Concerted Class Struggle in France
8 February 2020
Following months of Yellow Vest protests last year against fuel tax rises during which President Macron had to partially retreat he then switched his attentions to the public sector, launching his long planned pension reforms. These planned cuts are no piecemeal tinkering around the edges. The so called 'reforms', ostensibly to make the French pension system more 'fair', are in reality designed to squeeze more profit from public sector workers in response to the global capitalist crisis.
The currently existing 42 pension schemes are not failing, they allow for earlier than usual retirement from demanding or stressful jobs and the French pension system in general, although it has many flaws, allows workers to retire at 62 and has achieved among the lowest old-age poverty rates in the world. Macron's plan is to introduce a pension based on a points system where the value of a 'point' can vary leaving pension entitlements unclear and all workers who enjoy the benefit of an relatively early retirement date could face the prospect of seeing their retirement age raised, in some cases by as much as 10 years, with women workers reported as being the "biggest losers".
The problem for the banks is that at present French workers' pension contributions are locked away from the grasping hands of the vast pension funds that stand to make yet another killing if they become available on the market. The revelation that the author of the new pension plan, High Commissioner for Pensions Jean-Paul Delevoye, had not disclosed a conflict of interest when he took the post some months earlier spurred on the strikers early in the dispute. Delevoye, who was forced to resign such was the wave of disgust, was on a retainer from the French insurance federation which stands to benefit massively from the cuts in State pensions. Delevoye is not alone, Macron also is connected to Blackrock one of the world's largest asset management funds which stands to benefit handsomely from pension contributions entering the financial market.
The popular revulsion at this raid on pensions inevitably found its most organised expression through the strike wave which began on December 5th and brought very large demonstrations to the streets in support.
A broad range of employees took action but the backbone of the strikes were the public sector workers in the transport system, in particular the Paris Autonomous Transport Authority (RATP) workers who were on all out strike for over a month until January 20th. The workers in the national rail system, (SNCF), also joined them on selected days, closing down the national rail network very effectively.
This core of transport workers was joined by teachers, supported by their students, opera workers, firefighters, power workers, refinery workers and even ballet dancers. The Parisian postal workers at Sud Poste Haut de Seine 92 who had carried out a small scale but very determined marathon strike from 2018 through until last year were again in action, signifying the cumulative nature of the struggle and the staying power of the French working class. In some cases the struggle was conducted selectively with power workers cutting power supplies to business and corporate sectors but restoring power to poorer areas and to families who had their power cut off for non payment of bills. In addition to the all out strike action, national days of action in support of the transport strikers were held across the country which attracted between one and two million to the streets as different groups of workers held a series of one day walk-outs.
The State's Tactical retreats
The police response was a direct continuation of their tactics during the yellow vest demonstrations, hundreds have been arrested and the cops have continued their disgusting tactic of firing 'rubber' bullets and gas canisters at point blank range in order to cause head injuries or to attempt to blind protesters. Many of those struck have lost an eye. This repression, which was not successful in doing anything except angering the protesters and strikers, was accompanied by attempts to peel back support from the leading core of the anti cuts campaign, the transport workers.
Faced with such large scale and determined opposition Macron proceeded to make some tactical concessions to sections of strikers. In order to keep morale up in the state forces the police were primarily excluded from the new pension scheme. The exemptions continued; airline pilots and stewarts, nurses, train drivers, firemen, prison staff, truck drivers, fishermen, teachers, air traffic controllers, lawyers and ballet dancers were all excluded. So many exemptions to the proposed new system have been made that Macron's plan to introduce a single universal pension has been held up to ridicule by his bourgeois allies.
These concessions however are a temporary tactic designed to divide the strikers and give the impression of movement on the government's position. They were also a signal to the conservative union bureaucracy to talk up the possibility of a compromise and a campaign of sentimental appeals 'on behalf' of French families for a Xmas 'truce' was launched. Although the notion was faced with widespread opposition among the strikers in the end the bureaucracy's failure to organise large scale actions amounted to a de facto truce.
As the strike crept in to its second month hard pressed workers were beginning to drift back to work. The CGT, the country's largest and hugely wealthy union had refused to pay adequate strike pay and many strikers would have been starved back to work much sooner had it not been for a crowdfunding initiative which raised over €2 million for the strike fund.
The metro workers on all out strike were also isolated by deliberate foot dragging by the union bureaucracy which did nothing to generalise the all out strike across other industries, especially the essential industries. From the beginning, the workers at the refineries and fuel depots showed their willingness to break the law, going from simple legal strike action to forming full blockades which are illegal. The Grandpuits station in Paris was blockaded for weeks forcing the bureaucracy's hand into making a token gesture which would allow for a general blockade across all of France's refineries. This token gesture was carefully controlled. As is the norm in official disputes notice was given, which allows for some product to be got out in advance, and the action was strictly limited to 96 hours. In addition, the bureaucrats held out the promise that the tactic would be generalised across the country but the blockade was left incomplete, robbing it of its affect, and under cover of the semblance of taking action they entered talks and moved in to full demobilisation mode immediately after the token 96 hours had expired.
The Flimsiest of Excuses
Following the talks the CFDT keenly announced Macron's offer to drop his plans. It was no such thing. Prime minister Philippe made it completely clear that the proposal to suspend plans to raise the pension, or 'pivot' age from 62 to 64 was very much a temporary measure designed to enable the opening of a four month period of negotiation, during which the onus was to be placed on the union leaders to come up with a 'workable alternative'. The probable outcome of these negotiations has already been made plain by the bureaucracy's concession of pension reductions of 10-20% separately from the pension age increases.
Despite the tough talk of the supposedly 'hard line' CGT the entire trade union bureaucracy are keen to see a settlement and have seized upon the flimsiest of excuses to demobilise the strike. Macron's heavily conditional tactical offer is presented as a breakthrough by the CFDT bureaucrats who attach the spin that this is now their opportunity to negotiate a pension system, “that is fairer and shows more solidarity”. It is the opposite and the entire bureaucracy are shamelessly attempting to use differences between the different pension schemes' conditions to undermine the solidarity between different groups of workers.
No such “fairer” system is envisaged by Macron and Philippe who have openly announced their determination to push through their desired changes, threatening to ultimately introduce them as an 'Order' rather than through an agreement which would require parliamentary approval.
Despite the bureaucracy's efforts at demobilisation there is widespread scepticism among the workers and the “offer” is regarded as a red herring. Activists have commented that “large parts of the strikers and even of the general public recognize that this is a manoeuvre” There is also anger. Transport workers were so incensed by the bureaucracy's collapse that they marched to the offices of the CFDT where they held a noisy protest. The bureaucrats cynical response was to call the cops while the leadership of the supposedly more radical CGT joined in with the cacophony of condemnation of the workers initiative in the bourgeois press.
In France as in Ireland the union bureaucracy's tactics and strategy are the same; maintain the class peace, act as mediators, concession bargain and retreat continuously in the face of imperialist assault while maintaining their own priveleges. The full time union executives faux radicalism during peak times of industrial revolt is swiftly followed by an indecently hasty clamour for “negotiations” where the workers always lose in the name of coming to what is usually described as 'a fair', or alternatively 'an imposed' deal.
As it stands the union bureaucracy have achieved one of their key objectives, to stop the all out strikes and replace them with the kind of one day protest strikes accompanied by occasional large marches which leaves them firmly in control. Everyone from Dublin Bus and Iarnrod Eireann workers to nurses, health workers and teachers are very familiar with such tactics.
Despite this there are important differences. The working class is many times larger in France and the workers although they have been formally put in to negotiation mode by their professional leadership have a recent history of self defence second to none. Although the large scale mobilisations are being deliberately wound down there is still sporadic and very determined actions taking place, carried over by the huge momentum of the strike wave.
In addition the trade union bureaucracy does not have quite the same control over the working class that their Irish counterparts do and from the beginning workers were taking action independently. Because the union leadership hadn't responded to the announced reforms teachers, early on, took action outside of the traditional union structures, striking during the baccalauriat exams and of course the power workers broke the rules to blocade the Grandpuits power station. Strike committees also organised independent fund raising initiatives supported by independently minded union branches which raised several million Euro, giving a degree of independence to the strikers they otherwise wouldn't have achieved.
Although limited, this independence has continued and groups of workers “are increasingly resorting to wildcat actions to cause disruption.” They are far from defeated and there is still a grim determination to fight on. There is also a huge level of support for the strikers among the broader French working class with a layer of the middle class in support. With such a level of militancy at the heart of a major component of the European working class the bureaucracy's role will be challenged more strongly than in Ireland.
But, like the Irish working class however the French workers movement suffers from the same malaise. Workers' opposition to the control of the union bureaucracies erupts spontaneously at moments of acute confrontation with the employers or state but is not organised and generally maintained in conscious rank and file bodies.
Nevertheless, pressure is being ramped up on trade union bureaucracies by the continuing crisis of capitalism and concommitantly by the constantly recurring grievances from their members that this inevitably produces when the bourgeoisie are systematically pursuing their attacks on workers. Old 'compromises' are coming back to haunt these mis-leaders of the workers movement and there is no respite for them to regain stability and relative class peace.
While the concerted class struggle in France is being conducted on a more impressive scale than in Ireland, the stubborn resistance here continues. Trade union action has subsided following the defeat of the nurses and hospital workers campaigns in 2019 but the Irish teachers union, the TUI, is faced with growing pressure from its members to resolve the iniquitous two tier pay issue and are facing a fight to regain a basic fundamental of trade unionism, equal pay for equal work. But while feeling the wrath of their members and being continually caught in the crossfire by spontaneous upsurges, as is the CGT and CFDT, the ICTU bureaucracy face no consistent organised opposition at rank and file level. It must develop! We must learn from our own experiences of betrayals and from the working class upheaval in France which while presently having been lulled by the union bureaucrats is far from over.