Mass French Strikes and Mobilizations Challenge Macron’s Pension Reform

By Jeff Mackler, published on Socialist Action, March 31, 2023

What the corporate media ban from their coverage of the unfolding and ever massive French protests against President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to add two years to the French retirement age, from 62 to 64, is the origin of the pension plan itself, perhaps the best in the world. This magnificent post WWII working class victory did not fall from the gentle heavens of the French capitalist class but was wrested by the threat of revolution in the context of a discredited French ruling class and its Vichy government that collaborated with and facilitated the war time Nazis occupation. France’s Vichy regime was effectively Hitler Germany’s puppet government. Its war-time leaders, Marshal Philippe Pétain and Pierre Laval, orchestrated the imprisonment and slaughter of tens of thousands of French Jews and otherwise did the bidding of Hitler’s fascist state. Pétain and Laval were convicted of mass murder and sentenced to death in the immediate post-WWII period. Laval was executed by firing squad in October 1945. Pétain’s death sentence was commuted to life in prison by General Charles de Gaulle, who, prior to the war, was a relatively obscure French Catholic general based in North Africa and assigned to guard over France’s colonial empire. He became French President following the US, British and Canadian-led D-Day liberation at Normandy in 1945. De Gaulle’s Free French forces played a minor role in France’s liberation.

France’s largest party at the time was the Communist Party that had played a leading role in the broad underground French Resistance to the Nazis occupation, including sabotaging German military operations, providing valuable intelligence information and facilitating and sometimes organizing attacks on German officers and troops. But the French Communist Party was subordinate to the politics of the Joseph Stalin-led Soviet Union. At the various allied conferences between Russia, the US and Britain, the shape of post-war Europe was negotiated. While the largest parties in post war Italy and France were the Communist Parties, and with the pro-Nazis government’s of these countries discredited, a deal was struck wherein they would refrain from challenging the policies of the allied-constructed governments. Capitalism, on Stalin’s orders, was to remain unchallenged in France and Italy, regardless of the fact that the capitalist class was despised. But major concessions to mass anti-capitalist sentiment were required, including France’s Communist Party head, Maurice Thorez, becoming a Minister of State under de Gaulle in 1945 and Deputy Prime Minister in 1946 and 1947, positions that included Thorez and other CPers included in the post war French cabinet. CP officials were appointed to head major posts, including the Ministry of Labor.

Origins of today’s French pension system

It was in this context that France’s pension system was adopted, a context of mass social mobilizations that threatened capitalist rule. What remained of the discredited French ruling class had no alternative but to accede to the deals negotiated by the victorious allies at the wartime Yalta and Potsdam conferences, from which the French were largely excluded.

An understanding of the origins of today’s French pension system explains well why Macron’s move to fundamentally alter it has met with massive resistance. [We leave aside for now, a further assessment of the role of the French CP, and world Stalinism more generally, in stabilizing the deeply shaken post war world capitalist order. In the US, it included the formal dissolution of the CP itself based a pledge to support all US “progressive” capitalists, including JP Morgan!].

French pension system perhaps the best in the world

A brief look at the present pension system goes a long way in explaining why all polls today indicate that 70 percent of the general French population opposes Macron’s “reforms” as well as 94 percent of France’s trade union members. The average French person now spends more than a quarter of their life — from 22 years for men, to 26 for women — in retirement and in good health. French statisticians measure the latter as “life expectancy without disability.” Those who make it to 65, three years after formal retirement, can expect on average another 11 to 12 good years.

No longer a short reprieve before death, retirement is now seen as “the afternoon of life, a time that is blessed,” said Serge Guérin, a professor of sociology specializing in old age at Iseec Business College in Paris. “It’s a time of liberty, to finally enjoy your grandchildren, your interests, your desire to travel, to volunteer and be elected in your community.”

It is also seen as compensation for working life. “Working time is time waiting to be able to enjoy life… life is not just about working,” said Paris protestor Hervé Bossetti, carrying a ball and chain, and wearing a sign that said, “Prisoner of work.”

Over the past twenty years various polls indicate that some three quarters of French workers have consistently expressed satisfaction with their work. They have also said, repeatedly, they’d like to retire as early as possible. The French pension system covers about three-quarters of a worker’s last and highest salary – enough to travel, and go to restaurants and the theater. “All the things we could not do, finally, we are doing them now,” said another protestor.

France has one of the lowest rates of pensioners at risk of poverty in Europe, 4.4 percent, and a net pension replacement rate — a measure of how effectively retirement income replaces prior earnings — of 74 percent, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Prior to the 1945 pension reform, only one-third of the French people lived to see retirement. Those who did, got access to just 20 percent of their former salary for a handful of years before dying.

Today, France’s pension payments and life expectancy have both ballooned. The average French pensioner is richer than the general population, accessing almost 75 percent of their previous earnings with fewer expenses, a phenomenon that is unheard of in the US, if not most of the world today.

Macron forces pension approval

Macron’s legislation was forced through the National Assembly two weeks ago by using a controversial portion of the French constitution, article 49.3. The decision followed a frantic series of meetings with his senior figures, including Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne that revealed his Renaissance Party and its parliamentary allies lacked a majority to adopt the reform. Pierre Cazeneuve, a Renaissance Party functionary, blamed the Republican Party for Macron’s failure to win a parliamentary majority. With their 61 seats added to the 250 held by Renaissance and its two allied parties, Cazeneuve observed, “the Republicans could have given Macron a majority, but as the street protests grew, their support dwindled.”

Macron then employed a 1958 de Gaulle era Fifth Republic provision of the then revised French constitution to impose legislation without a vote of the National Assembly. By 1958, a more stabilized French capitalist class had decided to rule via a “strong state presidency” that granted near dictatorial power to the head of state. The March 25, 2023 Financial Times characterized France’s Fifth Republic as “the closest thing to an elected dictatorship

But forcing his pension reform’s passage without a vote immediately exposed Macron to a no-confidence motion from the National Assembly. The main motion to that effect, however, narrowly failed and Macron’s cabinet, that would have otherwise been forced to resign, remained intact. But the undaunted French masses had no intention of accepting defeat. Since the announcement of his reforms in January France has witnessed a series of ever more powerful coordinated mass union-initiated strikes, blockades of major industries and mammoth demonstrations.

Millions mobilize in mass strikes

Mass protests over the March 25-26 weekend, estimated by the joint eight national union coalition organizers, mobilized 3.5 million in cites across the country and again, with even greater numbers, on Tuesday, March 28. The strikers and their allies closed down or severely crippled large sections of France’s major rail lines, public transportation systems, universities, garbage collection, some oil refineries, public schools, trucking and other major industries and airports.

But Macron made it clear that he had no intention of backing down. His security forces fired more than 4,000 “nonlethal” dispersion grenades during the March 25-26 mobilizations and more the following week. While hundreds of protestors have been arrested and thousands more clubbed with police batons, tear gassed and/or “kettled”– the new term for forcibly enclosing protestors – millions more demonstrated a power, unity and will to reverse Macron’s action. Virtually every union in France as well as sections the corporate media has condemned the horrific state violence. The Council of Europe resolved last week that peaceful protesters and journalists had to be protected from police violence and arbitrary arrest.

Early on French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, believing that government threats of violence would deter mass mobilizations, denounced “unacceptable assaults and damage” at a state building and a police station in Lorient in western France. “These actions cannot remain unpunished,” he tweeted. But repressing relatively isolated small groups of individuals is qualitatively different than repressing the broad French working class. The government’s wanton violence has backfired, bringing ever-increasing numbers into the streets.

Macron’s strategic orientation

Macron had calculated that the imposition of massive and decisive force, eventual divisions among and between France’s striking unions, and time would chill the mass resentment and eventually bring about the erosion of the mass solidarity exhibited by the general French population. He has been backed by France’s ruling elite, whose profits are ever in decline in the face of intensifying inter-imperialist competition. For French capitalists, and their ilk the world over, there are no solutions other than at the expense of working people. Today’s massive protests against similar sweeping cuts in the quality of working class life, from France, England to Germany and beyond, are exemplary of the inherent contradictions and crises in the world capitalist system. The ruling rich know no way out other than endless wars and attacks on workers everywhere.

To defend capitalist “interests” fifteen thousand French security forces, 5,000 in Paris alone, were mobilized on the weekend of March 25-26 and again on Tuesday, March 28. France’s second largest union, the General Confederation of Workers (CGT), reported that 700,000 had marched in Paris alone. CGT leader Philippe Martinez said Macron “threw a gas tank on the fire.”

Spray-painted slogans in Paris streets have compared the ongoing demonstrations to the 1789 French Revolution, with subsequent comparisons between Macron and King Louis XVI, who was ultimately condemned to death by revolutionaries. He died via guillotine in 1793. While revolution is not on the agenda in France today, the breadth and depth of the mass protests have inspired the participation of new layers of the population, especially the youth.

Who should fund the pension system?

The government insists that its reform plan is essential to ensure the pension system does not run out of money. “I can understand that not many people want to work two more years, but it’s necessary to ensure the viability of the system,” said French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne. With a rare unanimity, France’s unions and a great portion of its working class, beleaguered with unprecedented inflation, ever-escalating fuel and heating costs and rising unemployment, responded with various resounding counter demands to tax the rich and their corporations. Macron contemptuously responded that such taxes would “hurt the French economy.”

Unions demand pension plan withdrawn

Fully aware of the depth of opposition to his “reform” Macron has suggested that he is more than willing to meet with the unions to “discuss” various “compromises” that might settle the present impasse. His objective is to de-mobilize and divide the mass protests, counting on the more moderate unions to negotiate separately to weaken and undermine the power of the increasingly generalized protests. To date, the unions have held firm, insisting that the basis of any future talks is Macron’s withdrawing his legislation.

Laurent Berger, the head of the moderate French Democratic Confederation of Labor (CFDT), who has taken an unexpectedly hard line against the pension reform, said he would accept the government’s offer of talks but only if the reform was first “put to one side.” Berger called on the government to come up with a “very big move on pensions.”

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the leftwing parliamentary opposition, La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), stated that a return to peaceful relations was for the government “to withdraw the law.” Referring to the French National Assembly’s failure to block Macron’s plan, Mélenchon stated, “Since the process of parliamentary censorship has not worked, it is time to move on to popular censorship.”

Some have speculated that France’s Constitutional Council, a body that is assigned to determine if any legislation violates the French Constitution, might intervene to cancel Macron’s legislation. While few consider this “solution” likely, in the face of the powerful massive protests that have brought down French governments in past, the possibility that this sub committee of the government might be employed as a face saving devise cannot be excluded. In the end the measure of the relationship of competing class forces will determine the outcome.

Debates about strike strategy

Tuesday’s events were the tenth round of nationwide demonstrations and strikes called by France’s eight main unions since January. An eleventh round of mobilizations is set for next week. Meanwhile the debate among French workers regarding how to win continues.

Fabien Villedieu, a trade unionist with SUD-Rail union (Solidarity, Unity Democracy), said their strike at France’s railway company SNCF is open-ended. “There are actions every day everywhere, in all the small and big cities of France, with one, two, three or four protests. One, two, three or four blockades,” he said. “What do we need to do to make the government listen?

In the northern suburbs of Paris, several dozen union members blocked a bus depot in Pantin, preventing about 200 vehicles from getting out during rush hour. Nadia Belhoum, a 48-year-old bus driver participating in the action, criticized Macron’s decision to force the higher retirement age through. “The president of the Republic … is not a king, and he should listen to his people,” she said.

France’s Education Ministry reported that about 24 percent of teachers have walked off the job in primary and middle schools, and 15 percent in high schools. The unions insist these numbers are grossly understated.

Macron, whose approval ratings in opinion polls are at a low point, said last week he accepted the “unpopularity” that came with the reform. But he underlined that his political humiliation notwithstanding, he fully intended to remain in power to purse his class’s agenda. His prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, meanwhile said that while there was no plan to drop the legislation, she was ready for fresh dialogue with unions. “We have to find the right path… We need to calm down,” she told the French press agency in an interview on March 28. Borne has scheduled talks over three weeks, including with members of parliament, political parties, local authorities and unions, all aimed at defusing the situation and substituting “dialogue” for the ongoing class confrontations while repeating that the government had no plan to drop the legislation.

To date, France’s working class protests have been open-ended, based on limited “rolling” or intermittent strikes that are called on and off and aimed at disrupting various aspects of French capitalism’s functioning. There have been no major organized forces calling for a generalized nationwide strike to close down French capitalism outright. Marylise Léon, general secretary of the CFDT stated bluntly “We did not want to bring down the government… Our agenda is the withdrawal of the reform.” The leaders of the CGT repeatedly expressed a similar position.

But this critical issue, closing down all of France with workers’ power, is today increasingly under discussion among militant and class conscious French socialist fighters.

One striking worker made it clear that the idea of a general strike was not at all excluded. “We are very determined to fight as long as we can,” said Roger Malot, 55, a bus driver holding out a money box in the hopes of amassing a ‘solidarity fund’ for him and his colleagues during a possible ‘unlimited strike.’ He added: “It is the only power we have, so we’ll keep pressing where it hurts until they withdraw their reform plan.” The simple notion that a real “unlimited” or general strike can only be contemplated as a conscious decision of the major organizations of the working class based on their organized solidarity, had obviously not yet dawned on this angry bus driver, whose vision of victory has yet to transcend the idea that his future security rests in collecting funds today for he and his friends individual future survival. But his sentiment to continue to fight is unmistakable and runs deep in French society.

The general strike and beyond

Any decision, to close down French society outright inevitably poses questions far beyond the present pension confrontations. These include whether the Macron government itself can remain in power. And if he and his capitalist party coalition cannot, based on massive and determined opposition to his rule, what form of government and what forces are willing and capable of replacing them? What forces are capable of challenging the basic institutions of the capitalist state power? There are no clear answers to these questions on the horizon today, other than the simple observation, admittedly from afar, that none of France’s trade union federations have even vaguely indicated a revolutionary orientation aimed at challenging the capitalist state outright. That perspective requires the conscious intervention of a deeply-rooted mass revolutionary socialist party. Today, only small nuclei of this kind of revolutionary socialist instrument exist in France, mostly located in the various small opposition currents in the tragically divided New Anti-capitalist Party (NPA). While these cadre are front and center at many of the mass mobilizations in progress they have a long way to go winning the mass forces needed to pose a fundamental challenge to capitalist rule. But their direct involvement is an important step forward, winning new cadre and gaining class struggle experience in the heat of battle.

It cannot be excluded that Macron’s government will conclude, in the face of ever-deepening mobilizations, that it must retreat, at least for the moment, in its efforts to make workers pay for capitalism’s crises. Such an outcome depends above all on the continued and expanded exercise of working class power in the streets, It depends on the formation of new and democratically organized formations that involve workers directly in planning the movement’s strategy and tactics. Today, this process is still at the earliest stages, but it is ongoing, drawing together previously isolated forces intent on ever strengthening the struggle. A victory for French workers will undoubtedly be a victory and inspiration for the world’s working people. It will also open the door wider than ever to the conscious construction of a mass revolutionary party aimed at challenging capitalist rule.

Jeff Mackler is life long activist and writer for Socialist Action.

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