Gilets Jaunes protest, Lyon. Photo: Flickr/Jeanne Menjoulet Gilets Jaunes protest, Lyon. Photo: Flickr/Jeanne Menjoulet

An update from Paris on the ongoing protests and strike action against Macron’s pension reform bill by John Mullen

Macron definitely had a bad month. The day of generalised strike action and demonstrations on Tuesday 17th December was bigger than the one two weeks earlier – well over a million demonstrated around the country. More schools were closed than on the previous day of action, oil refineries were blockaded and several sections of private industry, especially in retail, joined the strike day. Four union confederations: the CGT, FO, FSU and Solidaires are united behind the strike action.

Rail transport and the metro system in Paris were still severely disrupted at Christmas, twenty one days after the start of the strikes, with under a third of trains and around a quarter of metros running. The big department stores are selling around half what they usually sell, tens of thousands of bookings at hotels and restaurants have been cancelled and museums have seen their ticket sales slashed. The power of transport workers is being brilliantly demonstrated

Unsurprisingly, the government took to accusing the strikers of wanting to cancel Christmas, and of not caring about the children and families for whom it means so much. This backfired: opinion polls show that support for the strike and opposition to the government’s pension law are both clearly on the rise. 66% of French people (78% of those under 45) support the strikers. Support for the proposed law actually fell by seven percentage points in a week: now, only 23% of the population believe the pensions law should be passed as it is.

Even the mainstream television stations, needing to keep some of their credibility, have been obliged to show commuters having a rough time getting to work, but expressing support for the strikers. In a populist flourish, Macron announced he would personally refuse his presidential pension of 6 000 euros a month, but since he is a very rich man, this impressed few.

The first main threat of the new pensions bill is that it plans to lower pensions by basing them on lifetime salary, not on final salary in the public sector, and on lifetime salary rather than the “best 25 years” in the private sector. The second is that rather than the pension being directly a percentage of salary, each citizen would build up “points” whose monetary value translated into pension received would be regularly re-defined by a governmental body, in discussion with bosses and unions. That is, government could cut the value of pensions when they wished! In addition, such a system would be far easier to privatise further down the line.

The excuse for the attack is that as the population gets older there won’t be enough money coming into the state-run pension fund. The real solution is to ask for higher contributions from employers, who have been showered with tax cuts for decades.

Declaration of war

But when Prime Minister Edouard Philippe made his official announcements on 11 December, a new proposal had been added to the bill. The pension age, presently at 62, is to rise to 64. People will only be able to retire earlier if they accept a percentage cut in their pension. Commentators were surprised at this new declaration of war, which the government could easily have brought in in six months’ time once the present movement was over. The new declaration had an explosive effect. Two of the less combative union federations, the CFDT and UNSA, who governments can generally rely on to provide union cover for attacks on workers, declared that this was a red line and joined the strike calls. These unions are very influential in particular sectors of the economy.

It is unclear whether the government made a mistake and thought that these unions would not call for action, or whether the declaration of all-out war was aimed first and foremost at solidifying the right wing vote behind Macron’s party, with the presidential elections of 2022 already in mind. Remember that Macron became president after having obtained only 24% of the vote in the first round, then defeating the fascist candidate in the run-off.

Keen to get union leaders back to the negotiating table, the Prime Minister is now offering concessions – partial exceptions for heavy or dangerous work and for night shifts, and negotiations on the level of the minimum pension, in particular. These in addition to the previously announced plan to delay the implementation of the new scheme for a decade or so, so that only those born after 1975 are fully inside the scheme. There will be more concessions, but workers need the whole plan to be scrapped. How bad it is for pensions can be seen by the fact that a few days after the police associations expressed discontent about the reform, it was announced that it would not apply to them!

The latest concession has been enough to push the leader of UNSA (a union federation with 200 000 members) to call for a suspension of the movement for the holiday period, but the CFDT is insisting that as long as the later retirement age of 64 is not withdrawn, they want the strike to continue. It was very heartening to see a whole series of regional UNSA groupings refuse the national leadership’s demand to pause the movement.

Another blow against Macron was struck mid-December when his High Commissioner on pensions, Jean-Paul Delevoye, was forced to resign after having “forgotten” to declare, as the law demands, a whole series of paid and unpaid positions he occupied, including positions in influential associations of private insurance companies, who are hoping to make billions in the private pension market if the state pensions are cut back. He has been replaced by a Mr Pietraszewski, a former personnel manager of a huge hypermarket chain, known as a heartless zombie who once called the police on a cashier and union rep who was 80 centimes out on a cashdesk operation.

As is habitual in France, the number of strikers goes up and down from day to day. The strikers belong to varied unions, many do not belong to a union but are supporters of one or other and vote for them at elections to joint management committees etc. Some strike only on the big days of action, others vote in assemblies every day to extend the strike for a day or two. Others, juggling family finances and class consciousness, strike on some days and not others. In the nationalised railway company, a majority of sales and administration staff are not on strike, but most drivers and ticket inspectors are.

There are a large numbers of other sectors where anger is being expressed. Oil refineries are on strike – some just for the big days of action and some continuously, and a petrol shortage is a real possibility. Some universities and high schools were blockaded before the holidays. Air hostesses and stewards are threatening to strike from January 3rd unless the government reassures them that they will not be included in the reform – if they were, they would lose 40% of their pension. They are calling on airline pilots to join them. Metro drivers and activists have been blockading bus depots across Paris, while lorry drivers blocked some motorways and other strikers occupied motorway toll booths and let people through free. The National Library is on strike and only opening half days. 45 shows have been cancelled at the Paris Opera. In the Opera House in Lyon, the management had postponed the Tuesday performance till Wednesday because Tuesday was a big strike day. On Wednesday the entire cast came on stage before the show to announce they were refusing to play, to the mixed booing and applause of the audience.

Most trade unions are calling for the strikes to continue and refusing calls for a Christmas truce; however, instead of refusing to attend negotiations while the strikes continue and organising demonstrations over the holiday period, union leaders are regularly meeting with the Prime minister and have called the next big strike day only for the 9th January.

The main radical Left organisation, la France Insoumise (France in Revolt) led by Jean- Luc Mélenchon is calling for the strikes to continue, and published on the 18th December its Alternative Proposal for Retirement Pensions, involving retirement at 60 for all, a pension calculation based on a “ten best years” rule, and no pensions below the poverty line. Mélenchon called on union leaders to set up a National Action Committee to coordinate activities in support of what may well be a long strike. Activists from the France Insoumise, the Communist Party and the New Anticapitalist Party are playing a small but important role among the strikers.

But every day counts for the strikers who are on all-out strike. Of course, the holiday period makes things harder, especially since schools and universities cannot participate much in the movement for a couple of weeks. The dynamic must be kept up. Spectacular actions like the striker demonstrations in a major Paris railway station on the 23rd, or the cutting off of electricity to a huge Amazon sorting centre by power workers the same day are helping. Christmas strike parties have been organised in a number of towns, and on Christmas Eve striking dancers and musicians from the Paris ballet and opera performed extracts of Swan Lake in the square in front of the Opera, in support of their cause.

A regional council meeting was occupied by protesters one day last week. Plenty of local demonstrations are fixed for between Christmas and New Year, starting with a Boxing Day rally in Paris. Dozens of online strike funds have been set up, as unions in France do not generally organise strike pay: some have collected thousands of euros, some over a million. A collective of well known artists and singers have published a fundraising appeal. Far more money is needed, and collective action to raise money is better than relying on individual decisions. Even more important is that the strike should spread in coming days and weeks. Both the all out strikers and the government are extremely determined and the stakes are high.

You can donate online to the French strikers at the following online strike fund run by a sector of the CGT union :

John Mullen

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