Assault on pensions: French mass strikes raise the stakes

Macron has united all the trade unions and left political organisations in opposition to his pension reforms. The strike on 17 December has been given a boost by the resignation of Jean-Paul Delevoye, the architect for pension reforms, who had failed to declare all of his earnings and appointments. With the backing of 70% in opinion polls, the strike movement is continuing.

Antoine Larrache, a member of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA)  and of the Fourth International, analyses the strikes against Macron’s pension reform and discusses ideas to win.


On 5 December, approximately one million French workers struck against an attack on pensions. As Leon Cremieux wrote in an article in International Viewpoint, “All-out strikes have continued in the SNCF (national rail) and the RATP (Paris public transportation) since 5 December. The transport workers were joined in the strike by teachers (70% on strike on 5 December), gas and electricity workers, fire-fighters, students and high school students and a significant number of other wokers in the private sector… On 10 December, another day of strikes and demonstrations took place at the call of CGT, FO Solidaires and FSU trade unions as well as high school and student unions.”

Since French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe’s announcement on 11 December that he will push ahead with pension reforms, the strike movement has entered a new phase. The Prime Minister’s announcements confirm everything that the movement has been denouncing in President Emmanuel Macron’s plans: a higher retirement age for those born after 1975, measures that discriminate against women, pensions calculated over a person’s whole working lifetime. An overwhelming majority of workers reject these measures and the strike set for 17 December promises to be even more successful than the 5 December strike, while workers on prolonged strikes are winning recognition, encouragement, and support for their movement.

Is the CFDT joining the movement a good thing?

The Prime Minister’s announcements pushed the CFDT union into action, with this moderate union federation saying that the pension reforms “crossed a red line.” This is new is a double-edged sword. Of course, we must look favourably on the possible entry into the mobilization of such an important trade union, which will only strengthen the 17 December strike and help the hesitant workers over into joining the strike. The government’s declarations have also hardened the union leaders rhetoric, reaffirming their call “to strengthen strike mobilization and to back ongoing strikes whenever employees decide to do so.”

But we know that the CFDT leadership – and it is not alone in this – is at the same time preparing to compromise with the government and abandon the movement, particularly if it backs off raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 years.

The best way to convince the leaders to stick with the struggle is to set it in motion. We must multiply communications and connections from below, raise slogans in the demonstrations, the general assemblies, and cross-industry meetings in order to convince the leaders on the question of complete withdrawal of the government’s reform package.

The danger of divide and rule

Breaking ranks is the most important danger. Indeed, the government is trying to defuse the mobilizations by proposing meetings with unions in certain sectors (transport, education, etc.) to discusses various issues such as when the reform goes into effect, promises for wage increases (in which no one believes), etc. The government wants to salvage the heart of its reform, that is, a new points-based retirement system which calculates pensions over a lifetime. This system would allow them to weaken workplace and sectoral solidarity, to individualize pensions, to drastically reduce payments, and to introduce private pensions based on individual contributions.

It is absolutely necessary to convince all workers who are mobilized of the need for a total withdrawal of the reforms and for them to weigh in on this in their trade union organizations so that it becomes a real red line.

Fill up the calendar with action

The unions, faced with the difficulties of mobilizing on 10 December, delayed the next day of action to 17 December, while at the same time, they encouraged on-going strikes. What explains this contradiction? The union leaderships represent the great mass of workers, including the private sector, where the strike movement remains very small, this was true even on 5 December. Therefore, they orientation is aimed at sectors that are poorly mobilized.

By not calling a strike on 12 December, the leadership, on the one hand, gave workplace union teams time to prepare for the strike in under-prepared areas, on the other hand, where little work has been done by union teams, the absence of a clear, short-term strike date makes it, paradoxically, difficult for these teams to prepare. What is interesting is how this delay frees up space for initiatives from below. Indeed, the weakness of initiatives coming from the top between 11 and 16 December may, in fact, demonstrate the need for workers to create their own organizing structures. Self-organization hardly ever flows from a pre-existing ideological conception, rather, it comes from confronting practical tasks. Already, cross-industry meetings have organized local demonstrations, actions in hospitals, in front of big companies, at commuter hubs, and in mass meeting.

Actions that show the way to win.

Indeed, mobilizations in the SNCF, the RATP and the national education system might be capable of bringing more people into the fight, provided that we take the time, again and again, to convince those who hesitate, those who are not on strike to join in. We must do this on a daily basis in our own workplaces, and we must turn to new sectors to help them get involved.

In order for real self-organization to emerge, strike committees elected by general assemblies must organize the struggle and cross-industry links, and local cross-industry meetings must choose their own leaders, while taking care not to neglect the necessary work of workplace activist teams building the strike step by step.

Can the strikes beat the government?

Edouard Philippe’s announcements are a form of all-out attack. No government has dared to attack the whole working-class at this level for a long time. He bet that the unions, with the exception of rail and public transportation, were unprepared for the current mobilization.

Thus, the level of confrontation necessary to win will be very high and we must prepare now to spend the school holidays fighting. But, if we manage to build something that looks like a general strike, the government and the employers may lose their shirts. Because lurking behind this reform is a gigantic transfer of funds they are counting on from workers’ pockets to the bosses in a situation in which capitalism is in crisis. A mobilizing victory will therefore necessarily change the balance of forces between the classes and signal the launch of a counter-offensive.

If we can defeat the pension reforms, then constructing an alternative to Macron and the capitalist system will be a task in itself. When workers in struggle forge bonds, when they generalize their understanding, it is not primarily in discussions about wages or working conditions, rather, it is when they begin to raise the question of power: who is in charge, why was a Macron elected, how can we change our situation, how can we establish a more just world? And revolutionaries will have plenty to say in this political debate!

Antoine Larrache, NPA

Republished from No Borders News

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