Demonstrations across France on Tuesday were even bigger than the massive turnout on the previous day of strikes and protests on 19 January. The rage against the government’s attacks on pensions is growing.
“It’s really amazing,” teacher Marcel told Socialist Worker from the Paris march. “Nearly every striker came from my school, twice as many as last time, and there are students here as well. It feels like we can win if we keep this going.”
In the city of Marseille unions said 200,000 were on the streets compared to 140,000 on the first day of action.
The CGT education union tweeted, “The numbers are through the roof! More people on the street in Toulouse, Marseille, Laval, Rennes…We will win and roll back this government.” Around 16,000 marched in Tarbes, twice as many as last time. In Nantes it was 65,000 this time compared to 50,000 on 19 January.
It wasn’t just in the big cities. Many smaller towns saw record numbers taking part. “It’s simple, it’s the biggest demonstration in the history of Abbeville, 3,500 on the streets in a place of 22,000 inhabitants,” said one local reporter.
“10,000 people are demonstrating in Morlaix. It’s 4,000 more than ten days ago and unheard of in the city,” said a regional newspaper.
As well as over 200 demonstrations, huge numbers joined the strikes. Rail services were hit hard as were schools and local transport networks.
In the oil refineries over 90 percent of workers walked out at the la Mède site, 90 percent at Donges and Esso/Exxon Fos sur Mer and 70 percent at Feyzin.
There were reports of a big strike response in the private sector. CFDT union federation leader Laurent Berger said, “There are big mobilisations in many sectors, such as metallurgy, construction and public works, in personal service professions, health and social work. These workers know that working two years more is very difficult.”
And there were glimpses of an insurgent mood uniting workers and students. Strikers from the Lagny depot of the Paris public transport system went to reinforce the blockade of the Helene Boucher high school. Cops then attacked both students and workers.
The high school student union La Voix Lycéenne said students had blockaded up to 300 high schools and that it was a “more important day than 19 January”. “Young people are at the heart of the movement,” it wrote in a press release.
The Paris demonstration ended outside the National Assembly where parliamentary commissions are starting to discuss the draft law. Opposition parties have submitted more than 7,000 amendments to slow its path through parliament.
President Emmanuel Macron’s party, short of an absolute majority in parliament, will need votes from the conservatives to force through the pension assaults.
The government has the option of forcing the bill through without a vote under special constitutional powers. But that risks triggering a vote of no confidence, and possibly new parliamentary elections.
Just as in Britain, there is a big debate over where the movement goes. Some union leaders say the next day of action should be on a Saturday so that more people can march. But many activists think that will dilute the power of workers’ action.
“The demos are great, and build the pressure on the government. But the strikes are what really have the strength,” says Marcel.
What’s at stake?
The government wants to raise the pension age to 64. And workers will eventually be able to claim a full pension only if they have paid into the system for 43 years. Existing rules already require most people to work past 64 in order to qualify for a full pension.
Adding two further years is a key attack on the working class. It’s designed to show that the unions can’t stop pro-boss changes and that workers will have to pay for inflation and the coming recession,
Macron tried a similar move in 2019 but was forced back by widespread strikes, mass demonstrations and indefinite strikes by sections of transport workers.
He was also thrown on the defensive by the militant Yellow Vest movement and feared that all the resistance could come together during the pandemic.