By FLORENCE OPPEN
On Tuesday, March 28, the eleventh day of demonstrations took place in France, where protestors not only called for the withdrawal of pension reform but also voiced the demands of different social sectors hit by the crisis and the plans of the Macron government.
An estimated 750,000 people took to the streets on this workday, with rallies in more than 80 locations across the country and in the midst of key ongoing strikes, such as those of the oil workers and sanitation workers.
An explosive and historic mass mobilization
France is experiencing a new wave of mobilizations following the struggle against pension reform, which many are already comparing with the struggle against the CPE in 2006 that toppled the Villepin government under the presidency of Chirac, or even with May ’68. Initially, these mobilizations led by the inter-union (CGT, CFDT, FO, SUD, CFTC) brought millions of people onto the streets. On the first day of struggle, on Jan. 19, between 1 million and 2 million demonstrators came out, and on the second day, Jan. 31, there were between 1.3 million and 2.8 million. The marches—scheduled on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and sometimes on Saturdays—continued during February and early March but were spread out into single days of action. At the same time, the lack of planning in building toward an open-ended general strike led to a small drop in participation, although the strikes remained strong and significant.
However, the mobilization was magnified and radicalized as of Friday, March 17, following the use of Article 49.3 of the Constitution, which allows a law to be implemented without going through a parliamentary vote. The Macron government has already been ruling by means of 49.3 in an increasingly authoritarian manner. The Elisabeth Borne government was two or three votes short of passing the reform in parliament with a majority; the reform’s imposition by decree was the straw that broke the camel’s back and transformed a growing social struggle into a political struggle against the Macron government for its top-down and authoritarian methods of governance.
In response to the use of 49.3, there were spontaneous protests in dozens of French cities that same night, and during the following weekend, the inter-union called for local actions to channel the anger. These demonstrations ended many times in fierce clashes with the police and with attacks on mayoral buildings and the offices of the deputies of Macron’s coalition LREM.
On Monday, March 20, a motion of censure supported by almost all the opposition groups against the government of Elisabeth Borne failed by nine votes. On Thursday, March 23, a day of demonstrations took place, which joined forces with direct actions by the masses. This made for an important milestone in the struggle, with 3.5 million in the streets, according to the unions. There were road blockades, the disruption of Charles de Gaulle airport for hours as well as dozens of railway stations, and reinforced blockades of the refineries and other logistical centers, etc. On March 23, it became clear that the trade-union leaderships are no longer able to channel the whole process of struggle, and that the self-organization of rank-and-file workers and youth is advancing with unevenness and contradictions. The latter seems determined to enter the scene, and its role is fundamental in achieving not only the withdrawal or non-application of the reform by Borne, but also a deeper change in the country. Many young people say, “If we don’t change things today, they will never change.”
The causes behind the social explosion
The Borne government’s reform aims, among other things, to push back the retirement age from 62 to 64 and to lengthen the minimum contribution period. The government’s narrative is that the French “must work more” to compensate for the indebtedness of the state during the COVID crisis and to cover the structural deficit of the pension system, which is 1.8 billion euros this year and will be 13 billion in 2030.
Obviously, Borne and Macron have dodged the key facts that delegitimize the need for reform, and make clear that their government’s true priority is the interests of the large French multinationals. Macron’s first measure, for example, was to eliminate the ISF, the tax on large fortunes that was estimated to bring the state around €3 billion annually. Moreover, the main French business groups listed on the CAC 40 had another year of record profits, with 142 billion euros in 2022 (156 billion in 2021).
Recall also that in December the government voted on an astronomical increase in military spending, which will be 430 billion euros for the period 2022-2030. There is plenty of money to not only meet French workers’ needs but improve their living conditions. What is lacking is a government of the workers that puts the economy at their service and under their control.
For the time being, what the government has caused, despite its best efforts, is the unity and cooperation of all the trade-union centers, including the CFDT and the CFTC, which usually make agreements with the government and oppose strikes. Faced with the government’s refusal to negotiate the reform with the inter-union, and imposing it by force instead, the union leaderships were compelled by their rank and file to call for demonstrations in opposition to it. Nevertheless, the current mobilizations are uniting the working class’s present and growing grievances, starting with the galloping inflation, which was 6.3% on average in February 2023, and at the exorbitant rates of 16% for staple products and 14% for energy.
Macron, the pyromaniac firefighter
Macron is increasingly seen as the bankers’ president, as elitist and disconnected from reality, a man who is determined to impose his counter-reforms regardless of having lost popular support. His television interview on March 22, supposedly aimed at calming tempers and defusing the spirit of protest, had the opposite effect. On the one hand, there was the content of his speech, which was harsh and inflammatory. He put forward no window to negotiate anything about the pension reform that was already legally approved and which is, according to him, legitimate; lies about the role of the unions, which according to him never made counter-proposals (something that was immediately denied by them); differentiation between the “people” who vote and have political legitimacy and the “masses” who demonstrate and take direct action, comparing the latter with the far-right sectors that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
On the other hand, there was the event most talked about on the networks: While Macron was defending his social policy in front of those who earn the minimum wage, he hid his hands under the table to take off his luxury watch, valued at more than $2000, thinking that no one would notice.
Obviously, the president’s hand-hiding gesture in the interview was more explicit than his speech, and he indirectly expressed what he thinks of the citizens, or rather of his subjects: that they are a bunch of imbeciles whom he can manipulate with his ambiguous rhetoric, with his populist use of the networks, and with his lies (such as the one where he said the new reform would give a minimum pension of 1200 euros a month—which it was later discovered that only between 10,000 and 20,000 retirees collected). These are all maneuvers and deceit to hide an exercise of authoritarian, almost monarchical power, in favor of French capitalism. Today only 28% of the French have a good opinion of their president, and it is not for nothing that portraits and associations of him with Louis XVI, the king executed by the French Revolution, proliferate at the marches.
The return of the old methods of repression
While the Borne government had some restraint in the use of police during the first anti-reform demonstrations organized by the unions, everything changed on Thursday, March 16. As early as 2019 following the Yellow Vests protests, Macron resurrected one of the most violent, dangerous, and hated police brigades in France, the “voltigeurs” motorized police. This light force, comprised of two policemen on a motorcycle—one drives and the other beats up demonstrators—was created in 1969, after May ’68, to break up the columns of youth demonstrations and chase young people through the backstreets. It was disbanded in 1986 after the death of the student Malik Oussekine, which generated a wave of emotion in the country with marches gathering thousands of students, teachers, and parents from France and Europe.
In its new version, renamed BRAV-M, it has returned to wreak havoc. There are already several reports of serious injuries caused by the BRAV-M in recent days, and a recording of one of its brigades that was made public by the media has generated a huge scandal. In it the policemen boasted of “having broken many elbows and faces” in the march, and they were heard not only assaulting a detainee but also jokingly threatening him that they could go by ambulance to the hospital instead of going to the police station, or that they were willing to sleep with him at his house.
There is already a public petition to disband this brigade, but the problem is not only the BRAV-M. The national police, the CRS (riot police), and the gendarmerie deployed in cities and rural areas are increasingly violent. In Nantes, complaints are being filed against the police for sexual assaults and rapes of demonstrators in the context of last week’s mobilizations. Recently, a CRS commander claimed “to be afraid that one of his men will end up killing a demonstrator.”
The National Consultative Commission for Human Rights and Amnesty International have recently warned that they are very concerned about the actions of the police forces since March 16, as they have been carrying out summary and arbitrary arrests, repressing in a very violent manner, and using the “kettling” technique to round up and immobilize groups of demonstrators, effectively obstructing the right to demonstrate and putting their safety at risk.
The workers’ struggle intensifies
In the midst of these mass mobilizations, the workers’ struggle has intensified. The key sectors on strike are the oil workers in the refineries, particularly in Normandy, and the sanitation workers in Paris, in addition to the SNCF railroad workers and the employees of the electricity and gas companies. Today 16% of the gas stations in France and 30% of those in Paris have supply problems, and the situation may get worse.
Borne sent police to break up the picket lines, and workers were ordered to try to reopen the refineries. While they managed to partially break the strike at the Gonfreville l’Orcher refinery, they have been unable so far to break the main stronghold at Donges near Nantes. At Gonfreville l’Orcher, the vanguard effectively and impressively mobilized solidarity with the strikers, bringing in hundreds of militants from all over the country to reinforce the picket lines, thus defeating the forces of order with the support of the longshoremen of Le Havre port. A similar situation occurred at the garbage incinerators in the Paris region, where workers are also on strike, and where the pickets attracted more than 1000 activists at the Ivry incinerator and succeeded in maintaining the strike.
Little by little the self-organization by rank-and-file workers is advancing in order to make the existing strikes effective and maintain them under their control. They are also beginning to discuss how to spread the strike to more sectors. The main problem is that the union leaderships do not want to organize the strike in conjunction with the rank and file, but rather have sought to minimize the growing chaos generated by these prolonged conflicts in strategic sectors. Faced with this attitude, there are sectors that are beginning to declare themselves on “wildcat strike,” without bothering to follow the legal framework for declaring it, as is the case of SNCF technicenter rail workers of Châtillon, who have inspired another rail center in Lyon.
Challenges to organizing the struggle for a revolutionary solution
What is at stake today in France is no longer simply the withdrawal of the reform, but also the raising of wages, the defense of the democratic rights to demonstrate and strike, the end of police repression, and above all the ousting of the Macron government, which has been plunged into a major political crisis. Indeed, one of the slogans most chanted by workers and youth is: “Grève, Blocage, Macron dégage!” (Strike, Blockade, Macron get out!). But struggle alone, without organization and leadership, however massive it may be in the streets, is not going to achieve that result. And Borne and Macron are betting precisely on the attrition and exhaustion of the working class in struggle. That is why it is essential to support and develop the emerging processes of self-organization, reinforce the workers’ movement strikes, particularly those in the industrial sector, and organize youth participation.
Since the beginning of the movement, there have been vanguard groups, left-wing militants, and independents with greater class consciousness who have been determined from the beginning to fight. They have managed to mobilize some sectors and have met in the streets and on strikes with the hundreds of thousands who reject the reform since the unions called on their rank and file to fight. Now it is more necessary than ever that these organized and more politicized sectors play a vanguard role in relation to the proletarian bases and the youth who seek a real solution to the crisis. They must work to organize the struggle from below with workers’ democracy, privilege mass direct action over ultra-left vanguard actions, and raise solidarity and build unity across struggles, including those of the oppressed sectors and the fight against the climate and ecological catastrophe.
At the present juncture, it is necessary to demand that the trade-union leaderships call for a real and viable general strike and put an end to the plan for separate strike days without a plan to escalate the conflict, since this causes the loss of wages without increasing the strength of the strike movement and demoralizes the workers. These leaders continue to have real weight in the workers’ consciousness and still have the capacity to call for a general strike. Given their role and responsibility, they cannot and should not be ignored. It is also necessary that the different sectors in struggle advance in the coordination of their actions by electing delegates to meet in national strike committees and promoting a real plan of struggle.
Given the brutal police repression aimed at demobilization, a key item on the agenda is the necessary organization of self-defense for demonstrators and strikers that would guarantee the participation of the grassroots sectors and the security of actions and marches. This could be brought about by the formation of “security forces,” democratically discussed and elected by the rank and file, with concrete plans to respond to provocations and defend themselves from police attacks, as well as the organization of first aid teams.
It is also necessary to carry out a public campaign against repression and in defense of the social and political rights of the working class that the government wants to eliminate. The campaign should demand the dissolution of the BRAV-M, the punishment of the cops responsible for the injuries, an end to the use of “kettling” at the marches, and the sending of police to the picket lines.
To succeed in these tasks, it is necessary to forge in the heat of the struggle, a political organization capable of bringing together the accumulated historical experience of the working class, as well as real capacity and experience participating in struggles, in order to take decisive steps to resolve the crisis of revolutionary leadership evident in this process. The LIT-CI in France and in Europe is at the service of this project today.
Translation by: John Joseph
Photo: Students have declared an occupation of the College of Human Sciences building at the University of Bordeaux. (The New York Times)