France: two million march—where next?

19 January 2023

By Marc Lassalle

THE NUMBERS speak for themselves. More than two million workers marched on 19 January against President Emmanuel Macron’s latest attempt to reform the pension system. In a sign of the widespread opposition amongst workers, a rare united front saw all the main trade union federations on strike bringing transport, energy and schools to a standstill.

The reform is a major attack on the working class. By raising the pension age from 62 to 64 it will disproportionately impact blue collar and less qualified workers who already have a shorter life expectancy and fewer years of retirement.

After abandoning a previous attempt in 2019 because of Covid, Macron has presented the current project for what it is: workers need to work more to pay off the various measures taken by the government to support the economy, both during the pandemic and more recently because of the rising costs of energy.

The government argues that the reform is necessary to plug a projected €14 billion deficit by the end of the decade. But during the pandemic, the ‘president of the rich’ poured not tens, but hundreds of billions of euros into propping up the capitalists’ economy and nobody has forgotten this.

While Macron was counting on a weakening of working class combativity, the 19 January day of action proved him and his bourgeois experts wrong. Even the moderate CFDT union which supported his first administration’s reforms to employment protections (the code du travail) denounced it as ‘one of the most brutal pension reforms for 30 years’. Philippe Martinez, leader of the left-wing CGT union said the plan ‘bundles together everyone’s dissatisfaction’ with the government. Polls show some 9 out of 10 workers are opposed to the proposals.

Macron based both his presidential election campaigns on a commitment to do what previous governments failed to do over the last 30 years—to break trade union resistance to pension reform. The president, whose centrist La Republique en Marche party lost its majority in the French parliament during last year’s legislative elections, depends on votes from the right-wing Republicans. However the Gaullist rump will not easily be persuaded to assume the political cost for handing Macron an easy victory.

If he cannot cobble together a parliamentary majority, the president could resort to emergency laws which allow the president to overrule parliament, at the risk of forcing a new election. Macron has gambled the future of his government on passing this reform. The previous attempt at reform, in 2019, provoked the longest period of strikes since the 1968 uprising. All sides are playing for the highest stakes.

Millions of workers are now preparing for a decisive struggle with the government. Despite the great success of the first day, the working class must overcome serious weaknesses in its own camp. While the slogan of a general strike was widely taken up on the demonstrations, it is not on the agenda of the trade union leaders—far from it. They are simply warning of a long campaign, and have announced another day of strikes and demonstrations for 31 January.

The union leaders are pursuing their usual, dangerous, and normally fatal tactic of occasional ‘days of action’ with pauses in between that work only to the government’s advantage who will use them to strike a deal with the CFDT, weaken and ultimately break the alliance of union federations.

The two main left parties oppose the reform but are unreliable allies for workers. The remnants of the Socialist Party introduced the last pension reform in 2014. Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s vehicle, France Insoumise, calls for a reduction in the retirement age to 60, but is far more concerned with the theatre of parliament than rallying a serious social resistance in the workplaces and the streets. The weakness of revolutionaries is summed up by the parlous state of the NPA. After a split last December, there are currently two NPAs with the same despite very different political assessments and orientations. Neither of them calls for a general strike.

The question posed to all workers and youth is what organization and strategy is needed to defeat this attack. These tasks must be addressed in the workplace general assemblies and workers’ committees. Macron’s government will stand or fall on whether he passes this reform—but our movement needs to mobilise the working class behind a comprehensive workers’ answer to the crisis: not just abandoning the pension reform, but the fight for wage and pension increases, a massive plan for the investment in the public sector especially schools and hospitals, more quality affordable housing, a special plan for young people and the repeal of the racist anti-immigrant laws.

Oil refinery workers are already forging ahead with plans to escalate their strikes at the end of the month. This is the example to follow, but given the union leaders’ record of abdicating responsibility by leaving it up to different sectors to decide, we must prepare an alternative strategy and leadership in the here and now.

31 January must become the launchpad for a series of escalating strikes, the building of working class councils of action to coordinate and control the social movement, culminating in an all-out general strike to inflict a comprehensive defeat on Macron, the employers, and open the road to a workers’ government which can settle accounts with the capitalist system in its entirety.

A major defeat for Macron would show the road to follow in many other European countries.

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