Over 700,000 workers marched on 7 March in Paris, France on Tuesday while on strike (Picture: Flickr/ Force Ouvriere)

French workers are ­showing how to set in motion a movement of millions, and within it they are fighting to escalate and direct the strikes themselves. A clear victory against president Emmanuel Macron would echo across Europe and wider.

The demonstrations are not just big, they are at historic levels. They are certainly the biggest since the great year of 1968. Although the social crisis is not yet so deep, and the strikes and occupations far more limited, the numbers on the streets match or exceed those in 1936—a ­revolutionary situation.

The CGT union said that on Tuesday, the sixth national day of ­protest, around 3.5 million marched across the country, including 700,000 in Paris. Nearly a quarter of a million marched in Marseille, a city similar in scale to Birmingham. In Toulouse—the size of Liverpool or Edinburgh—120,000 came out. In Bordeaux, with a population equal to Cardiff, 100,000 took to the streets. Even the official state count of “only” 1.28 million nationwide is a new record.

Everywhere the mood was angry and defiant, not a token protest or polite promenade. “Lots of people are saying we don’t live in a democracy,” Alain Brun, a hospital technician, told Socialist Worker from the Paris march. Why do we have Macron in the presidential palace? Because he stands against a fascist and for four weeks goes on about the dangers of the far right and ‘defence of the republic’. 

“Then he goes back to being a bosses’ man. All the polls show people are against the pension changes, millions are on the streets again and again. Everyone knows the rich grabbed fortunes during the pandemic, yet we’re supposed to work longer.”

On Saturday, marches were planned as a follow up to the week’s actions and ­further mass demonstrations and strikes were set for Wednesday of next week. Surveys show 67 percent of French people are for a shutdown to protest against Macron. Some 65 percent are for indefinite strikes and 52 percent for a social explosion on the model of the Yellow Vests.

Faced with mass opposition as it pushes through unpopular measures, the state promotes and sanctions authoritarian ­hardening. Cops attacked the fringes of demonstrations with tear gas, baton charges and arrests.They violently suppressed a ­blockade at a Rhine lock close to Strasbourg that had closed navigation across large parts of the river. Tooled-up officers also faced off with school students setting up blockades in Paris and other cities. 

But there’s also resistance. Students shut 300 schools and many universities on Tuesday despite repression. On the Marseille demonstration protesters threw “projectiles” at the police union when it tried to join the march. The government can ride out mass demonstrations if it is prepared to take the electoral hit. It’s far harder to resist strikes.

Tuesday of this week—7 March—was almost a general strike. Nearly all rail services stopped, and so did most of Paris’ public transport. Unions said 60 percent of the country’s teachers walked out. Striking workers blockaded gates at all the country’s refineries and mass pickets swept the energy sector.  

Refuse collectors in Paris “jumped the gun” and started their strike the day before and the streets are piling up with hundreds of tons of rubbish. Workers blockaded and closed the industrial area in the port city of Le Havre and other major centres.

Early Wednesday morning, buoyed by the success of the day before and by mobilisations around International Women’s Day, workers were out on mass pickets, roundabout blockades and local protests. Indefinite strikes began in sections of the rail and other public transport, refineries, refuse, energy and other areas. Fuel shipments did not leave refineries for several days. Strikes hit three of the country’s four liquefied natural gas terminals across the week. 

According to Le Monde newspaper, energy strikes cut electricity production by 15,000 megawatts on Tuesday, the equivalent of 15 nuclear reactors. And by 5,000 megawatts on other days. Strikers turned off the electricity supply to labour minister Olivier Dussopt’s neighbourhood in the city of Annonay. It was the same on Thursday at the Stade De France stadium and the Olympic village site preparing for the games in July.

Strikes continued in mass transit in Paris and other major cities. Railway workers at Paris-Gare du Nord station, in Le Havre and Toulouse, as well as staff at Paris-Le Bourget Airport, were all on strike. In a new development, the gas sector started strikes last Wednesday. In Gournay-sur-Aronde which has the largest gas storage site in the country, four out of every five workers stopped. After a few hours, workers allowed supplies to be restored.

Frederic Ben, a worker on the site and the gas rep for the CGT union nationally, said it was a “warning shot for the government”. “We are in this for the long-term and have organised ourselves ­accordingly,” he said. “We are responsible people, but we do have the power to completely cut off the gas.”

And there were smaller-scale but important initiatives. In metal factories in the Loire region, workers have decided to strike for two hours every other day. At Aubert & Duval forges, workers struck for two or three hours every day last week. Chemical workers at Praxair in Ariège struck for several hours each day.

Workers’ self-activity is  key

The union leaders are Macron’s best hope of escaping without defeat. They talk in far more left wing terms than their British counterparts. But they still don’t create the conditions for the all-out and indefinite strikes needed to win. Days of action spaced out and narrowly focused on the single issue of the new law can exhaust the most militant sections without involving new forces. 

At an early stage, the unity of the union federations helped to mobilise people. Pressure from below forced the CFDT leaders, the largest but one of the most conservative union bodies, to call for full support for action on 7 March. This boosted the numbers. But now this sort of unity is an obstacle if it means subordinating the movement to what CFDT leader Laurent Berger wants.

The more militant‑sounding leaders use Berger as the excuse for their own failures. Rank and file networks and strike committees are growing. It’s a race to see whether they can seize control of the strikes before the bureaucrats strangle them.  When workers meet at a rank and file level they talk not just about the rise in the pension age but lowering it, and about pay and an end to precarious contracts. 

Taking up such demands is how to grow the movement. Martin, one of the strikers organising strikers’ networks in Le Havre, told Socialist Worker, “A general assembly of strikers across all sectors on 7 March with workers from many sectors and factories allowed us to discuss the mobilisation and the renewal of the strikes at local level. 

“We still need to increase the mobilisation, and go to the employees of companies who aren’t fully part of the struggle. And we must be present in as many initiatives as possible in support of those who are already on strike. On Tuesday we had 45,000 at our demonstration. Then on Wednesday we organised from 4.30am to block the refuse truck depot. 

“At 10.30am we left to support a comrade who, because of his organising, had been summoned for a preliminary interview that could go as far as dismissal. At 6pm we had a demonstration for International Women’s Day. Then on Thursday we were out with the students at the university.”

Workers at the Enedis electricity distribution network near Bordeaux have set up a “struggle headquarters”.  This is so “all the workers opposed to this reform can come to converge and exchange, talk about actions beyond the demonstrations and hit the economy”.

These workers are also organising to “make electricity free, especially for precarious people who have had the power cut, as well as for nursing homes and hospitals.” Macron doesn’t want to withdraw his measures and be remembered for another messy compromise with workers in revolt.

Strikes are blow against fascists

The strikes raise political issues. Of course they do not sweep away all at once the support for the fascists of the National Rally (RN), but they give chances to undermine it. As one account has it, RN leader Marine Le Pen “has been in a submarine operation” since the struggle began. That’s because she doesn’t want to cut herself off from the millions on the street or line up with Macron, but in the end she serves the bosses.

An embarrassed silence is her reaction. Meanwhile the new RN president Jordan Bardella, says he is not in favour of “blocking the country” and laments the “endless queues to fill up with petrol”. Strikers can begin to see that the RN is not the workers’ friend and that divisions only aid their enemies. That’s helped by conscious anti-racist intervention in the marches. 

The Marche des Solidarites anti‑racist group has been part of the major demonstrations. It tweeted last week, “We can win, together we can win against this government and all its logic! Neither pension reform, nor interior minister Darmanin’s anti-migrant law, nor anti-squat law. Against Macron and his world—solidarity, freedom, equality, full rights for all.” 

The combination of the pension strikes and International Women’s Day also led to a much more sustained discussion of women’s rights and taking up the demands of women workers. The main left parliamentary force is the Nupes coalition headed by Jean‑Luc Melenchon. It has backed action against Macron’s law both in the national assembly and on the streets.

But Melenchon says the crucial actor is “the people”, not workers. This implies a dilution of class focus. In particular Melenchon seeks to lead away from a focus on workers. The LFI group, which is part of Nupes, has clashed with the union leaders because it is seen to be pushing its own initiatives rather than uniting with the wider movement. It has failed to provide a more militant way forward than the mainstream union heads.

There is a clear space now for revolutionaries to grow. Already in the workers’ rank and file meetings there are sometimes debates about how production is carried out and how it could be environmentally sustainable. The media is full of powerful worker testimonies about what the pension changes mean.

They say intense work means that already in their 50s they are stalked by arthritis, torn ligaments, and mental stress. It’s already a struggle to reach pension age. And that is why workers must win.

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