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The Social Struggle in France Is Here to Last

December 17 will see the biggest strikes yet against Emmanuel Macron’s assault on pensions. But with the neoliberal president well aware that this battle will define his presidency, defeating him will take more than single days of action.

Protestors demonstrate at Place de la République, chanting against President Macron, as thousands take to the streets on December 17, 2019 in Paris, France. Kiran Ridley / Getty

Just as the opponents of Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform planned, the actions on December 5 have kick-started the biggest wave of strikes and street mobilization France has seen in more than a decade. Over the last week and a half, railways across the country and public transport in Paris and its environs have remained at a standstill.

Although only these two sectors have gone on indefinite strike, other workers have also taken strike action in significant numbers for one day or more. Education, oil refinery, and energy workers have taken action just like firefighters, dockers, and health workers — on December 5, no less than 3,500 private-sector workplaces were affected by strikes or work stoppages.

Both on that first day of action and on December 10, hundreds of thousands took to the streets (1.5 million on the fifth and 800,000 on the tenth), displaying their strong will to fight. Students also joined the demonstrations, although the mobilization has been uneven and discontinuous across different campuses.

A majority of workers haven’t yet joined the strike movement, especially in the private sector. But a solid majority of public opinion (54 percent to 68 percent, according to opinion polls) does support the strike. Notwithstanding the difficulties entailed by the lack of public transport and the hostility coming from the media, popular support for the movement is still on the rise. But the crucial issue for the days ahead is whether this supportive sentiment can take an active form.

The Government in Trouble

The government’s initial plan was to isolate the strike in the transport sector alone. The idea was to render it unpopular by presenting it as a fight in defense of “corporatist privileges” while talking as little as possible about the actual content of the pension reform. Yet that plan clearly failed — and the government was forced into maneuvers.

One aspect of its approach was simply repressive, as it sent the police to break the picket lines in many bus depots and in the ports. But on December 11, prime minister Édouard Philippe was also sent out to provide a more detailed version of the planned pension reform. While his speech was mellow in tone, the content of the reform was in fact even harsher than expected.

Philippe confirmed that the existing system would be replaced by an allegedly “universal” points-based one, comparable to the Swedish and Italian model, with the consequence that all existing sectoral pension schemes (like those of railway and public transport workers) would be abolished. This change would mean that the current defined benefit pension scheme, based on a redistributive principle among all those who contribute, would be replaced by one depending on individualized contributions. The pension level currently calculated on the average of the twenty-five best years of a career would instead correspond to the average across their entire active period. This would automatically bring down pensions, especially for all those who have been through periods of unemployment and precarious work. Philippe insisted that such a change was non-negotiable.

But he went even further: for although formally the legal retirement age would remain unchanged at sixty-two, to get a full pension, you will now have to work two extra years. He also offered convoluted statements trying to present the reform as advantageous for most categories, particularly for women. Yet undermining his own claim that the new scheme is “universal,” he was also keen to reassure the military and the police that little, if anything, will change for their pensions.

The least that can be said is that Philippe failed to persuade France of the merits of the reform. According to opinion polls, 61 percent of those who saw his intervention found it unconvincing. Even worse, by announcing a two-year extension of the age threshold for a full pension, the government lost its sole lenient interlocutor in the trade-union movement, the “moderate” French Democratic Confederation of Labor (CFDT) that supports the principle of a points-system-based pension reform.

Commenting on Philippe’s announcements, CFDT secretary general Laurent Berger declared that “a red line [had] been crossed” and called for the CFDT to join the day of mobilization for December 17. In other words, Macron and Philippe succeeded in reestablishing the unity of the notoriously fragmented French trade-union movement. Berger did quickly express his good intentions in reaching a compromise and stressed his opposition to rolling strikes like those currently affecting the railways and public transport. Yet he repeated that he wouldn’t accept anything less than the withdrawal of the two-year extension of the age retirement for a full pension.

The bad news for Macron didn’t stop there. An avalanche of media reports revealed that Jean-Paul Delevoye — the minister in charge of the pension reform — had “forgotten” to declare in his statement of interest that he is involved with the think tanks and boards of some eight companies. Many of these latter are direct beneficiaries of the proposed reform, for instance the training institute of the confederation of insurance companies or the national railway company’s foundation. As a consequence, on December 16, Delevoye — a key figure in government policy-making and the entire setup of Macron’s La République En Marche! party — was forced to resign. He thus delivered a serious blow to the French president at the most difficult moment of his term in office.

Organizing the Struggle

The battle is set to continue and even intensify in coming days. Indeed, the trade-union confederations that have initiated the movement — the General Confederation of Labour (CGT), Solidaires Unitaires Démocratiques (SUD), and the teachers’ union, FSU — have called for a one-day, cross-sectoral strike and for mass demonstrations on December 17. With the CFDT joining in, it looks likely that the numbers will be even bigger than on December 5. But significant concessions cannot likely be expected from the government so long as the strike remains limited to the railways and public transport networks in Paris, and only occasionally supported by single days of action at a more generalized level.

In this sense, the key factor for escalating the action lies in the self-organization of the struggle at the grassroots. Many positive experiences have been developing since December 5: daily assemblies at workplaces are held in most sectors on strike and local coordination has brought together the actions in various sectors. Notably, students and teachers have joined picket lines in ports and in the transport sector, while railway workers have come to schools or campuses in order to steer action. In some places, strike committees have been constituted. The Yellow Vests movement has undoubtedly helped in breaking with previous union routine and bringing a more combative style of action. But all this remains uncoordinated and lacks visibility for the general public. More is needed for “the strike to pass into the hands of the strikers” as the general assemblies demand.

On the positive side, the union leadership has turned down the government’s offer to negotiate minor modifications of the reform or to call for a “Christmas truce.” But it has so far failed to put forward a strategy allowing the strike to expand to other sectors and to encourage organization at a grassroots level. To escalate action, union leaders seem to be relying solely on initiatives taken by the few remaining strongholds like dockers or the workers in oil refineries.

The Missing Alternative

The weakness of the political left is also acutely felt here. Everyone appears supportive of the strike, even former president François Hollande’s Socialist Party. But the only concrete initiative has been a rather modest rally called by the Communist Party on December 11, which succeeded in bringing everyone, from Socialists and Greens to the far left, to sit on the same platform. Yet the sole shared message was opposition to Macron’s reform, without any agreement on alternative solutions.

The Left’s weakness has opened up a space for the demagogy of the far right. In line with her previous embrace of the Yellow Vests, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Rally (formerly National Front), has declared her support for the ongoing mobilization.

This is, in fact, the first time that the far right has given its backing to a strike movement. Of course, Le Pen made it clear that this doesn’t mean support for trade-union action or even for an indefinite strike. But some second-line cadres of her party did join the demonstrations of December 5, or at least tried to do so. This is a further confirmation of the far right’s efforts to try to capture popular anger, by any available means. Indeed, this risk needs to be taken seriously by the political left and the trade-union movement.

Everyone engaged in the battle understands that the stakes are very high, for both sides. Macron is aware that, in the battles to come, his position as the leader of the neoliberal bloc is at stake. And it’s clear to all those continuing to strike and take to the streets that they can’t afford another defeat, if the current race into the abyss is to be stopped. It’s now up to mobilization from below to decide the outcome of the movement — and whether it can win.