote, the conservative opposition has threatened to table a motion of no confidence with the support of the Socialist Party and EELV – the Greens. If enough deputies vote for it, because all stand to improve their position should the Government fall – Macron will have to dissolve parliament and call a General Election.
Workers can’t depend on parliamentary manoeuvres alone to get rid of this reform, and it would be terrible if the only result of all this mobilisation was to allow “left” neoliberals like the Greens and the Socialist party to claw their way back from the brink. Winning this fight and more depends on how well the Left can organise the resistance on the streets and in the workplaces in the days and weeks to come.