"72% against and it's called democracy?", Paris. Photo: Jeanne Menjoulet / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

John Mullen writes from Paris on the growing crisis over raising the retirement age – and how workers are fighting back

On Monday 20 March, French president Emmanuel Macron’s government escaped, by seven votes, being overthrown by the French parliament, after he had forced through by decree the attack on pensions which has caused a mass uprising here. Macron’s government is so much under pressure that most of his own MPs stayed away from parliament during the debate on the motion of no confidence!

His bill can now be signed into law, in theory. And in normal circumstances, activists have tremendous difficulty mobilizing people against laws once they have been passed. But these are not normal circumstances, and the revolt continues to deepen. In the parliament, as the vote was announced, dozens of radical left MPs held up placards reading ‘See you on the streets!’.

Ongoing strikes against this law, by refuse collectors, have spread to new towns. All France’s oil refineries, which were being blockaded, have now stopped production (and it takes a week to start them up again). Around 1500 petrol stations are already short of fuel. Many thousands of transport workers and dockers are still on strike, and 30% of flights were cancelled at two major airports on Monday. The staff at the Opera in Lyon closed down all shows for the weekend. Dozens more strikes continue in different sectors.

Motorways were being joyfully blockaded in scores of places, including Reims and Rennes. TV stations had tremendous difficulty finding drivers in traffic jams who would condemn the movement, so hated is this pensions bill. Bus depots and nuclear power stations, docks and universities are also blockaded. Groups of Yellow Vests demonstrators have occupied the roundabouts they protested at four years back. It is impossible to list all the protests, although they are often not yet generalised – most universities and high schools are at work, and most trains and buses are running.

Once the pensions bill was passed last Friday by decree, without a parliamentary vote, a new opinion poll showed that 68% of the entire population are ‘angry’, while 7 per cent are ‘satisfied’. Among blue-collar workers and low level office workers, 80% are angry (only 59% of management and senior technical staff are). Even 25% of those who generally vote Macron are angry (18% are satisfied, 41% are indifferent)! And 24% of those who generally vote for Macron support the ongoing strikes and blockades (as do 88% of those who generally vote for the party of radical left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and 68% of those who generally vote for the far right). Even a couple of Macron’s own members of parliament are calling on him to back down.

With this level of public support, the main question has to be that of leadership. The national leaders of the eight union confederations, in a rare show of unity, have been calling regularly for days of strikes and demonstrations. There is another on Thursday 23 March, which will be crucially important. But the national leaders are not calling for an unlimited general strike, whereas the potential is obvious. And sorely needed strike funds are generally left to local union branches, whereas a national appeal by union leaders would raise millions of euros in no time at all. In addition, national leaders discouraged teachers from striking this week, when national baccalauréat exams take place (rather than pushing for the exams to be postponed as they were for covid a couple of years back). The momentum we need to win will not come from above.

As soon as it became clear on Monday evening that Macron’s government had survived by the skin of its teeth (19 right-wing MPs voted for the no confidence motion, under huge pressure from the movement), spontaneous demonstrations broke out across the country, in Paris, Rennes, Toulouse, Strasbourg, Nancy, Amiens Dijon and Nantes and many smaller towns. In several places, demonstrators made good use of the piles of rubbish bins piled up due to the refuse collection strike. In Paris, demonstrators played cat and mouse with violent police forces, while singing the songs popular on recent demonstrations, but also a song about Louis XVI being decapitated and the risks Macron might suffer the same fate!

After a couple of weeks’ silence and hoping it would all blow over, Macron has decided to appear on national television tomorrow lunchtime in a major interview. Let’s hope he inflames the situation even more and his government gets thrown out very soon.

John Mullen is a revolutionary socialist and a supporter of the France Insoumise. His website is randombolshevik.org.

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John Mullen

John Mullen is a lifelong revolutionary socialist living in the Paris area and is a supporter of the France Insoumise.

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