Tens of thousands of French workers remain on indefinite strike against president Emmanuel Macron’s attacks on pensions. And millions more have joined days of action and mass demonstrations in recent weeks.
A “Christmas truce” to restore transport services, demanded by the government and supported by some union leaders, did not happen because of workers’ determination to keep fighting.
Many strikers, particularly SNCF national rail and RATP Paris public transport workers, have been out since 5 December.
Their walkouts have now lasted longer than the extended 1995 rail strikes that defeated then-prime minister Alain Juppe’s pension cuts. And the action is hitting hard.
About half of national rail services remain cancelled and most of Paris’s metro lines aren’t working. Bus services are also much reduced.
The government has encouraged scab coach services in an effort to break the strike. Their drivers are allowed to exceed the normal safety limits on working hours.
But in some areas strikers have blockaded the depots and halted the coaches.
Hundreds of petrol stations have run out of fuel after strikers halted production at most refineries.
The latest strikes and blockades shut down the Petroineos refinery near Marseille and the Grandpuits Total site near Paris last week.
Bernard, a CGT union rep on the railways, told Socialist Worker, “We’re still very solid, and we are proud we haven’t folded. It’s hard to be short of cash over Christmas, but we are lifted by the solidarity and the sense that if we lose this battle then we will end up like the railways in Britain.
“As the strikes have gone on we have not sat doing nothing. We are organising, reaching out to others and thinking how to make links with the Yellow Vests, climate campaigners and others.
“We are making new alliances. It’s exciting, and the politics go beyond trade unionism.”
Strikers continue to target power cuts at big business, while helping out ordinary people with their electricity bills.
Amazon’s Christmas deliveries were hit after electricity workers cut power to the Blanc-Mesnil site on the outskirts of Paris on 22 December.
The CGT union tweeted, “CGT electricians will restore power to the poor who are cut off and put in place off-peak hour tariffs for people struggling to pay. There will be no candlelight Christmas for the poor.”
Five days before Christmas the energy branch of the CGT union in the Pyrenees-Orientales region announced it had deactivated several thousand new generation Linky meters. These limit the supply of electricity to households with late payments.
The union said, “Nobody has the right to take away energy from families in need”.
Public support for the strikes remains strong. One recent poll found 62 percent backed them. Public donations to a CGT union fundraiser—one of many in existence—have passed £1.1 million.
Last Saturday strikers and Yellow Vest protesters marched together in several cities, despite police attempts to keep them apart.
But Macron remains determined to ram through the key points of his pension assault—forcing people to work longer and receive less.
The government had hoped to split the movement by making the changes apply only to workers born after 1975.
But this so-called “grandfather” or “grandmother” clause has not impressed strikers. They rightly see it as divisive, a prelude to further attacks, and an abandonment of younger people.
In one high-profile example, the striking dancers of the Paris Opera rejected an even bigger concession—that the worse pensions would affect only dancers recruited from 2022.
They said, “We are asked to personally escape the measures, to see them applied only to the next generations. But we are only a small link in a 350-year-old chain. This chain must extend far into the future—we cannot be the generation that has sacrificed those who come after.”
Because it is such a big battle, Macron cannot easily retreat without encouraging resistance to all his neoliberal projects. So he battles on, even though some on his own side are worried he is stoking wider social revolt.
The union leaders have not shown the same determination as strikers. Some openly called for the strikes to be paused. The Unsa federation called for its rail workers to go back over the holidays—but then14 of its regions rejected the call and the strikes continued.
Other federations have backed continuing strikes, but most have not called clearly for an unlimited general strike. Only such a strike could guarantee success.
The union leaderships have postponed the next day of national cross-sector mobilisation until 9 January.
But there are powerful developments at the base of the unions where in some places workers come together across the different federations and even across different sectors.
One example last week saw over 100 SNCF and RATP strikers meet in Paris. In a statement afterwards they said they were “determined to continue the strike until we force the withdrawal of this pension reform,to defend everyone’s retirement and a better future for all workers in this country”.
They demanded that union leaders “put all their resources at the service of the continuation and generalisation of the movement. This involves setting up a national strike fund allowing those who will soon have lost an entire month’s salary to continue the movement. But this mainly involves the implementation of a real battle plan and concrete calls for the generalisation of the strike to other sectors.
“This is the very meaning of our meeting today, which does not aim to replace or oppose the unions, but on the contrary that it is the strikers themselves who have control of their movement.”