OLIVIER DELBEKE reports from Paris, 12th January 2020
The Macron government is mandated by big business to make up for the many years lost in doing to the workers of France what Mrs Thatcher and Herr Schroder inflicted on employees and pensioners in their countries during the 1980s and 1990s.
in November 2018, barely 18 months after his election, Macron found himself facing a social explosion: that of the Yellow Jackets (gilets jaunes). This was caused by an accumulation over decades of deteriorating social conditions – unemployment, under-employment, low wages and pensions, especially in the rural areas and banlieus (suburbs).
This movement has continued for more than a year now, albeit in fewer numbers than in its early days, but enough nevertheless to worry the government, which has inflicted savage repression deliberately aimed at intimidating people and deterring them from protesting.
This is the context for the fight against pension reform, which began on 13th September with a very successful token strike by workers in the RATP (the Paris and suburban Metro, regional railway and buses) and burst into a full extended strike since 5th December, mainly by workers in the RATP and the SNCF (the national railway company), but also in a more diffuse form in other sectors: energy, education, the refineries…
The great victory of the strikers is to have forced the national union federations – the CGT, the FO, the FSU and Solidaires – to support the demand for withdrawal of the entire reform project. This was by no means a foregone conclusion if we consider what the CGT and the FO were saying at the time. At that time they were engaged in a “consultation” with the Government’s Mr. Retirement – in other words, they had agreed to undergo endless powerpoint presentations in which they were not entitled to any real discussion except to accept Macron’s project.
Unfortunately, the leaders of the union Intersyndicale are not participating in the general strike strategy, but merely repeating the tactic of sporadic days of action in which those sectors that wish to strike are invited to do so; in no way is there any central call to strike everywhere, all together.
Worse still, the national leaders have not broken off all contact with the government; they persist in participating in “non-negotiations”, because Macron is hell-bent on getting, one way or another, approval for his “reform”.
There is a reason for this: the only way to achieve withdrawal of the reform project is to confront the government in such a way that it has no choice but to capitulate. This could result in either Macron’s resignation or the paralysis of his government until the next presidential election (April-May 2022), which would amount to Macron’s political death. No national trade union leadership is ready for this kind of political confrontation.
So we have a strike movement that has been going on since 5 December at the RATP and SNCF, with a cluster of strikes in various sectors (teachers, energy workers, sections of the civil service, the ports and docks, the refineries, Radio France, etc. …) which forms the climate for a general strike, but which is still not a general strike.
There is an explosion of multiple initiatives all over France, with protests and picket lines at transport depots, industrial plants and main roads, occupations of buildings, power cuts, delegations to MPs. There are collection boxes to support the strikers, and meetings ranging from strike committees of workers intent on organising strikes at local level to real mass general assemblies of workers already on strike and engaged in common struggle. But for now there is no actual general strike, because there is no national political force intent on a common political confrontation with the government.
The demonstrations held on the major days of national action (on 5th, 10th and 17th December, 9th and 11th January) have been crucial events because they have gathered together in broad daylight all those fighting against Macron’s policies. They have also set the scene for a growing crescendo of police violence. The treatment that was systematically meted out to the Yellow Jackets (bludgeoning, rubber bullets, tear gas and grenades), became the norm for peaceful trade union demonstrations deliberately attacked by the police on the orders of the authorities.
Where are the Union Federations?
What is remarkable about this situation is that the trade union centre CFDT, which in terms of numbers is considered the country’s main trade-union federation, is playing no part. The CFDT Secretary Laurent Berger claims intellectual paternity of the points pension system (a system identical to that of Sweden), but it is doing nothing to pursue its line of “critical support” for Macron’s reform, and has proved incapable of opposing the surge of strikes. And in many places, rank-and-file CFDT members are taking action against Macron’s project.
It is just the same with the other “reformist” trade-union federations – which are in reality counter-reformist, because they have accepted the capitalist counter-reforms: UNSA, whose rank-and-file members at RATP and SNCF are participating in the strike, while its national secretary Laurent Escure never fails to attend meetings with the Prime Minister hoping to grab crumbs from the margins while accepting the principle of reform.
It is possible that the striking RATP and SNCF workers may eventually return to work if the strike does not spread to the entire private sector. But given the social climate and the overall public rejection of Macron’s economic and social policy, this would only be the end of a first round. There are sectors such as the teachers, where widespread disgust has been provoked throughout the profession by a combination of opposition to the attack on pensions, a decline in wages and the refusal of the educational reform initiated by the minister Blanquer – a reform which many say is aimed at putting teachers off from practising their profession. Turmoil has continued since March 2018 in the health sector and hospitals where staff are fed up with understaffing and declining resources, with everyone from nurses to top medical specialists are repelled by the minister Buzin and her austerity plans. There are also the effects of the unemployment reform, the financial consequences of which were postponed after the municipal elections so as not to cause problems for the candidates of Macron’s party the LREM.
It is highly significant that on the eve of the municipal elections due in March 2020, Macron sees his local candidates hiding the LREM acronym on their campaign posters and has to witness fratricidal duels between LREM candidates even at government level. The pension reform has driven on to the streets the entire profession of lawyers, which was already rebelling against the justice reforms of minister Belloubet and the shortage of material resources for the proper functioning of the judicial and penitentiary system. The same is true of other liberal professions. Macronism is struggling to achieve its goal of securing a local base for his national party of government.
Macron and his government are relying on three devices: the lie, cleverly relayed by the major capitalist media, which denies the existence of the social crisis and disguises reality; repression that is systematically applied to all social protest movements; and finally the union leaders’ strategy of refusing to organize a decisive showdown with the regime.
These three factors will be circumvented or overwhelmed by a wave of social anger. Even if there is a pause in the strike movement, even then the tens of thousands of strike militants, the hundreds of thousands of strikers, and the millions of demonstrators who have at least once since Macron’s election taken to the streets for one cause or another will digest the lessons of these events and find ways to do better and to win.
What is needed is a political force which helps to regroup these militants, strikers and demonstrators to prepare practically for a confrontation with power.