John Mullen 13 May 2023 by https://www.counterfire.org/
Besançon demonstration against pension reform, February 2023. Photo: Toufik-de-Planoise / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.0
The movement against attacks on pension is showing great resilience, argues John Mullen, but needs to move towards general strikes in order to win
First the good news. The 13th day of action to defend pensions, on 1st May, brought 2 million people onto the streets, and every day for weeks before and since, there have been energetic protests around the country. Strikers occupy motorway toll booths and let drivers through free, while collecting large amounts of money for strike funds. Ministers, down to Macron’s most lowly assistant secretary of state visiting the most out of the way village, are greeted by rapidly organized demonstrations, with crowds banging saucepans and chanting ‘Macron, resign!’ In recent weeks, at least 80 ministerial visits have been disrupted, and a couple of dozen have been cancelled for fear of disruption, according to activist organization ATTAC. And many ministers suddenly find the electricity has been cut off by power workers in the places they are visiting.
On 6th May, the radical left France Insoumise organised ‘the March of all our Anger’ in Marseille. On the same day, activists bricked up the entrance at the headquarters of the bosses’ federation, the MEDEF. On 8th May, Macron was only able to do his Second World War victory celebration on the Champs Elysees by banning all spectators from the zone, while later the same day he laid a wreath in Lyon, in homage to resistance hero Jean Moulin, while banning all demonstrations in the centre of the town. Macron is humiliated, isolated, lost. Polls show that 82 percent of the population consider that ‘he is not close to the concerns of ordinary people’. Although he announced three weeks ago ‘a hundred days to calm things down’, this has not been a wild success so far.
Under pressure, no longer able to count on his traditional right-wing allies who are scared by his stunning unpopularity, Macron has had to shelve many of his planned attacks and make minor concessions too. The racist immigration law is being postponed, a new crackdown on tax fraud by the very rich is being put into motion, and money was found for student grants. In a war of position, Macron is having to retreat in a number of small ways.
The movement has brought into action millions of people, many of whom were not in the habit of protesting, and this radicalisation has helped our class on other issues. A number of protests to defend the environment against huge new roads, to defend farmers against multinationals stealing their water, and so on, have been tremendously dynamic. Antiracist and antifascist protests have been larger than usual. And strikes over wages are breaking out in many workplaces, sometimes with rapid success.
Meanwhile, Macron’s police have stepped up violence and repression, claiming that the activities of the Black Bloc leave them with no choice. Interior minister Gérard Darmanin claimed that thousands were coming to demonstrations ‘with one aim: to kill cops and damage other people’s property’. Apart from the fact that he seems incapable of counting as far as two, the reality is that practically all those gravely injured at demonstrations are protesters attacked by the police. The government is planning a new law to make it easier to harass protestors (though, in the present atmosphere of political crisis, even some of Macron’s own MPs are objecting).
The government is also very much playing the racist card, with a series of declarations from interior minister Darmanin about immigrant ‘spongers’. The racist police are getting ever more confident – last month a police car in Paris deliberately rammed a scooter with three black teenagers on it, gravely injuring them.
Strategy and leadership
Macron’s attack on pensions has been signed into law and, in theory, will apply from September. A 14th union day of action has been called for 6th June, two days before a vote in parliament on an opposition motion to cancel the pensions reform (a vote which has almost zero chances of being successful). But even the slowest among demonstrators is thinking ‘if we have tried a tactic thirteen times without success, perhaps we need a new one!’
The national union leaderships have refused to go further than single days of action. The obvious option of organising a 24-hour general strike, followed by 48 hours, 72 hours and so on, in a context of unheard-of levels of public support, did not fit with the perspectives of these professional negotiators. And now, the leaders of the biggest unions have announced they will meet the prime minister for talks next week, where previously they had rightly refused to do so until the law was withdrawn. In theory the meeting is to discuss other matters, but it is bound to give the impression that relations are on their way ‘back to normal’, an idea which can only help Macron.
Some sectors of the working class are keen to move beyond the national leaders’ playbook: there are still regularly one day sectoral strikes or school blockades against the pension reform, a few workplaces have been on strike for months, and demonstrations continue.
Faced with the intransigence and disdain of the government, a section of young people is tempted by Black Bloc rioting, and such rioting is approved of by more and more people, despite it being fundamentally a dead end whose main effect is to help the government build up repression.
Most revolutionaries here are convinced that single days of action will not bring us victory. In general, however, they believe that their role is just to do as much as they can, each in their own workplace, to encourage further strikes. What is missing is a determined mass attempt to pressure the national union leaderships into escalating the strikes.