Marching in Toulouse (Picture: Mediapart on Twitter)
The resistance in France is at a critical point. Another massive day of strikes and demonstrations on Tuesday confronted the government’s attacks on pensions.
“It’s less joyous, less a feeling we can win with a few demos. But it is serious and sober about the job in front of us,” marcher Roland told Socialist Worker from Toulouse. “About 80,000 marched here,” he said, “including a lot from the university where I teach. That’s about the same as the last demo, it’s very big.
“And there was a section of marchers raising opposition to the new anti-migration law as well as pensions—bringing the two together.”
EDF power company strikers hit the electricity network, reducing the load by around 4,500MW, the equivalent of four nuclear reactors. That was more than on 31 January when production fell about 3,250MW.
Early figures suggested fewer workers on strike than on 31 January, although this was partly because some schools are closed for holidays.
But the mood was explosive in some places. The port city of Le Havre was practically closed after workers in the CGT union organised major mobilisations to block roundabouts and approach roads.
They closed the port area and the entire industrial zone, including the Total refinery, the Renault car plant, Chevron (chemicals) and Safran (rocket and aero engines).
Socialist journalist Arthur Nicola reported the action began at 5am as strikers and other activists gathered at union headquarters in Harfleur and 6am in Le Havre. “Nearly 1,000 strikers gathered before dividing up to block several points,” he wrote.
“On the ‘Total’ roundabout, in the middle of the industrial zone, Stéphane Allegre, an employee of Seita which produces the famous Gauloises cigarettes, explained that the blockade ‘was decided to take things up a level, to force the government to let go’.”
The Eiffel Tower closed “due to a national strike movement”. And those on the streets are more and more moving beyond the pension issue. It’s drawing in feminist groups, environmental campaigners and others.
In Paris on Tuesday, the Association for the taxation of financial transactions and for citizen action (Attac) led a “disobedient” action at the National Assembly including painting slogans. Cops arrested five people.
Chloé Morin is an “expert on French public opinion” at the Fondation Jean Jaures thinktank in Paris. She told Le Figaro newspaper, “All the factors that led to the emergence of the Yellow VestsYellow Vests in 2018 are still there. A sense that people are falling down the ladder of socio-economic class, a sense of growing precarity, and a rejection of Emmanuel Macron and the way in which he governs.”
Bernard Arnault, the world’s richest man and owner of French luxury group LVMH, has become a lightning rod with protesters at recent marches carrying signs with his face on a wanted poster.
The mood has even infected the parliamentary debate. Left winger Rachel Keke is the first cleaner in France to become an MP. She told a raucous debate on Monday, “Those of you who support this reform don’t understand how tough jobs are, what it’s like to wake up with an aching back.
“You don’t understand what it’s like to take medication to get through the work day. You don’t understand because it’s not a world you live in,” she said to applause and boos.
There’s now an even sharper argument at the base of the unions about the way forward. Another day of strikes and protests is set for Saturday.
Alexis Antonioli of the CGT Total Normandy said “For us there is a radicalism at the base on which we must rely to build the indefinite strike. The union leaders don’t want to go there. They have a slow calendar. We have to get out of the framework of 24-hour calls and couple it with actions such as blockades.”
Under pressure, CGT leader Philippe Martinez admitted it will be necessary to go towards “harder, more numerous, more massive and renewable strikes”. But the lesson of repeated mass mobilisations is that the union leaders will hold back the necessary escalation.
The Autonomie de Classe revolutionary socialist group says, “After mobilisations of a scale unprecedented since the 1995 victory against the government and anger that goes far beyond the sole pension reform, a question will be reverberating in all conversations of those who take part in the fight in the streets, the meetings, workplaces and education. How to win?
“The ruling class is determined. The world they rule is collapsing, and they will do anything to preserve it.
“Acceptance or revolt are the two poles between which the majority of our class oscillates and has not yet settled. We need to increase the determination to strengthen the one of the revolt, which means devoting a strategy that paves a path to win.”
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.
The government does not have a majority in parliament. It is therefore considering the use of two undemocratic parts of the constitution. If Macron uses the 49.3 clause, the measure passes unless there is a vote of no confidence, triggering a general election. Macron calculates that the traditional right fears an election and therefore won’t trigger one. But 49.3 is so obviously dictatorial for such a serious matter that it could spark a bigger revolt. So Macron might use 47.1. This says some financial measures can be passed after 50 days of debate. It has never been used previously, might be judged illegal, and again could set off a revolt against the whole constitution.