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France: Movement Against Pension Reform Continues

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Build the general strike with general assemblies in all workplaces!

Such a movement has not been seen since May 1968! Against pension reforms, at the time of writing it has passed the 40-day mark without any sign of running out of breath and in spite of the holiday season! How many journalists and columnists have been whispering in our ears these past few years that the “outdated” unions were “in decline”? The reply they are now getting is overwhelming: the labor movement is still capable of bringing a country to a standstill. And, more than 6 weeks after the start of the movement, 60% of the population still support it according to the January 14 Harris Interactive Barometer.

By Nicolas Croes

But let’s render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s: Macron and his government did their best to provoke the protests. When the struggle was in its 12th day, French High Commissioner for Pensions Jean-Paul Delevoye had to resign for having “forgotten” to declare his links with private insurance companies. Shortly afterwards, former GDF-Suez CEO Jean-François Cirelli was elevated to the rank of Officer of the Legion of Honour, and he now heads the French branch of US financial giant BlackRock! For this pension fund, the largest in the world, Macron’s pension reform project is a very interesting opportunity. Added to this, the widespread police violence is seen by a growing number of people as a deliberate policy on the part of the authorities. 

It’s cracking all over the place 

This climate of social unrest is unprecedented. Although the Paris public transport (RATP) and railway workers were the first ones to go on strike, from the outset they have been far from isolated and find themselves alongside teachers, refinery workers, dockworkers, lawyers and so on, who also walked out. 

Alongside those sectors that have been on strike on a daily basis, there have been great moments of struggle with national days of demonstrations and general strikes. There have been numerous acts of collective resistance. Lawyers threw their robes in the face of the Minister of Justice before deciding to continue their strike. Uniformed firefighters pushed back the police. The New Year’s message of Sibyle Veil, director of the “France Inter” Radio station was interrupted by the workers, 299 of whose jobs are under threat, who sang Verdi’s “Slave Choir”. Strikers from “CGT Energie” turned hundreds of thousands of homes onto the off-peak tariffs. In Bordeaux, the strikers cut off electricity to “Cdiscount”, a French online trading company and the City hall and redistributed it: “We take  kilowatts from the richest and give them back to the poorest”. Many of these initiatives give a glimpse of what becomes possible once the workers take over control of the economy from the bosses and shareholders.

Talking about the shareholders, at the beginning of the year we learned that the record amount of dividends paid to shareholders 12 years ago, just before the sub-prime crisis, had been beaten in 2019. The payments made by the groups in the CAC 40, the French stock market index, exceeded €60 billion, based on €88.5 billion in profits. There is little criticism of Macron and his gang from these people. Or if there is, only because they always want more, under the guise, of course,  of “defending the competitiveness of companies”. 

Unpayable pensions? 

The government has tried to present its reform project as “fair and simple” since it officially aims to establish a “universal” pension system. But public opinion has understood very clearly, that it is all about making people work longer for lower pensions. Moreover, the points-based pension system will hit women harder, when they already today, on average, have lower pensions.

The government and its supporters keep saying that since we are living longer, we have to work longer. It is true that people are living longer than they did 40 years ago. But we’re also producing much more wealth than we did 40 years ago! Where did that money go? Who are they trying to fool? The pension system was set up at the end of the Second World War, in a country ravaged by Nazi occupation and war-related destruction. At the time, it was the strength of the workers’ movement and the resistance against the occupation that was able to impose this system and to establish the first milestones of social security. French workers are rediscovering this strength today.

Government maneuvers 

The government announced, a week ago, the withdrawal of one of the many measures of its reform, the “pivotal age” after which working longer will entitle workers to a bonus. This age currently is 62 years but would be raised to 64 by 2027. Two unions, the CFDT and Unsa, had made it a red line, a prerequisite for stopping the movement. The announcement of this withdrawal was intended to divide and weaken the unions. But, on the ground, the strikers demand the pure and simple withdrawal of the whole reform. 

All the more so as this concession will be temporary until a “conference on how to balance and finance the pension system” is held, to which the government propose inviting the unions.  There is no guarantee that the measure will not be reintroduced then. The aim of this maneuver? To save time and, above all, to let the mid-March municipal elections pass by. These elections promise to be extremely delicate for the government party.

The extreme right unmasked 

The strength of the movement is such that the Rassemblement National (former Front National) of Marine Le Pen felt obliged to pay lip service to the movement. This is understandable: 75% of its voters support the protest movement. But as the movement passed the 40-day mark, Marine Le Pen showed her true position by attacking Philippe Martinez, the leader of the CGT: “We have every reason to hate the CGT and Martinez”. 

This struggle can play a role in fighting the extreme right by highlighting what unites workers regardless of their religion or the color of their skin. The divisive rhetoric of the extreme right does not hold up in the face of substantial social mobilization. But if the movement fails or is betrayed by the union leadership, cynicism and disillusionment could open up a boulevard for the far right.

The importance of the general assemblies

For this reason too, it is extremely important that the unions and student unions (CFE-CGC, CGT, FO, FSU, Solidaires, UNEF, UNL, MNL, FIDL) have rightly called for the movement to continue. They defend the holding of general assemblies in workplaces to continue and expand the mobilizations. This dynamic must be used to build a genuine general strike that is democratically discussed and agreed in every workplace. In such a movement, the aim of withdrawing the pension reforms should be just the beginning. If a strong movement can be built, the fall of the government of the rich would be on the agenda. 

Of course, this requires the development of a political alternative. In addition to organizing the struggle, the general assemblies must become forums to develop a broader set of demands based on an increase of salaries and social benefits, an end to precarious work, an end to unemployment by reducing the working week without loss of pay and with the reallocation of the newly created jobs, massive investments in public services accessible to all throughout the country and the expropriation of those companies that resist the introduction of such a program to place them under the democratic control and management of the workers. 

Let us have no illusions: the implementation of this program is not possible if we remain prisoners of the dictatorship of capital. This system must follow the same trajectory as the pension reform project and be consigned to the dustbin of history. One of the most fundamental tasks today is the development of a genuine workers’ party, bringing together the various elements and strands of this movement of social resistance to fight for the establishment of a workers’ government. 

If the key sectors of the economy, such as finance, pharmacy and so on were to be taken out of the clutches of big business and the ultra-rich and made available to the community – what we call socialism – then it would be possible to democratically plan the resources of the economy to meet the needs of the majority and not for the profits of the few. In the current international context, where mass struggles are developing on all continents, France would be an inspiring example that would not remain isolated for long.

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