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‘We don’t need to convince, we need to compel’—arguments in France about how the strikes can win

Debates are raging in France about what it will take to break president Emmanuel Macron and the bosses. Charlie Kimber looks at the arguments—and the lessons for activists in Britain
Issue 2344
Thousands of french strikers marched against attacks on pensions in Toulouse, France

Thousands marched against attacks on pensions in Toulouse, France in January

Working class activists are involved in a fierce debate in the run-up to a general strike and huge demonstrations across France on 7 March. It’s about how, in the context of a massive social movement, ordinary people can beat their bosses and a hostile government.

Millions of people have surged onto the streets during five days of action in January and February. And that’s been combined with mass strikes. But president Emmanuel Macron is pressing ahead with attacks on pensions. 

It’s a big issue in itself—as one popular slogan has it, a struggle for “retirement before arthritis”. But is also a symbol of Macron’s wider determination to make workers pay for the economic crisis. And it’s about what sort of society France should be. Will it be one with a bit of freedom or just “Travel to work, slog away—and then the grave,” as another slogan puts it.

“The argument is hot and important because you can feel the chance for a historic win that would change things in a big way for the future. But there’s the terrible possibility of falling short, as has happened again and again in the last 20 years,” teaching union activist Cedric B told Socialist Worker. 

“The demonstrations are the biggest most of us have ever seen. They’re bigger than in any of the major trade union campaigns of the last two decades, bigger than in the victorious revolt of 1995. And they’ve electrified sleepy little towns as well as the cities. 

“it’s very, very clear that a large majority of people hate the pension changes. But that isn’t how democracy works. The government isn’t backing off. They see, pretend to listen and then just carry on. So how do we increase the pressure? It can’t be about just doing the same thing.”

The arguments matter in Britain. It’s easy to look at France and be a bit dazzled by almost three million marching across the country on 31 January—even the cops said 1.3 million. It’s thrilling to see the flags, the flares and the singing. What would we give for the equivalent of the 500,000 gathering in Paris, the huge strikes, the union leaders forced to call for everyone out and more action?  

How much easier would it be if there weren’t the anti-union laws that smother strikes? And laws that give trade union general secretaries an excuse not to call action, to postpone it, and to stretch it out? 

But France shows that even with a much higher level of struggle, the issue of the trade union bureaucracy and political leadership do not go away. The union leaders still hold back and confine the revolt, they still narrow its perspective. And they might lead it to defeat unless the rank and file organises to overthrow them.  

And the rise in resistance has also hurled into crisis the Nupes left coalition of Jean-Luc Melenchon, just when it should be on the rise. Melenchon won over 7.7 million votes in last year’s presidential election. His LFI party was at the centre of the Nupes coalition that achieved 6.5 million votes and won 131 MPs at the parliamentary elections that followed.

But it has been stagnant, aimless and increasingly divided in the last few months. From the start of the pensions battle, while acknowledging the role of the unions, Melenchon has said the crucial actor is “the people”, not workers. On 21 January he said, “Everything can be summed up as ‘broadening the front of the struggle’.”

And this implies a dilution of class focus. In particulate Melenchon seeks to lead his own movement away from a focus on workers. He wrote, “The rebellious movement must throw all its weight into the mobilisation outside the walls of the company, among the ‘non-salaried’ people….also middle-class executives and small bosses and traders.”

LFI has clashed with the union leaders because it is seen to be pushing its own political initiatives rather than uniting with the wider movement. But it has failed to provide a more militant way forward than the mainstream.

The coalition of LFI, the Communist Party, the Greens and the Labour-type Socialist Party has barely held together. And it has done so by making only vague, and therefore useless, statements during this period of social revolt. “It’s an absence,” says Cedric. “it’s really shocking that you have this big political force that suddenly shrinks as the movement explodes. It’s the difference between an electoral success and winning through struggle.” 

The main contending positions now are:

  • Do strikes and demos again, a bit stronger—and look for a compromise. 

The CFDT is France’s biggest trade union federation with over 610,000 members. It is the largest union group in the private sector, second in the public sector. Its roots are in the Christian-based unions and it’s famed for its readiness to talk not walk, and to do deals.

It tries very hard to come over as reasonable, concerned for the “national interest” and avoids any whiff of acting for political reasons. Its leaders are scrupulously committed to the most mainstream methods.

But, in a measure of how angry workers are about Macron’s assaults, the CFDT has been forced to call strongly for strikes and big demonstrations. And its members have responded enthusiastically, filling the streets in their orange union jackets. 

CFDT leader Laurent Berger signed the joint unions’ statement to “bring France to a halt” on 7 March. But he is still hoping for a deal, and doesn’t want to rip up business as usual. “We are not in the logic of the indefinite strike, it is not a call for a general strike,” he said on 11 February.

He has praised the “dignified and respectful mobilisation” on the protests so far. Berger added last week, “We have to go up a notch, in numbers, and in local initiatives. But we will not fall into violence.”

He’s looking for “other forms of action” after 7 March, but that isn’t extended action. Instead, Berger gave the example of construction workers staying at work but crane operators striking.

Berger’s problem is that Macron has not reached out to him and most workers think some form of escalation is justified and necessary. This position lines up with the ethos of the British trade union leaders—although some of our lot are worse. And it will be equally ineffective. 

  • Everyone out on 7 March—and some stay out indefinitely: 

The CGT is the second biggest union federation, slightly smaller than the CFDT but with more extensive workplace implantation. It’s seen in the media as the militants, partly because of its historic links to the Communist Party. And it speaks far more to the left. 

It says, “If, despite everything, the government and the parliamentarians remain deaf to popular protest, the trade union organisations are calling, to harden the movement and to bring France to a halt in all sectors on 7 March.” But unlike the CFDT it pushes for all sectors to decide on the forms of renewal of the strikes from 7 March. 

CGT unions on the rail, sections of public transport, chemicals and refuse collection have put forward plans for indefinite action. Workers would meet each day to decide whether to continue. 

That’s good, but it reminds everyone of the “proxy strikes” that have failed repeatedly in the past.

“We’ve seen big mobilisations of a million or more before in previous years,” said Cedric. “And then they’re followed by some well-organised sections who stay out and fight on behalf of everyone else. But then these strikers are isolated, intimidated, sometimes repressed by the cops and eventually forced back to work because of money pressures. 

“It’s a gamble that this would work now. We all know the script and Macron knows what he has to do to see it off. Sit tight and, so long as there’s no surprises, allow the union leaders to keep the strikes limited.” 

The small Solidaires union federation says, “We propose to all workers, both private and public, to debate in general assemblies the possibility of renewing the strike from 7 March according to the methods specific to each sector, with inventiveness and determination.”

  • For a general strike without limits, and widen the demands: 

This is the position of most of the revolutionary left. Revolutionary activists have called for the strikes to continue after 7 March, and not just in a few sectors. Making that happen means talking about more than pensions. 

Very low-paid workers fear being sacked or are in poorly-organised areas. To involve them means raising the demand for wage rises—an extra 400 euros a month (£350) for everyone is one such demand. 

The NPA socialist party writes, “Recent history shows that the proxy strike does not work. To win, everyone will have to get involved, everywhere and at the same time! There aren’t ‘key’ sectors on one side and those who could simply support them on the other. 

“We have to mobilise all of the youth and the world of work if we want to win. And it is possible! We have to make all our demands flourish. Each claim, whether on wages, on employment, on the return of retirement at 60, has all the more chance of winning in the context of a global struggle against the government.”

This cannot be just a propaganda or abstract argument. It means creating networks from below, spreading them and generalising the resistance. 

The Revolution Permanente group has a fascinating interview with Adrien Cornet, a CGT member at the Total Grandpuits refinery. He talks about organisation at the base and how activists at the refinery are bringing together teachers, local public transport workers, rail workers, students and others. It’s so they can be pioneers for a wider strike after 7 March, whether union leaders call it or not.

He describes collections so that the lowest-paid will feel able to take part. It unites core workers and subcontractors, overcoming the fear of losing your job and making people aware of past experiences.

He says, “We try to tell those who have never followed a social movement that the present strategy leads us into the wall. We recall the experiences of 2010 and 2016, which were hard defeats, under the direction of these same leaders. 

“They must take note of these defeats and change their strategy. The history of the labour movement is paved with defeats. They should help us not to reproduce them again.”

  • Build the revolt, and make sure it’s anti-racist: 

Autonomie de Classe, which collaborates with the SWP in Britain, supports an indefinite general strike. But it stresses how this is also a chance to undermine the fascists and to hit back against racism. 

It writes, “With the possible renewable strikes from 8 March in sight, it is time to show political audacity and to anchor the anti-racist mobilisation in this movement! Because it is one and the same logic of racism, division and exploitation which links the anti-migrant Darmanin laws and the pension reform.

“It is up to us to expose this common logic but above all to build the links between the two mobilisations. The experiences of the last few weeks show us that our class in motion is receptive to new ideas, to anti-racist and feminist ideas, and that it is looking for the right strategy to win.”

  • Call out the strongest sections, and protest in the streets: 

The Frustration magazine website has some of the snappiest and thought-provoking material on what’s happening now. 

It rightly points out, “Union leaderships have their own agenda. And it does not involve the fall of the government or even of its disgusting reform. Pessimistic, but realistic hypothesis: these people are betting on a loss of momentum in the social movement. They secretly dream of it at night because the course of their mediocre little careers depends on the continuity of what exists.”

But it does not have faith in “massifying” the movement and the strikes because, it says, lots of people have very little impact on the economy. It says, “Our point of view is that it is sometimes better to have 100,000 very determined people, capable of blocking the economy.” It compares this to “10 million who are only given the prospect of going on folk marches and a day or two of strikes a month.”

It calls for “strikes by essential employees in key sectors, supported by contributions to the strike funds of workers in less crucial sectors”. And “concrete actions in the streets to block the economy, less predictable and less supervised events, occupations of strategic or highly symbolic places.”

Some of this would definitely be good. The lesson of the Yellow Vests is how militant street protests can throw the authorities on the defensive and break from the routinism of much of the union movement. But the point of strikes is to change working class people’s sense of themselves through the experience of struggle. That’s why “clever” strategies of pulling out “key sectors” don’t work when the stakes are high. 

The “radical” talk about not “massifying” ends up close to the CGT bureaucrats. Millions can, and need to be, involved in a process of social revolt. People are not pieces on a chessboard who can be allotted their roles by some movement from above. They all need to feel the emancipation of action. 

Everyone needs to learn from what is happening in France. We will all be part of a movement one day that is far bigger than now. And the lessons of building power from below will be as crucial as they are in France now. 


Read more: 

These are all in French, but Google translate means you can read them.

The revolutionary left:

A2C: www.autonomiedeclasse.org/ and https://www.facebook.com/A2C.autonomieclasse 

NPAhttps://lanticapitaliste.org/ 

Revolution Permanentewww.revolutionpermanente.fr/ 

Frustrationwww.frustrationmagazine.fr/ 

Nupeshttps://nupes-2022.fr/

The unionswww.cgt.fr/ and www.cfdt.fr/ and www.solidaires.org/ 

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