The nationwide strikes in France, now entering their record seventh week, seems to be approaching a crisis point. Despite savage police repression, about a million people have been in the streets protesting against president Macron’s proposed neoliberal “reform” of France’s retirement system.
This was established at the end of the Second World War and is considered one of the best in the world.
At bottom, what is at stake is a whole vision of what kind of society people want to live in. Will it be one based on cold market calculation or one based on human solidarity? And neither side shows any sign of willingness to compromise.
On one side, the Macron government has staked its legitimacy on pushing through this key “reform” intact as a matter of principle, however unpopular. On the other side stand the striking railroad and transit workers.
They are bearing the brunt of this conflict and have already sacrificed thousands of euros in lost pay since the strikes began on 5 December.
After seven weeks, they cannot accept the prospect of returning to work empty-handed, and they have set their sights high—withdrawal of the whole government project.
This looks like a “now or never” situation. Moreover, it seems clear that the transport workers mean business.
When the government—and the union leaders—proposed a “truce” in the transport strike during the sacred Christmas/New Year vacation period, the rank and file voted to continue the struggle. Their leaders were obliged to eat their words.
Nor are the transport workers isolated, despite the inconvenience to commuters and other travellers.
They have been joined by emergency-room nurses and doctors, who have been on strike for months over lack of beds, personnel and materials. In addition school teachers are protesting undemocratic and incomprehensible “reforms” to the national curriculum.
Also out are lawyers and judges—visible in their judicial robes—and the dancers at the Paris Opera—visible in their tutus.
Alongside the strikers, and quite visible among them, the so-called Yellow Vests are a crucial element. For over a year, they have been setting a “bad example” of self-organised, largely leaderless, social protest.
This captured the public imagination and through direct action in the streets won some real concessions from Macron in December 2018.
This victory impressed the rank-and-file of the French organised labour movement. This is particularly so because three months of disciplined, but limited, stop-and-go strikes in the spring of 2018 failed utterly to wring any concessions from Macron.
Strikers went back to work poor and empty-handed while Macron pushed through a series of neoliberal privatisations and cuts.
Although their numbers diminished, the Yellow Vests continued spontaneous protests throughout 2019. This was despite savage government repression, distorted media coverage stressing Black Block violence, and snubbing on the part of the union leadership.
But their “bad example” was not lost on the union rank and file.
Today’s general strike was originally sparked last September by a spontaneous walkout by Paris subway workers. Contrary to custom, they spontaneously shut down the system without asking permission from their leaders and management.
Meanwhile, the Yellow Vests, initially suspicious of the unions but isolated in their struggle with Macron, had begun to seek “convergence” with the French labor movement. Finally, at the Yellow Vest national “Assembly of Assemblies” last November, delegates voted to join the “unlimited general strike” proposed for 5 December by the unions.
Reversing his previous standoffishness, Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT union federation, immediately welcomed their participation.
Today’s intractable nationwide confrontation over retirement is best understood as a deliberate provocation on the part of Macron, both in its form and its substance. There was no urgent reason for pension reform, nor for abolishing the system outright and hastily replacing it from above with a neoliberal plan based on “universality.”
The pension programme was not in debt, and the alleged need to replace the twenty-odd “special” retirement funds with a single “point system” was only a smokescreen.
In fact, these “special funds” cover only about one percent of retirees. They are a million or so miners, railroad workers, transit workers, sailors, ballet dancers and such. These get to retire early because of the physically or mentally taxing nature of their specific labors. Even if you include the four million public employees as “special,” the figure rises to under 25 percent.
Moreover, Macron has himself recently violated this principle of “universality” by giving special exceptions to the police and army, and the ballerinas of the Opera—whom no one can imagine toe-dancing at the age of 60.
Behind this confusing smokescreen of “fairness to all” is an old con. It’s about equalising benefits by reducing them to the lowest common denominator. Indeed, according to independent calculations, under Macron’s point system the average pension would be reduced by about 30 percent.
These “points” would be calculated over the total lifetime number of years worked before retirement, rather than on the current criterion of 75 percent of a worker’s best or final years.
So Macron’s point system would particularly penalise those whose careers were irregular– for example women who took off years for childcare. Yet the government brazenly claims that women will be “the big winners” in this so-called reform.
However, the biggest con embodied in this point system is that the actual cash value of each accumulated point would only be calculated at the time of retirement. The sum in euros would then be determined by the government then in power on the basis of the economic situation at that moment.
Thus, under the present system, every teacher, railway worker and clerk can calculate how much s/he will receive when s/he retires at 62 and plan accordingly. Macron’s point system would leave her in total darkness until it is too late.
His system resembles a gambling casino where you buy ten chips for a certain amount, place your bets, and later take your winning chips to the cashier’s window only to discover that your chips are now worth only half as much. Surprise! The house wins.
Today, under the existing pension system, French people live on average five years longer than other Europeans. Moreover, according to the New York Times, “In France the poverty rate among those older than 65 is less than 5 percent, largely because of the pension system, while in the United States it approaches 20 percent.”
And although the pro-government French media have presented Macron’s confused and confusing reform in the best possible light, it is a hard sell. So why change it?
When Emmanuel Macron took office in 2017, he vowed he would not be “an ordinary president.” From the beginning he openly proclaimed his iron determination to revolutionise French society to bring it into line with the Thatcher/Reagan revolution of the 1980s. And his methods have been authoritarian.
He has imposed his program of privatisations and counter-reforms from above. He has deliberately circumvented negotiations with “intermediate bodies” such as parliament, the political parties, the local authorities and above all the trade unions.
Backed by the mainstream media, which is controlled by the government and three big corporations, Macron has been largely successful in steamrolling through his neoliberal programme. This is openly designed to improve French “competitivity”—corporate profits by lowering living standards.
A fight between the rich and the poor amplified by 200 years of French history
If successful, his proposed “reform” of pensions would open the gates to his ultimate goal. This is the “reform” of France’s socialised healthcare system, already on the road to privatisation.
Naturally, all these moves have been unpopular. But until now Macron has been successful in dividing and destabilising opposition–if necessary through massive use of police violence.
This has been the fate of the spontaneous movement of Yellow Vests, who have been subjected to routine beatings and tear-gas attacks as well as hundreds of serious injuries. These include blindings, torn-off hands and deaths—all with police impunity and media cover-ups.
Now the government’s savage repressive methods are being applied to strikers and union demonstrators traditionally tolerated by the forces of order in France.
This repression may turn out to be like throwing oil on the flames of conflict.
On 9 January, at the end of the peaceful, legal, mass marches members of the particularly brutal BAC (Anti-Criminal Brigade) were employed in Paris, Rouen and Lille. They were ordered to break off sections of marchers, inundate them with teargas, and then charge in with truncheons and flash-ball launchers fired at close range.
This resulted in 124 injuries and 980 people sickened by gas.
These brutal attacks, which focused particularly on journalists and women—nurses and teachers—were captured on shocking videos. These were viewed millions of times on YouTube, but pooh-poohed by government spokespersons.
Far from discouraging the strikers, this deliberate violence may only enrage them. And, what with the “bad example” of the Yellow Vests,” the union leaders may not be able to rein them in.
Why is Macron risking his prestige and his presidency on this precarious face-off with the union leadership? After all, they are traditionally viewed as the compliant hand-maidens of the government on such occasions.
Historians here recall that in 1936 Maurice Thorez, leader of the Communist-affiliated CGT (General Confederation of Workers) unions, brought the general strike and factory occupations to an end. He used the slogan “We must learn how to end a strike”.
At the Liberation of France in 1945 the same Thorez told workers to “roll up your sleeves” and rebuild French capitalism before striking for socialism.
Similarly in 1968, during the spontaneous student-worker uprising, the CGT negotiated a settlement with president De Gaulle and literally dragged reluctant strikers back to work.
Not for nothing are today’s government-subsidised French unions officially designated as “social partners”—along with government and business.
Yet Macron, loyal to neoliberal, Thatcherite doctrine, has consistently humiliated the CGT’s Martinez and the other union leaders. He has excluded them—along with the other “intermediary bodies”—from the policy-making process.
France’s “not-an-ordinary-President” has from the beginning remained consistent with his vision of an imperial presidency.
Although seen by many abroad as a “progressive,” Macron, like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and other contemporary heads of state, adheres to “authoritarian democracy”. He is apparently willing to stake his future on subduing his popular opposition, particularly the unions, once and for all.
Thus, what is at stake today is not just a quarrel over pension rights, which would normally be negotiated and adjudicated through a political process. It is a question of what kind of future society French people are going to live in—social-democratic or neoliberal authoritarian.
The seasoned Paris bureau chief of the New York Times, Adam Nossiter, put it simply. He said it is, “A fight between the rich and the poor amplified by 200 years of French history.”
Macron rose to power unexpectedly in 2017 when the traditional Left and Right parties fell apart during the first round of the presidential election. This left him as the “lesser of two evils” candidate in a face-off with the proto-fascist National Front of Marine Le Pen.
Macron must remain inflexible because he has little behind him but the Bourse (stock exchange), the Medef (manufacturers’ association), and the police.
On the other hand, as the struggle enters its seventh week, it occurs to me that if this were a true general strike it would all have been over in a few days.
No government could stand firm if all organised workers walked out and railways, the Metro, buses, schools, hospitals, refineries and power plants had shut down.
In France, there are no “union shops” much less closed shops, few if any strike funds, and as many as five different union federations competing for representation in a given industry.
Here picket lines, where they exist, are purely informational, and anywhere from 10 percent to 90 percent of the workers may show up on the job on any given day during a strike.
Today, for example, seven out of ten TGV high-speed trains were running as many railway workers returned to the job to pay their bills while planning to go back on strike and join the demonstrations later in the week. How long can this go on?
“When in irresistible force meets an immovable object, something’s got to give,” goes the old saying.
With his arrogant intransigence over the retirement issue, Macron is apparently risking his presidency on one throw of the dice. And Macron may be betting that time is on his side, waiting for the movement to slowly peter out so as to push through his reforms later.
Update: French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe’s much ballyhooed 12 January declaration of a “provisionary” withdrawal of his proposal to extend the “pivotal” age of retirement from 62 to 64 is yet another smokescreen. It is designed to divide the opposition and further prolong the struggle, as suggested above.
Although denounced as such by the CGT and other striking unions, the government’s promise was immediately accepted by the openly class-collaborationist (“moderate”) CFDT union, to their mutual advantage. The CFDT will now be included in the negotiations over the financing of the proposed point system. The CFDT—having collaborated with previous governments in earlier neo-liberal reforms—supports this.
Philippe’s declaration is obviously an empty promise, as there are only two ways of increasing the retirement fund—either by extending the number of years paid in or by increasing the amount annual contributions, which are shared by labour and management. And although labour has signaled its willingness to raise its dues, the MEDEF (manufacturers’ association) has adamantly refused to pay its share, ruling out the obvious solution to this manufactured crisis.
Montpellier, France, 13 January