Another day of massive demonstrations and strikes on Thursday confirmed that the revolt in France is not going away just because the attack on pensions has now passed through parliament.
Instead it’s hardening and has become a fundamental political and social crisis. The CGT union said 800,000 marched in Paris and 3.5 million across the country. Much of the media reported huge turnouts of young people in particular—workers and students.
When president Emmanuel Macron ordered the use of article 49.3 of the constitution to ram the pension age increase through parliament last week, he didn’t break resistance. Instead, he took it to a higher level and gave it a more aggressive character.
Now many strikers aren’t just confronting an attack on their pensions but are at war with the government and the system.
Sophie Binet, a rep from the technicians union, told the Liberation newspaper, “The 49.3 was an electroshock that rocked a lot of people” but draws hope for the future. “The convergence between young people and employees is one of the ingredients of winning mobilisations.”
There were 250,000 demonstrators in Marseille according to the unions, 110,000 in Bordeaux, 55,000 in Lyon, 50,000 in Clermont-Ferrand, 24,000 in Tarbes, 24,000 in Bayonne, 15,000 in Puy-en-Velay.
In many places there were unprecedented numbers on the streets. In Toulon, the union claimed 30,000. In Bayonne 24,000, Avignon 30,000, Agen 6,000, Nice 40,000. All of these are record turnouts.
There are mountains of waste. People become aware that we exist when we’re not there. Only then.
Indefinite strikes continued last week at four of the seven major refineries and by bin workers in Paris and some other cities. Large piles of rubbish choked parts of the capital.
From the bin workers and sewer workers bloc on the Paris demo, Christophe said, “There are mountains of waste. People become aware that we exist when we’re not there. Only then”.
From early on Thursday morning “dead city” operations saw activists take over roundabouts and road junctions to close off areas from all traffic. They included Lille, Lyon, Chambery, Lorient and Toulouse.
At Fos-Sur-Mer refinery in southern France workers fought the CRS riot police on Wednesday and beat them back, at least for a while. Hugo told Socialist Worker, “It was magnificent. As trade unionists we asked people to come to our picket line and several hundred came. We forced back the CRS because we were many more than them.
“Then the CRS hit back with lots of tear gas and batons. They drove us off a bridge we had occupied, but the strike goes on. We felt more confident afterwards, we can stand firm and we can get support from others.”
Workers’ solidarity and militancy also headed off an attempt to break the strike at the largest refinery in France on Wednesday night. The government had requisitioned some of the strikers at the Normandy refinery, giving Total the power to order them back to work or face fines and jail.
The CGT Total Normandie called all the union members in the port city of Le Havre to a rally in front of the refinery at 8pm. Over 300 strikers from all the industrial areas of the region—dockers, ports, rail workers, Chevron and others—as well as students turned out.
They stood outside the site all night to stop any return to work and to prevent police assaults on the pickets. Alexis Antonioli, secretary general of the CGT Total Normandie, said from the refinery on Wednesday evening, “We must not delude ourselves. The government will do everything to blow up the strikes.
“They will do everything to get kerosene, whether from us, or other refineries. They are in a complete panic. Because the strikes continue, the mobilisation hardens, the dynamic among young people continues.”
When bosses tried to negotiate with the strikers, offering to lift the requisitions if the workers agreed to end the strike, the pickets refused outright. Antonioli explained, “We have no intervention by the police or requisition, because we prevented it.
“But if there were to be an intervention by the police, it will be similar to what happened in Fos-sur-Mer, we count on solidarity to prevent requisitions.”
Macron’s hope is the cops’ truncheons, the jail cell—and the union leaders. They called for Thursday’s mobilisations. But they won’t push for sustaining and spreading the indefinite strikes that are the real power or the open-ended general strike that would break the government.
They were slow to respond to the use of 49.3 and won’t extend the movement to demanding Macron must go—now a popular demand. And they won’t take up issues of pay and conditions that could make it bigger and involve layers not yet mobilised.
The movement has radicalised but the rank and file alternatives to the national union leaders are still limited. It’s a race between the growth of these networks and the lethargy, cowardice and limited vision of the union leaders that could strangle the resistance.
The joint unions’ statement last week made only plaintive calls for a referendum and the intervention of the state Constitutional Council. And the pace of resistance is only slightly accelerated.
The unions scheduled another day of strikes and demonstrations for Tuesday this week. Single days of action are unlikely to be enough.
Riots began in many cities after Macron’s use of Article 49.3. Protesters set fire to barricades made up of bins and piles of rubbish. It wasn’t just left wing activists or students involved. In many areas workers took part.
The police responded with vicious repression and many hundreds of arrests. In most cases, people are not even charged with illegal acts but just swept up for being on the streets.
On Thursday last week, a police flashball grenade tore off a woman’s thumb in Rouen. On Friday 17 March, police patrolled the Chatelet district of Paris, checking and arresting those they arbitrarily deemed to be protesters.
On Saturday 18 March the cops in Paris humiliated dozens of demonstrators and made them sit against a wall, before arresting them. A protester testified on Twitter that police re-arrested him just after his 48 hours in police custody, simply because he looked, in their words, like a “fucking leftist”.
On Saturday 18 March in Nantes, police sexually assaulted student protesters. A riot cop brandished an assault rifle during a demonstration. But people are still going on to the streets—still resisting.
The hatred of the police combines with other reasons that people are questioning the political system. Ten minutes into a TV interview last Wednesday, as he attacked the unions and the protesters, Macron surreptitiously removed a watch he was wearing.
Social media accounts said it was worth £60,000 and he was worried the posh timepiece didn’t strike quite the right notes as he lambasted the poor in the streets. His office had to rush out laborious pseudo-explanations that claimed he had taken it off because it was making a noise when he banged the table and it was worth “only” £2,000.
His interview was a complete failure. A poll showed 76 percent of people weren’t convinced by his performance, his worst-ever score.
It has been like this in the housing schemes for a long time, where young people, especially Muslims and migrants, get beaten for nothing. Now many more realise it.
There’s a growing questioning about democracy in France. “Macron get his way without a vote in parliament, and then his police batter people on the street because they protest. OK, we are not living under Stalin or Hitler, but this is not a democracy,” said Noah from the Paris demonstration.
“It has been like this in the housing schemes for a long time, where young people, especially Muslims and migrants, get beaten for nothing. Now many more realise it.
“What are our rights? Every five years we get to choose between a fascist and a centre-politics tyrant. It’s a con. We can wail on social media but it’s meaningless if you can’t make things happen.”
Many activists also point to the government’s attack on the right to strike. When refinery workers walk out and picket, the government accuses them of violent blockades and uses requisition orders.
These mean that if they don’t dismantle their picket lines and return to work they can face big fines or jail.
Macron has tried to counterpose his own rule, supposedly legitimate and sanctioned by a vote, to the power of the “foule”, a dismissive word for “crowd”. He wants to outlaw the “lower orders” who won’t play the game of bourgeois politics. They challenge the violence of the state with their own militant refusal to obey the policeman, the government minister and the judge.
People can see through him, and even some parts of the establishment worry about what Macron has now set off. Charles de Courson, a right wing MP who moved a no confidence motion against Macron said, “This government can no longer govern. I am not sure that the President of the Republic has measured all the consequences of his decision.
“The country will become more and more ungovernable. I think the current government is dying. We are talking about the change of prime minister—that seems obvious to me, but that will not solve the fundamental problem.”
In Montpellier, cops with batons and a flash-ball grenade launcher confronted the photographer for a left-wing website. “I don’t give a shit about your press thing,” shouted the cop as the photographer snapped and ran. Such is the freedom of the press.
Women workers, students and feminist activists are prominent on the demos. It’s an important development and clearer than in some previous campaigns.
The pensions attacks hit women particularly hard because they are on average paid less, and therefore often have smaller pensions. They also take longer to hit the required number of years worked for a pension because of breaks for childcare.
International Women’s Day on 8 March came just as the movement accelerated. The mobilisations helped to extend the strikes that had taken place on a big day of union mobilisation the day before.
Women’s liberation and broader workers’ issues were raised together. The great social revolt also comes after a tumult of discussion and organising in France over issues such as sexual harassment.
At some demos you can see “Les Rosies”. The feminist collective Les Rosies began in 2019 in response to Macron’s first assault on pensions. Their trademark blue work overalls, red scarf on the head and yellow gloves reference Rosie the Riveter, the US icon.
The example has spread to others who, wearing the same garb, have blocked rail tracks and devised their own songs. They often use make‑up to look like zombies to “symbolize the fate that this reform has in store for us”, as one women marcher put it.
In several areas, groups of women workers and feminists march singing their version of “Women on fire” to the tune of the Gala hit “Freed from desire”.
The French government announced last week that its project of a new, harder, racist law against immigration would be postponed. That retreat was a symbol of the weakness of the power in front of the wave of strikes, occupations and demonstrations.
Yet during a TV interview, Macron said, “There will be an immigration law in the next weeks”. But to guarantee the votes of the right wing and fascists MP, the law is going to be split to push forward the worse sides of it.
Macron’s vacillations are the product of the strength of the movement.
This struggle is now about where society is going, who is deciding—the capitalists or us, Macron or the strikers, the bosses or the workers and the students. French and immigrants, with or without documents, our class needs strong unity and solidarity to win.
It means that the struggle is not only about pensions. That’s why on Saturday we demonstrated all around the country against racism and fascism, against the immigration law. This is a new step to bring Macron and the government down.
Denis Godard, socialist and anti‑racist organiser
The philosopher and author Frederic Lordon has become one of the voices of the movement. Here is a translation of part of a talk he gave recently.
“We are materialists, we know that psychology does not make politics—it is structures. But psychology has a role when, among the structures, there are some that concentrate power to the highest degree in the hands of a single person, and that one has lost all reason.
This individual, Macron, is the violence of capitalism concentrated and personified. The irony, however, with such destroyers is they take the destruction so far that it ends up back at them. We are at a point where even part of the bourgeoisie is beginning to contemplate, bewildered, who it has brought to power.
I say all this because domination often leads the dominated to underestimate the fragility of the opposite camp. Even if it is not yet quite apparent, it’s beginning to crack. Now is not the time to let go.
When the law has been passed, what will union leaders do—apart from noting that its method was based on assumptions of democratic decency that were all absolutely false? This method is therefore no longer relevant. We have to move on.
We know very well what’s needed. Even the man in charge tells us, according to one of his advisers that what would make him back off is, “A country at a standstill, that is to say a renewable strike which would produce an economic shock”.
With such an invitation, what are the union leaders waiting for? When will they add to the struggle against pension reform the struggle for pay—the demand that’s powerful, unifying, the one that will throw everyone into the globalised fight?
The demonstration routes should flow from this—take in the bosses’ organisations, the big corporations, the bloated and corrupt financiers and banks. Anyway, enough of the usual boring routes.
In reality, to know what to do, you still have to know what’s going on, and then have the desire to do something with it. It’s very simple—enough is enough.
In reality, nothing is going to work anymore. After decades of attacks, after six years of frenzied Macronism, the desire to shake everything up is rising in the country. Who is getting tired of asking politely, who is starting to get tired of good manners?
When the economy is on its knees, it is not “the French” who are on their knees, it is capital. And when capital is on its knees, it is the workers who rise up.
Among the things to shake up there is therefore also the syndicate of good manners. Good manners suppose a whole series of problems already resolved, of options already settled, of conflicts settled.
In the union of good manners, we find the capitalists of course, the institutional political class—not all of them, fortunately—and media editors, the voice of their masters. Unfortunately, it must be said, in the union of good manners, we also find, trade unionists, or at least trade union leaders.
They are unable, for example, to articulate “Bring the economy to its knees”. Because it’s rude. But when the economy is on its knees, it is not “the French” who are on their knees, it is capital. And when capital is on its knees, it is the workers who rise up.
The good manners syndicate is heading towards the same terminal crisis as the world of which it is the ornament.
Macron, like all fanatical liberals, dreamed of his Thatcher moment. He dreamed of the reform that would break the spine of labour once and for all, and bring him into the international pantheon of capitalism. Error.
Suddenly all the foreclosed questions are reopened. Work—organised by whom? For whose benefit? With what meaning?
Production—at the service of what ends? In what conditions? Production—at the cost of what destruction? Of what dangers for the survival of humanity? And suddenly the whole meaning of our form of social life is called into question.
The only question on the table is—who wants to take control of the situation and who does not? Who wants to do something with this rising energy and who wants to stifle it? Who wants to open a possibility and who wants to keep it closed?
We have gone through a long winter, lasting several decades—a winter of attacks, setbacks, resignations, despair too. We’ve been through a long winter, but now it’s over. We will have our spring, and in the spring, as we know, there is a month of May.”
Protesters told Socialist Worker why they were marching