French union mobilisation Photo: Wikimedia commons French union mobilisation Photo: Wikimedia commons

The cracks in Macron’s neoliberal government are beginning to show and the strikes are continuing to broaden, reports John Mullen

Millions on the streets around France on Thursday 9th January and Saturday 11th January showed the determination of the movement to defend pensions. As well as transport workers, teachers and refinery workers (some of whom have been on strike continuously for over a month and others of whom strike on the Days of action), new sectors have been mobilized. Court lawyers are solidly on strike, groups of National Bank workers who provide the currency for cash machines are walking out this week, and universities, which were slow to start up, are getting involved. Teachers in Paris high schools are boycotting exams. And smaller, direct action grassroots initiatives are flourishing: the Prime minister, giving a pompous speech about the reform this week, had the electricity to the building cut off by power workers, for example, and the education administration of the region I work in was blockaded from six in the morning. Two major ports are still blockaded.

It is in this context that the Prime Minister announced concessions this weekend, in addition to the initial concessions of delaying the reform for 12 years and excluding a few groups of workers. He announced a suspension of the plan to raise the standard retirement age from 62 to 64. Strangely the international press headlined as if this was a major victory for the strikers, which it is not.

There were three parts to the reform:

1Raise the standard retirement age

2Reduce pensions by changing the calculation method so they are based on lifetime earnings and not on the best years (in the private sector) nor on final salary (in the public sector)

3Not count years worked but credit points, to create a system both easy to privatize further down the line and a system in which pensions can be cut later, since the value of a point can be altered by the government.

So we have seen a concession but on one of the three subjects only. In addition, it is a temporary concession.

This does not mean it has no importance. Conservative voters and bosses’ organizations were very attached to the raising of the standard retirement age, and have been patient with the massive disruption caused by the strikes since they felt that Macron would never back down: now cracks are beginning to appear in the alliances around Macron.

The fight has to go on. Two of the least combative union federations – UNSA and the CFDT – have welcomed the government’s announcement and withdrawn their support for the strikes. Happily, the Paris transport section of UNSA has rejected the position of their national union leaders, and called for the strike to go on. There has been a flurry of posts on Facebook of unionists tearing up their membership card of the CFDT.

Percentages of strikers in transport are lower than they were a few weeks back, as family budgets have taken a massive hit. But the demonstrations on Saturday were very dynamic, and the large number of transport workers collecting money for different hardship funds for strikers certainly did not give the impression that the movement was about to give up. There are three more days of action announced for next week. (14, 15, 16 January).

The national joint union strike committee has just brought out a press release “Continue until we win!” This was signed by the two most combative federations (CGT and Solidaires), by the national education federation, but also by student unions and the middle management union bloc. In short, both government and strikers are very determined and the conflict is still on a knife-edge.

At the same time as the Prime Minister’s small concession, repression is playing a big role. The police were obviously being told to ramp up the violence this week. After Saturday’s demos, the extremely respectable national newspaper, Le Monde, tweeted: “the trade union demonstrations of Saturday were once again marked by what we have to call police violence, and there is no need for inverted commas around the expression.”  Videos of police beating up passers-by are going viral.

The government has also announced there will be an urgent conference, to report in April, on “How to balance the finances of state pension schemes”. This conference will involve boss’s organizations as well as trade union confederations. It is really a propaganda move, to loudly proclaim that the main problem is balancing the budget (which it is not). No doubt almost all the union confederations will go to the conference, though.

Radical Left political organizations such as the France Insoumise (whose candidate got 19.5%  at the last presidentials)  and the New Anticapitalist party are loudly calling to spread the strikes, and their activists are doing what they can on the ground. The next week will be crucial – new sectors must be brought into the struggle in order to ensure a clear victory and the scrapping of the pension reduction scheme.

John Mullen

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