The mobilisation against the pension reform in France is entering a decisive phase. All the days of action since 19 January have confirmed the extent of the opposition to the Macron government’s planned attacks on pensions and, beyond that, its entire policy. But as we anticipated, these 24-hour mobilisations in and of themselves could not make Macron back down on the heart of his offensive: the postponement of the retirement age, the increase in the length of the contribution period, and the abolition of special regimes for certain sectors of the workforce. From now on, all eyes are on a new stage of the struggle, starting on 7 March.
In a 21 February joint press release, all the unions involved in the struggle “reaffirm their determination to bring France to a standstill on 7 March”. It further specified that: “7 March must be absolutely dead in companies, administrations, services, shops, schools, places of study, transport…” etc.
While signing this call to “bring France to a standstill”, French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT) leader Laurent Berger has also thrown a bucket of cold water on the movement. “This is not a call for a general strike,” he explained, without specifying how it would be possible to bring France to a “standstill” without a general strike. This man is afraid of his own shadow and fears nothing more than the success of this struggle.
Nevertheless, the tone of the inter-union communiqué – which is more combative than previous ones – reflects the pressure from below on the leaders of the trade union organisations. That said, even a solid 24-hour general strike would not make the government back down. This is why five national General Confederation of Labour (CGT) federations (Chemicals, Railways, Energy, Glass and Ceramics, Ports and Docks) are calling on workers in their respective sectors – and beyond that, on all workers in the country – to engage in indefinite strike action from 7 March.
A joint press release from these five CGT federations explains: “From 7 March, the workers of our five national federations will be in indefinite struggle. This coordination must give confidence to the workers, and cause a shift in the balance of power in all sectors, public and private.” The same communiqué states: “victory will be achieved through methodical and coordination of indefinite strikes in workplaces across different economic sectors.” This is absolutely correct.
Beyond these five CGT Federations, the organisation of indefinite strikes is being discussed in the whole of the left and the trade union movement. Large sections of the youth and the workforce understand that the struggle that started on 19 January is now at a crossroads: either a powerful movement of indefinite strike action must develop from 7 March, or the government will be in a position to win. In other words, they understand that the 7 March mobilisation must be the starting point of a new phase of the struggle, and not just a sixth 24-hour mobilisation. And it is precisely this perspective that could, in turn, lead to the success of 7 March.
The potential of the struggle
An important fact to highlight is that, in a number of workplaces, the recent days of action have been used as the basis for indefinite strikes to demand higher pay rises than those (well below inflation) that were “proposed” by the bosses in the framework of the Annual Mandatory Negotiations.
This link between the struggle against pension reform and the struggle for wage increases is very significant. If the current movement rises to the level required to win, it will necessarily and spontaneously bring out a whole series of demands, far beyond the single – defensive – demand to withdraw the pension bill.
If a growing number of sectors engage in a movement of indefinite strikes, workers will take advantage of this new balance of power to go on the offensive on various issues: wages, working conditions, employment, public services, unemployment benefits, etc. Better still: carried by the power of their own movement, youth and workers will want to settle the score with the government itself. In other words, to overthrow it and replace it with a government representing their interests, and no longer those of a minority of rich parasites.
At the time of writing, this prospect is only a possibility. But it is not an abstract possibility disconnected from reality, given that there is a huge amount of accumulated anger in the depths of French society.
In this context, the leaders of the left and of the trade union movement should try to link the struggle against pension reform to a generalised – and more militant – struggle against the whole of the government’s policy, against this government itself and for genuinely progressive measures to be put into place. Unfortunately, they do nothing of the sort. By focusing the struggle on the government’s bill alone, they are hindering its potential. This, however, will not necessarily prevent this potential from being realised, as the conservatism of the leadership is only a relative obstacle to the development of a powerful movement of indefinite strikes. We should not forget that in June 1936 and May 1968, indefinite general strikes took the leaders of the left and the labour movement by surprise.
Instead of opening up broader perspectives than just the withdrawal of the pension ‘reform’, the leaders of France Insoumise and NUPES (the left-wing bloc of opposition parties) align themselves with the erroneous strategy and programme of the leaders of the unions. Aside from this, they are engaged in rather pathetic parliamentary agitation.
The overwhelming majority of the people are not interested in the continuous storm in a teacup in the National Assembly, and in particular in the lively debates of the NUPES about what “tactics” to adopt with regard to article seven of the bill (on changing the retirement age): should it be voted on, or not? Mélenchon thinks not. Roussel, of the French Communist Party, thought so. Martinez (CGT) thinks like Roussel, while asking Mélenchon not to meddle with trade unionism – and so on, to the great delight of the bourgeois media, which makes a point of widely relaying such hollow polemics.
Faced with this squabbling within NUPES, one thinks of the biting irony of Friedrich Engels when he denounced “parliamentary cretinism” as:
“a disorder which penetrates its unfortunate victims with the solemn conviction that the whole world, its history and future, are governed and determined by a majority of votes in that particular representative body which has the honour to count them among its members, and that all and everything going on outside the walls of their house—wars, revolutions, railway-constructing, colonising of whole new continents, California gold discoveries, Central American canals, Russian armies, and whatever else may have some little claim to influence upon the destinies of mankind—is nothing compared with the incommensurable events hinging upon the important question, whatever it may be, just at that moment occupying the attention of their honourable house.”
(Article written for the New York Tribune, July 1852)
Let us give a concrete example. On 9 February 2006, the National Assembly adopted the First Employment Contract, which was a violent offensive against youth and all workers. Two months later, the trade union leadership lost control of the massive opposition that provoked, with spontaneous strikes erupting in a growing number of workplaces. This forced President Jacques Chirac to throw his freshly-passed law into the dustbin of history.
Whether it is passed or not, the current bill will suffer the same fate if a powerful movement of indefinite strike action develops in the country in the coming weeks. The centre of this struggle is not in parliament. It is in the streets, the workplaces, the universities and the high schools. If the leaders of the NUPES want to contribute to the victory of our side, they must throw all their forces into this battle and bring out its true perspective, that of a struggle to end the Macron government and the crisis-ridden capitalist system.