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Workers in France have organised to beat Macron

Union leaders have been slow to escalate action as the political crisis grows, but workers have met and organised themselves to extend their strikes, says Charlie Kimber
Issue 2847
Demonstration against the pension reform on 15 March in Paris

Demonstration against the pension reform on 15 March in Paris (Picture: Force Ouvrière)

French president Emmanuel Macron last week rammed his assault on pensions through parliament without a vote. He didn’t have enough MPs’ votes to guarantee it would pass through the equivalent of the House of ­Commons.

This trampling on democracy, using article 49.3 of the French ­constitution, set off a massive wave of resistance. But it was also a challenge to workers’ organisation. Union ­leaders delayed immediate ­walkouts, but rank and file activists took action.

The examples below are just a flavour of a process that involves big numbers of workers organising from the base. In some places it’s given ­encouragement by local and regional union reps. In others it is new activists who emerge.

As soon as the news came of the 49.3 move, night shift ­strikers at the Normandy refinery who have been out since 7 March, voted for a complete shutdown. It’s the largest refinery in France. “It was quite a close vote, because workers don’t want to feel they are the only ones taking action,” Raphael told Socialist Worker.

“We discuss what’s possible and what made the difference was that this was a smack in the mouth, a real contempt for ordinary people in France. If it was pensions it would be bad enough, but it’s now much bigger. People feel we have this chance to take on the one at the top, those who don’t live like us. 

“In a mass meeting there are those who talk about details and those who put a big picture. Both matter. I watch people’s faces. They need to be moved by the sense of being part of a class, and they also need to know how they will pay for their shopping basket.”

At the Petroineos de Lavera refinery, near Marseille, the CGT union rep Sebastien Varagnol said, “Fuel shipments have stopped, and we are preparing for the total ­shutdown of the installation from late on Monday.” In Paris, Lyon and Toulouse, mass meetings of railway workers voted on Friday for indefinite strikes.

As the Paris refuse workers’ strike continued last weekend, Nantes bin workers also met and decided 49.3 was the final straw and to continue their strike into this week. In Saint-Brieuc bin workers voted almost unanimously to strike for the whole of this week.

While the national coordination of education unions called only for a strike “where possible”, some unions were pushed from below to call action during important exams this week. 

Now many more workers were ­meeting to decide their response to the results of the votes on the no‑­confidence motions against Macron’s government. Millions of workers across France were set to join the ­official call for strikes on Thursday this week. But many were also pushing for all out and indefinite strikes.

How we power workers are fighting

The lifeblood of our dispute is mass meetings. That’s how we keep the action going, get new ideas from people and deal with the financial problems and the work problems that people have.

You can’t run a strike like this without meetings. It’s not just a circular from head office that’s required. 

It’s real when someone says they can’t go on because there’s no money. So then we organise collections among other workers. We reach out to students and teachers to get us money to battle on. But also you have to stop just being content with funding what we have. It has to get bigger, and quickly.

This is what we talk about. On Tuesday this week we decided on a day of what we call “energy sobriety”—targeted power cuts.

We learn from others. In Toulon, for example, cuts targeted military bases, the council, big firms. We discussed it among the strikers, and that’s not just people who are union members, it has to go wider.

All of us want to hit the bosses and the local administration, but also show we are in charge. We can decide how the electricity is routed. We’re not just putting everyone in darkness which hits people like us and might take out a hospital.

The guys from the hydroelectric dams tell us, they could put the whole network down, they know how to do it. But that’s not what we want.

Mylan, a power worker, Bouches-du-Rhone  

Students build solidarity   

We had a big student coordination last weekend. It brought together activists from  31 universities—not just Paris but Caen, Lille, Rouen, Nantes, and others.

We decided to call for full and united support from the youth for demonstrations, blockades, strikes from Monday this week and pushing for strikes everywhere. On Tuesday we decided to reach-out to workers and hold mass meetings of students.

I have never known anything like the feeling now. Older people say the same thing to me. It is exciting to be in the struggle. I have been to the refuse workers’ pickets in Paris. It’s very hot against the police. 

I have spoken from the students to the workers, but I know only they can decide what to do. The student meeting last weekend was not just about pensions.

It’s also about police violence and repression, racism, sexism, and the feeling we have no future. When Macron did the undemocratic 49.3 move, it pushed people from being cynical to wanting to get on the streets.

Jade, a student in Paris

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