Neither Macron and the bosses, nor France's working class have made a decisive breakthrough in recent weeks. But the movement is solid and imaginative, writes John Mullen in Paris
Universities blockaded and classes replaced by radical political teach-ins, lecturers voting to give top marks to every student in their class (in support of the student movement which has halted classes for several weeks), mass meetings of thousands on campus, riot police evacuating sit-ins in the early morning: one might be forgiven for thinking that May 1968 is coming back to France.
That would be exaggerating, but the wave of workers’ and students’ revolt is still going strong as I write (8th May). The 1st and the 5th May saw dynamic mass demonstrations with the strikers at the head of the demos, and the 26th May is being announced as a "tidal wave" called by unions and left organisations together. After the 1st May, the media was completely focussed for a few days on the McDonalds-centred antics of the “Black Bloc”, but have now been forced back down to earth since the movement remains solid.
Neither Macron and the bosses, nor the French working class have made a decisive breakthrough these last few weeks. The strikes are hitting home: fourteen days of rail strikes (on a pattern of two days strike, three days working) since the start of April have caused severe financial losses to French business in general.
The class-conscious rail strikers are protesting above all against a plan that would mean that new recruits had far inferior contractual conditions to those of existing employees, but also against creeping privatization. The Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, who had been trying to stay out of direct involvement, was forced finally to meet with union leaders yesterday (though he offered almost nothing new).
Fourteen days of rolling strikes of airline workers at Air France have cost the bosses 300 million euros. Share prices are falling and when last week the company balloted its workers on a "new" pay deal, the (miserly) plan was thrown out, and the managing director of the company promptly resigned. A series of strikes at the supermarket giant, Carrefour, have led to some concessions but no final agreement.
Workers’ power is visibly present across the country, as railway strikers occupy motorway toll booths and let cars through free, collecting donations to the strike fund. The strikes remain popular with public opinion, split fifty fifty on supporting or opposing them. An online railway workers strike fund has raised over a million euros – a tremendous symbolic boost.
The student movement continues to mobilize, with many mass meetings and 'anti-Macron events' and a number of universities occupied – either the whole campus or just administrative buildings. In several towns, university presidents, including those at Grenoble, Strasbourg, Montpellier, Nancy, Bordeaux and Toulouse, have called the police in to intervene, resulting in a number of injuries. Others have closed their universities down for a week, to avoid the movement building up.
At Nanterre, birthplace of the May 1968 student movement, a blockade was voted on 7th May in a mass meeting of 700 students. The university has been blockaded for weeks and no exams have taken place, and a section of the Nanterre lecturers has voted to give high "political grades" to all students. Laughably, the president of Nanterre University, who had proudly helped organize a grand commemoration of the 1968 revolt (complete with commissioned street art), sent in the riot police to get the students out!
Elsewhere, other radical tactics are being used: at the Sorbonne, when exams were organized, some students gave in a blank script with "student on strike" written on it. At Nanterre the mass meeting decided this week that if any exam should take place (authorities are looking for alternative buildings, under police guard), it should be preceded by a vote by students present on whether or not to cancel it.
Even among young people leaving university, unemployment is running around 13%, so there is tremendous pressure for students (and high school students) to take their exams rather than mobilize. Yet France has seen many huge student movements in the last decade, the highest point being that of 2006, when an incredible movement, which only gained traction after the law in question (attacking youth employment rights) had been voted through parliament, scared the right-wing government into repealing its own law only a few weeks after passing it!
There are now national university coordinating assemblies meeting regularly, as well as meetings and teach-ins aiming at bringing together people involved in different struggles. Rail strikers have regularly been speaking to mass meetings of students.
It is still unclear how the present movements will pan out. Worryingly, a number of national trade union leaders are making conciliatory noises. Union leaders in France do not earn, by a very long chalk, the massive salaries which UK unions now pay to their general secretaries, but they are still professional negotiators who will not push the struggle as far as it can go.
The three main union groupings involved: FO, CGT and SUD (to list them from the least combative to the most) are still pushing for continuing rail strikes. But the FO leader is suggesting that a one-month freeze on government plans to allow for talks might be enough to stop the strikes. Even Philippe Martinez, leader of the CGT union federation, has been putting the brakes on some aspects of the revolt, refusing to give his backing to the anti-Macron carnival in Paris on the 5th May, claiming there was a danger of France Insoumise taking over the struggle.
The necessary, and, today, not unrealistic, call for a general strike, will not come from the union leaders. Nevertheless, pressure from below is real: when union leaders were meeting the Prime Minister, there was a rank and file rally called by SUD outside the building, and rail strikers occupied this week the headquarters of Emmanuel Macron’s political party, La République En Marche, as well as demonstrating inside main rail stations, where they were eventually attacked by riot police.
Coming weeks will be crucial. As well as the “tidal wave” on the 26th, involving both unions and all radical left parties, there are education strikes on the 22nd May, and strikes involving museum workers and others.
A huge amount is at stake: the railway unions in particular are known to be the strongest in France, and a defeat would bring widespread demoralisation. Macron wants the rail strike to play the role that the 1984 miners’ strike did for Margaret Thatcher, but he is in a much weaker position than Thatcher was, and may well end up regretting having taken on this battle.
More articles from this author
- France in 1968: myths, realities and unanswered questions
- Enough is enough: Paris takes to the streets
- France Insoumise: What is it and where is it going?
- Is France heading for another May '68?
- Can Macron the Thatcherite be beaten?
- The election of the French parliament: a huge shake-up, but polarisation continues
- Macron’s victory, and why the earthquake will continue