France: Crucial days for the strike movement

Step up, extend and generalise the strike!

Nicolas Croes, LSP/PSL (CWI in Belgium)

This Thursday, January 9, the pension dispute reaches its 36th day of struggle without interruption since 5 December. There have been 3 national days of strike and general demonstrations, while different sectors have been on strike either intermittently or since the beginning of the movement. Such a sustained movement has not been seen in France since 1968. After losing the battle of public opinion, which remains resolutely on the side of the movement and the unions even after the holiday period, Emmanuel Macron and his government are waiting for the strikers’ resources to be exhausted and therefore for mobilisations to subside.

At the time of the President’s new year’s greetings, Macron again confirmed the government’s stubbornness regarding its antisocial pension reform project and its rotting strategy. The three days of inter-professional mobilisations announced for 9, 10 and 11 January by the CGT, FO, Solidaires and the FSU trade unions aim to strike a new blow after the two weeks of end-of-year festivities.

These trade unions called for “debating, as of Monday [6 January], in all companies, services and places of study, in general assemblies of employees, students and high school students, the conditions necessary for the success of January 9 and its aftermath the next day”. After 9 and 10 January, these unions are calling for Saturday 11 January to be made “a day of demonstrations throughout the country”. This is  the first such proposal to be made in trade union history over the last forty years.

Contrary to media and government claims, RATP ( public transport in Paris) and railway workers are not alone in the struggle. In energy, refineries, ports and docks, education, health, the fire brigade, at the BNF, at Paris Opera, and in many private sector companies,… the mobilisation is strong and the strike is being sustained.

Festivities spent under the shadow of struggle

Hundreds of combative initiatives were taken across the country during the holiday season. In the Paris metropolitan area, CGT Energy workers switched nearly 500,000 households to off-peak rates during the morning of Christmas Eve. “It was our Christmas present,” explained CGT representative Nicolas Noguès, “For the user, it’s counted in pennies, but for the company, it’s going to be a big loss of earnings”. Also in Béziers, the strikers broke into the power station in order to switch all the customers of the network to “off-peak hours”.

Elsewhere, other workers cut electricity from the rich to redistribute it to the poor, such as in Bordeaux where strikers cut electricity to Cdiscount (a French e-commerce company) and the town hall to redistribute it: “We take the kilowatts from the richest and give them back to the poorest”.

These initiatives have undoubtedly continued to score points with the public. But they have also provided a glimpse of what is possible when it is the workers who are in control and no longer the bosses and shareholders.

Workers re-motivated

Since the movement began on 5 December, several refineries have joined the struggle, but without real coordination: some were not on strike while others were only intermittently on strike. This had helped the government to reorganise supply flows in coordination with the management of oil companies. But, since Tuesday January 7, at noon, all the country’s refineries went on strike at the call of the CGT. This has not happened since 2010. In 2016, in the movement against the Labour Law, one of the refineries did not participate, unlike today. This situation illustrates that the movement is having an impact in re-motivating and remobilizing workers after the defeat of past struggles.

This dynamic affects many other sectors, such as the lawyers, who have gone on strike for a whole week to denounce the pension reform project. This Wednesday morning, they took off their black robes and threw them at the feet of the Minister of Justice, who was visiting Caen.

The priority is now to build on these 3 days of national mobilizations to strengthen the strike movement and extend it into a real indefinite general strike, to be renewed regularly by general assemblies of the workers.

The whole system has to go!

Labour productivity has increased significantly in recent decades: we produce more, with fewer workers. It is not true to say that pensions are unaffordable: there has never been so much wealth as there is today. There is more than enough to pay for our pensions, as well as addressing the many other shortages that affect society.

Local workers’ and youth assemblies in the workplaces, in the neighbourhoods and so on, can not only democratically decide upon the renewal of the strike and the measures needed to strengthen it, but can also collectively debate a broader set of demands. This could include demands such as:

  • An immediate freeze and lowering of gasoline and energy prices;
  • A real living income, by increasing wages and social benefits and indexing them in line with prices, including fuel prices;
  • Job security with real permanent employment contracts;
  • An attack on unemployment, not the unemployed, by sharing out the work, reducing working hours to 32 hours per week without loss of pay, with extra workers hired to compensate;
  • Putting needs at the centre of policy making, with free and non-polluting public transport and public, particularly local services: crèches, schools, maternity units, post offices, public housing, etc.;
  • The (re)introduction of a wealth tax and a fight against tax evasion by the ultra-rich and multinationals with an end to indirect taxation (VAT, etc.), replaced by higher tax rates for the rich and large companies;
  • A major environmental public works plan,  to create hundreds of thousands of jobs necessary for a green transition (ecological agriculture, short circuit food supply, renewable energies, etc.);

To achieve such a programme requires socialist measures such as the nationalisation and unification of the entire financial sector into a national investment and financing service under the democratic control of the community, as well as the nationalisation of key sectors of the economy so that large companies cannot continue to sabotage the ecological transition and to make sure democratic planning, based on ecological and other needs, becomes possible.

If France is rising up today, it is far from the only country to do so. Since the first steps taken by the yellow vests revolt, the development of mass struggles and general strikes with revolutionary characteristics has been a powerful feature throughout the world. The list of countries whose governments face mass opposition continues to grow. Let us engage with confidence in this new era of struggle with the aim of leading workers and the masses to overthrow the capitalist system of exploitation, so that all humanity can achieve true emancipation through the building of a democratic socialist society.