French rail workers protest against Macron's proposed pension reforms, December 2019. Photo: Wikimedia Commons French rail workers protest against Macron's proposed pension reforms, December 2019. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Hundreds of thousands are taking to the streets to combat Macron’s war on the welfare state, writes Susan Ram

Since early December, workers, students and pensioners across France have been staging a magnificent fightback against President Emmanuel Macron and his project of Thatcherite neoliberal ‘reform’.

Beginning with an insurgent day of strike and street action on December 5, which mobilised more than a million people, protestors have continued their walkout from work and presence on the streets for six weeks now — the longest wave of continuous strikes in recent French history.

Launched by some of France’s largest trade union confederations, this national uprising stands out for its level of support, its composition and its duration. It combines the classic characteristics of a French social mobilisation with new features and players emerging out of the fourteen-monthlong Yellow Vest movement.

Public sector workers, especially those in the transport sector, are on the frontline of the fightback. Striking train drivers and conductors have brought weeks of disruption to rail, metro and bus services, including over the Christmas and New Year holiday period. Teachers, nurses, firefighters and local government employees have also joined the walk-outs, as have workers in the energy and chemical sectors. Blockades have forced shutdowns at oil refineries and ports.

The provocation for this nationwide upsurge is Macron’s attempt to impose a radical overhaul of France’s pension system, still one of the most generous and equitable in Europe. Macron is bent on uprooting the current system, based on the principle of intergeneration solidarity, in favour of an individualistic, point-based scheme designed to soften things up for privatisation.

French workers have always stoutly resisted assaults on their pensions. Macron and cronies now hope to inflict a Thatcher-scale defeat that will finally destroy their ability to fight back and open the door to full-spectrum neoliberal ‘reform.’

By combining strikes with enormous popular mobilisations on the streets, not only in cities but in small and middling towns across the land, French workers have already forced the government to make concessions (plans to push the retirement age back from 62 to 64 years have been ‘suspended’). Backed by considerable public support, online strike funds, and their own indomitable will, workers across France are ready to fight on.

Susan Ram

Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.