Almost two months into the movement against Macron’s pension reform, the French masses have yet again proved their determination to fight. On Tuesday 7 March, around 3.5 million people were on the streets at 300 rallies across the country, according to the unions. This is the sixth day of action since 19 January, and brought record numbers on the streets.
While Macron appears to show utter indifference to the movement, drinking beers in Congolese nightclubs during the day of action, his government is trying, in vain, to divert the attention of the masses.
Government spokesperson Olivier Véran claimed that “we have other emergencies to deal with”, referring to climate change, inflation, and the impending intensification of the economic crisis. Of course, these are all products of the rotten, crisis-ridden capitalist system Macron represents.
The French workers and youth were totally unaffected by this pathetic attempt to demagogically play down the pensions dispute. If anything, the stinking hypocrisy only increases their anger.
The ruling class was hoping for the movement to fade, but it is actually growing, albeit incrementally for now. We would add, this is despite the best efforts of the trade union bureaucrats at the head of the struggle to divert it to blind alleys and exhaust it.
In Reims, there were 7,500 demonstrators on Tuesday, considerably more than during the first day of action on 31 January (when there were 6,000).
Record turnouts were also witnessed in Nantes (30,000), Caen (24,000), Angers (17,000), Rodez (14,500), Niort (8,000), Bayonne (13,000), Pau (15,500), Chalon-sur-Saône (9,000), Chambéry (8,500), Besançon (11,000), Blois (11,000), Narbonne (6,500), and countless other cities and towns.
In some small towns, these demonstrators represented up to a third of the population. In larger cities, the momentum has also kept building. According to the trade union confederation CGT, 250,000 people demonstrated in the streets of Marseille alone, and 700,000 in Paris.
Part of the reason for the strength of these mobilisations has been the unusual unity of the different trade unions, which reflects the pressure on their leaderships from below.
All the trade unions, including the CGT and the more-conservative CFDT, called for a national strike on Tuesday. They mobilised thousands of workers across a whole variety of sectors.
All seven oil refineries in France were shut down. Almost two-thirds of primary school teachers were on strike, along with one-quarter of civil servants. France’s national railway cancelled three-quarters of scheduled trains, while airlines cancelled about one-third of their scheduled flights.
“It’s one of the biggest strikes and impacts on the energy sector we’ve seen,” commented Kepler analyst Emeric de Viganand. Indeed, 50 percent of workers in the energy company EDF were out on strike on Tuesday.
The anger of the masses is escalating, and many workers are going beyond the general demand to withdraw Macron’s reactionary attack on pensions. They are directing their fury at his capitalist government of the rich. As one municipal worker and CGT activist in Paris commented:
“We are not just out for our pensions, we are out because we are fed up. They are sitting on a golden armchair, and we are sitting on a trash can.”
Indeed, in a number of workplaces over the last month, the movement has triggered strikes demanding higher pay rises, in the context of high inflation. This radicalisation has also seen newer sections of the working class joining the struggle.
In the last month, the CGT has taken in 12,000 new members. Similar numbers have also joined the CFDT.
The deep crisis of French capitalism is clearly having an impact on the consciousness of the workers. New layers are moving towards the trade unions as the most basic instrument to defend their wages, conditions and living standards, albeit in relatively small numbers for the time being.
We have seen a similar phenomenon occurring all over the world, with a certain renewal of the industrial struggle in Germany, Britain, the USA and elsewhere. It is only the conservatism of the union tops that limits this revival.
In France, for years, the trade union struggle has been led by workers in the public sector. But if the unions extended their demands to match the fighting mood in society, the movement could inspire confidence in wider layers of society, and spread rapidly to the private sector.
For unlimited strike action
Many workers and youth understand that yet another “day of action” will not be enough to bring the government down. They have heard this song before and know how it ends: with exhaustion, demoralisation and defeat.
Some sections of the working class are drawing more radical conclusions about the fighting strategy needed to defeat Macron. In particular, the CGT federations representing workers in the petrochemical sector; on the railways; the energy sector; glass and ceramics; and on the ports and docks; already called for unlimited strikes before Tuesday’s day of action.
We have started to see some manifestations in action. For instance, the SNCF, the national railway company, will run a limited service until the end of the week.
Similarly, not a drop of oil will leave the refineries in that time period. Despite the government claiming that the fuel supply was under control at petrol stations, there have been some shortages.
Electricity production has been severely reduced, and liquid natural gas distribution is at a standstill across the country.
At the time of writing, in the ports of La Rochelle, Le Havre, Rouen, and Marseille, 100 percent of workers are on strike, aiming for “dead ports”.
Airports also remain affected: between 20-30 percent of flights will be cancelled today and tomorrow due to pilots and air traffic controllers striking.
In Paris and Montpellier, a significant number of binmen started an indefinite strike, causing various waste collection sites to be suspended.
However, the failure of the national trade union leaders to coordinate these indefinite strikes, and make them part of a general call for unlimited action, means that these sectors risk being left isolated.
Despite the growing support for the movement, this divided, haphazard escalation by frustrated, more-radical layers of the unions will lead to defeats and false starts, which will ultimately have a demobilising effect on the struggle as a whole. This means the struggle will fade, as we have seen many times over the past 15 years.
Rather than build on the efforts of those sectors on indefinite strike, and extending the movement, the unions have called yet another two isolated days of action on 11 and 15 March, while pleading for a spot at the negotiating table with Macron’s government.
This is the same bankrupt strategy we have seen countless times: treating the mass movement of the working class as a tap that can be turned off and on at will, to pressure the ruling class into discussion behind the scenes.
One thing the union bureaucrats are extremely wary of is the strike movement ‘getting out of hand’, i.e. transforming into an all-out general strike, outside of their control.
At the same time, Jean Luc Melenchon, the leader of the left wing movement La France Insoumise and the NUPES opposition bloc in parliament, is calling for either a public referendum on the pensions bill, or a dissolution of parliament to “break the deadlock”.
What this represents in reality is an attempt to steer the struggle against the pension reform and Macron’s administration into the safe channels of officialdom, rather than developing an escalating strategy of class struggle to bring Macron down.
Up to this point, the youth and the student movement have remained on the sidelines, despite some school blockades, such as in the Paris high school Racine, as well as university occupations in Paris, Toulouse, and Rennes.
But Tuesday’s demonstration and the 8 March mobilisation for International Working Women’s Day saw a significant increase in the number of youth and student organisations out on the streets.
The potential for an all-out struggle, uniting students and striking workers, is huge. But for this potential to manifest in action, the movement needs to widen its appeal by targeting the concrete problems facing young students and workers.
This means demands over pay, against privatisations, for properly funded public services, against reactionary changes to university admissions, and so on. Above all, the movement must present the explicit political objective of bringing down the hated Macron government.
The strike movement has massive support, which shows the depth of rage in French society. 70 percent percent of the population oppose Macron’s counter-reform to pensions, while 56 percent support the unions’ move to rolling strikes.
However, instead of driving the movement forward, the reformist leaders in the unions and in parliament are confining the struggle to parliamentary procedures and calls for negotiations with Macron. This could prove fatal.
But despite their best efforts, it is possible that the example set by the vanguard of the workers’ struggle will electrify the situation, and give more and more sectors confidence to declare unlimited action.
The next few days will tell whether new sectors join the rolling strikes. Despite the conservative strategy of the leadership, it is possible that indefinite strikes will emerge in a series of workplaces.
One thing is clear: the old methods have been tested to destruction, time and again. There are still remarkable reserves of fighting spirit amongst the French masses, but the movement must advance, or be driven to defeat.