Paris protest Paris protest. Photo: Jean-Marc Mauran

Lindsey German on the French uprising and the struggle in Britain

It’s not often a state visit by the royal family is cancelled at the last minute. Still less often that it is cancelled because a mass strike wave is sweeping the country. But King Charles and France’s president Macron were forced to abort their planned summit because they feared that the situation was too unstable. In addition, the sumptuous banquet in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles was considered a bad look at a time when French workers are being told they have to work longer to get their pensions. After all the French Revolution started in 1789 when the women of Paris marched on the royal palace.

The jury is still out as to whether Macron can win his pension ‘reforms’. He has imposed them by decree because he couldn’t get them through Parliament and narrowly survived a vote of no confidence but these actions have only further infuriated the trade unions and the workers’ movement. The French strikes are spreading as millions took to the streets on Thursday to defeat Macron’s attacks on the retirement age. This Tuesday even bigger numbers are expected to turn out.

The attack is part of a wider attack on the working-class movement which we are seeing across Europe. More work, less leisure, for lower real pay, in an increasingly insecure workforce, with growing pressure to work harder on the job, is the pattern as the capitalist class seeks to squeeze ever-greater levels of surplus value from its workforce.

This is precisely what we are seeing in Britain as waves of public sector workers strike against the progressive lowering of their pay, and demand inflation-busting pay rises. Wages in Britain have never recovered to the levels they were before the 2008 financial crash, yet we are repeatedly told there is no money to raise them.

The attack is international and uses international comparisons. So French workers – who are told they have to work two more years till 64 – are also told that they will still be better off than British workers who already have to work till 66 or 67. This race to the bottom has been a key feature of neoliberal capitalism which has presided as a result over growing levels of inequality.

In recent months in Europe we have seen huge protests in Greece, over the train crash in a privatised company, in Britain over the strikes, and now in France a movement which is heading towards a general strike and threatens Macron’s rule.

The militancy of French workers is not in doubt nor is the revolutionary and rebellious tradition of the French working class. This latest movement has spread across the organised working class and also involves students, school students and many other young people. This incidentally is in contrast to those who repeatedly denounce ‘boomers’ as denying the younger generation better conditions. In France it is clear that young people see this as an attack on the whole working class regardless of age.

However French socialists will point to a number of difficulties with the movement, not least the sectionalism between the different trade union confederations and the failure of the national coordinating body to call an all-out general strike.

The French have a great tradition of struggle which gave us the barricades and general strike of 1968, the mass strikes and factory occupations of 1936 and the mass working-class uprising against the Nazis of 1944. These events are in the collective memory. But there is no inevitability about them inspiring struggles today, nor should we assume that there are not the same arguments, doubts and fears among participants in any strike.

The working class is entering into major battles after long periods of quietude and defeat and we do so having to learn the lessons of the past. One is to have a realistic assessment of what is possible but also to strive to take the battles as far as we can. In this we should not fall into superficial national stereotypes. French workers have a fine political tradition but they also suffer defeats, have seen the growth in recent decades of a major far right party, and they too have seen wages and conditions eroded.

Britain has suffered particularly hard defeats of the unions since the miners’ strike 40 years ago, and the legacy of these defeats has endured for a very long time. But the workers’ movement of the early 1970s was one of the most powerful in the world, when strikes were talked of as ‘the British disease’. The Chartist movement which arose from the Industrial Revolution and so inspired Marx and Engels was the first mass economic and political movement of the working class.

At various points we have seen mass demonstrations riots and direct action in support of strikes. And Britain had its own revolution that overthrew the monarchy nearly 150 years before the French Revolution.

So we should show solidarity with the French workers and learn from their struggles. But we shouldn’t imagine that similar can’t happen here.

Indeed we are facing multiple crises internationally. There is the danger of a financial and banking crisis, following the determination of the US Fed, the Bank of England and other central banks to keep raising interest rates and to support holding down wages while inflation eats into workers’ living standards. There is the continuing crisis of poverty and inequality both at record levels. The environmental crisis is already having a real impact in the developing world with all sorts of consequences for food production, supplies of water, and maintaining livelihoods. And the growing threat of war both in Ukraine and in the Pacific is a terrifying reminder of potential disaster.

The response to these various crises will be coloured by national traditions, but response there will have to be. In each of them there is the danger of right wing ‘solutions’ – nationalism, racism, scapegoating and attacks on trade unions. But there is also the possibility of collective and egalitarian solutions to the problems created by capitalism. That’s what, in however partial a way, the movement in France and the strikes in Britain represent and they have to be built on.

This week: I will be concerned about my dispute in the UCU and hoping we get over the threshold in the reballot to reject the poor deal and launch a marking and assessment boycott. And watching carefully as events unfold in France.

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Lindsey German

As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.

Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.