Where is France heading?

Millions of workers have been on strike and taken to the streets in France to oppose President Macron’s attempt to increase the pension age from 62 to 64. Even though the Constitutional Court has backed Macron’s imposition of the change using Article 49.3 to bypass parliament, strikes and protests are continuing.
Below we print an eye-witness account of one of the biggest demonstrations in Paris; an edited extract (on page 18) from the special bulletin distributed during the 23 March strike by Gauche Révolutionnaire (GR), French section of the Committee for a Workers’ International; and, on page 19, extracts from the perspectives document prepared for discussion at the recent GR congress.

Over a million workers and young people protested in cities and towns across France on 23 March. This enormous day of action was provoked by the latest stage in the government’s campaign against pension rights, and especially its use of undemocratic constitutional powers like Article 49.3 to force measures through against parliamentary and public opposition.

President Emmanuel Macron’s unprecedented TV appearance the day before poured more fuel on the flames. His prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, had just survived two no-confidence motions by the skin of her teeth, the first by just nine votes. Macron made no pretence of an attempt to conciliate. Rather, it was a flat insistence that the counter-reform will go through come hell or high water, no matter who opposes or how.

The demonstration in Paris comprised 800,000, by the estimation of the CGT union federation. Blocs of striking workers packed the streets on two huge converging march routes, interspersed with big groups of students.

Gauche Révolutionnaire members marched with 30,000 in Rennes, 25,000 in Valence, up to 20,000 in Nancy. Ten thousand marched in Montélimar – a town of just 40,000 inhabitants!

Slogans opposing Article 49.3, demanding Macron get out, and that the pension age return to sixty, dominated the protest. One demonstrator carried a giant papier-mâché bin containing a papier-mâché Macron.

Refuse workers have been on strike for weeks in some areas, most of all in Paris. Great mounds of uncollected rubbish bags loom over street corners. No smoke rises from the incinerator chimneys. The public sector is the most represented in the strike wave and on most demos for now – rail, education, sanitation, electricity, public services. The private sector is also involved, including in private-sector public services, and very significantly the oil refineries with their record profits.

Chants also rang out through the Paris crowds for a general strike. This is necessary, and could certainly overturn Macron’s attacks. But the question is who can organise it and how.

Union leaders have consistently been pushed by the anger from below to call coordinated actions and further strike days. But there is no planned, pre-announced programme of action. This is badly needed, to show both the movement and the bosses that the unions are in it to win it.

A new generation of strikers is now learning the methods of working-class struggle. Picket lines are rare but reappearing. The tradition of ‘general assemblies’ at workplaces to discuss demands, tactics and how to spread the strike also needs to regrow. A Gauche Révolutionnaire member and union rep at a Paris lycée (secondary school) has shown what is possible with these methods, bringing big numbers out on strike and leading discussion on strategy

Pickets at an incinerator in Paris expressed the view that the traditional parties all stand for the same thing. It’s true! There is no mass party where the working class can discuss a programme to solve society’s problems and struggle together to beat the capitalist politicians. Gauche Révolutionnaire members have found the escalating movement in 2023 is becoming more open to these ideas than in previous years.

Yet in many areas, the union activists and left political activists are the same people or work closely together. The need for such a party requires wide discussion in the workplaces, on picket lines and at general assemblies.

In many areas, university and lycée students joined the marches in much bigger numbers than yet seen in this year’s movement. A Gauche Révolutionnaire member at Inalco university in Paris was with a contingent of just a dozen students on the previous strike day – but left with a group of one hundred on 23 March. Still more significant were the dozens of Paris lycées blockaded by students for the first time, often alongside striking teachers.

Young people are angry on multiple issues. The cost-of-living crisis and increasing state repression affect all parts of society. Macron has also pushed through anti-working class university selection procedures, and attempted to extend a version of national service. The government recently postponed the latter to try to avoid provoking occupations and blockades by young people – showing that fighting back gets results.

This is the generation which entered secondary education under Covid, and had yet to raise its head following the experience of lockdown. Students too are relearning the traditions of struggle of the French workers and youth, bringing great energy with them. But many more are still to join the movement. One lycée student told us he hadn’t because it seems it’s only about pensions – and he’s not alone in thinking this. More and more students understand that this struggle is about fighting for their own future. It’s important the movement extends its demands to encompass all the big issues facing workers and young people, to draw more in.

The anger is palpable throughout society. If passion alone could stop Macron’s attacks, it would have done so. But without serious organisation to channel all these currents of struggle towards a conscious strategy of escalating action with a broad programme of demands, the outcome is an open question.

In the meantime, frustration is rising. The fire-setting and vandalism of a small minority was more of a feature on 23 March, which the state is using to increase repression. In Rennes, Brittany, demonstrations were banned in the city on 25 March. Unprovoked attacks by the police are already more of a feature. One striking teaching assistant in Rouen lost her thumb to a rubber bullet.

Macron had virtually no public support to start out with. He has less now. Whatever the outcome of this battle, a new generation is quickly learning the lessons of struggle and has no choice but to fight on issue after issue. Things will not be the same again. But right now, the battle over pensions is still very much alive. ■

James Ivens

A programme for change

Extract from the special bulletin distributed on 23 March by Gauche Révolutionnaire.

We need to develop the movement on pensions as a rallying point to get rid of Macron and his policies. Power is being challenged. It’s time to take the right to decide on our lives out of the hands of this government and the capitalists. In this context, quite logically, many workers and young people look at the parliamentary activity of the left alliance, the New Ecological and Social People’s Union (NUPES), with sympathy.

Even some who are further from the struggle see that the far-right National Rally (RN), under its guise of opposing the pension reform, does not support the movement at all and, on the contrary, opposes the strikes, hoping to capitalise on the anger later while frustrating the movement today.

A government truly at the service of the workers would have to come from the struggle, its trade union and political organisations. It would be necessary to discuss widely what programme is capable of competing with the capitalists and getting them out of the way. It would therefore be a question of not settling for a programme that accepts capitalism or of forming a coalition with the PS (ex-social democrats) and EELV (Greens), who are complicit in carrying out policies like Macron’s in local government.

Instead, we need a government that defends our interests as intransigently as Macron’s defends those of the capitalists – a government that has a firm programme against the capitalists.

We need new elections. But ultimately the current institutions favour the rich and give us no control over those we elect. We need a government that defends the interests of workers and pursues policies to meet the needs of the people, with democratic and environmental planning of the economy.

Elected officials should be recallable, and paid the average worker’s wage. Those who are leading the current struggle, with the support of the parties that oppose capitalism, and trade unionists and youth activists, should form the basis of a new government.

Such a government would need to renationalise privatised public services, and put the major sectors of the economy under public ownership, under the democratic control and management of the workers and the population, especially finance, energy, transport and distribution.

The hundreds of billions of euros from the wealth of the ultra-rich and the profits of multinationals and tax evasion should instead be used to provide jobs and housing for everyone. This would set in motion a real transition to a socialist economy, free of private ownership of the means of production and exploitation.

But today, workers and young people do not have a mass party to fight for such a class programme. So, in the course of the struggle, all this must also be discussed between strikers, activists, trade unionists. From now on, a broad and public discussion is needed between the forces rejecting capitalism in order to form a political united front against Macron and the capitalists.

Strengthening the struggle and more broadly the organisation of workers and young people, proposing a programme for socialism, this is the objective of Gauche Révolutionnaire. ■

Referendum call won’t strengthen the struggle

Some parties, like the PCF (Communist Party), are actively campaigning for a ‘popular initiative referendum’ – a poll of the population to advise parliament. The trade union leaderships, and left political leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, have also called for it. But this proposal does not strengthen the movement at all. We don’t need to show that we are in the majority to oppose this attack on pensions and Macron’s other policies. So why put the power to decide back in the hands of the government?

The state institutions are on the side of Macron and the government. Everything they do is to try to prevent our victory. Even if we manage to collect the nearly five million signatures needed, there is nothing to force the MPs to pass our opinion into law. We need to inflict a major defeat on them, on a par with the one Macron wants to inflict on us. And it is only through mass struggle, discussion and organising ourselves politically that we can achieve this. ■

Strengthening the struggle

Extracts from the perspectives document prepared for discussion at the recent Gauche Révolutionnaire congress.

Macron is in the first phase of his second mandate. He was re-elected in 2022 in the second round of the presidential elections against Marine Le Pen and his social base is limited. Having lost his absolute majority in the national assembly, he has less room for manouevre this time, as shown by his by-passing parliament and resorting eleven times to article 49-3 to get his policies passed.

The French economy has not escaped the capitalist crisis. In the fourth quarter of 2022 growth was almost zero and the Bank of France predicts growth of between minus 0.5% and plus 0.8 % in 2023. France has fallen from fifth position in the rank of world powers in 2021 to seventh position today.

Macron remains ‘president of the rich’. His policies attack the weakest in society and the few measures aimed at giving some support are always financed by working people themselves through taxation and social contributions, never by the capitalists. Macron is pushing workers into a race to the death, which is expressed in the explosion of precarious work. The idea of getting rid of Macron has gripped a large section of the population since 2019.

It is the social questions that are dominating Macron’s second mandate and creating a high level of tension. It was clear that this would be the case in the presidential elections when Jean-Luc Mélenchon won 7.7 million votes, despite the capitalists attempts to divert anger via the racist policies of Éric Zemmour and Le Pen.

Le Pen’s high vote can above all be explained by the fact that she was seen as opposing Macron. In words she shifted her programme towards ‘social’ issues. Her party, National Rally (RN), does everything to present itself as a good manager of the capitalist system. Its opposition to Macron’s pension reform is opportunist, resting mainly on disagreement with timing and method, not substance. It is a way of hiding its real pro-capitalist policies.

As in the rest of Europe, after the Covid years of 2020 and 2021, which accelerated the degradation of public services and inequalities, there has been a re-awakening of the class struggle. The numerous strikes over pay in the summer of 2022 were an indication of that. The anger accumulated over many years is very deep and the working class has begun to move into action.

It took the attack on pensions, the biggest attack amongst all the rest, to provoke widespread strike action, uniting workers organised in the main trade unions, who have traditionally moved into battle over the last seven to eight years. But alongside them, and this is very important, are new layers working in small private companies, arriving with friends and workmates at what is often their first demonstration. In one month, more than 10,000 workers joined the CFDT union federation, 7,500 the CGT, and 5,000 joined FO.

A not insignificant part of the demonstrators have come from small artisans and tradespeople, particularly from small towns, who, faced with rising prices and economic crisis, see their interests converging with those of the workers, showing the centrality of the working class – the only class capable of defending the interests of the majority of the population.

Students have also started to join the protests. But this has taken a bit of time as the Covid years have isolated and hit young people very hard, resulting in them being less organised than in the past. But it is possible that a new generation of young people will be mobilised and politicised by their contact with workers in struggle. Whether they are in education or not, it is the precariousness of conditions that is leading to changes in their outlook, whether it be around the environment, against discrimination or the government’s policies.

Many on the demonstrations feel that Macron can be forced to backtrack over the question of the increase in the pension age, even if the source of their anger is much broader. That’s why so many are taking strike action and demonstrating. It is about a show of force and obtaining a victory for our side against the government and the capitalists. The more politicised layers understand that a win on this issue would open up possibilities for the battles around pay, conditions, public services etc.

The scope of attacks by the Macron government, and what is at stake for the capitalists, requires a high level of confrontation, posing the necessity of a general strike to remove them and put in place policies that serve the interests of workers and the majority of the population. In preparation, it is important to put forward the self-organisation of the strikes by the workers themselves. Workers need to regroup to discuss and decide together in workplace meetings how to take the strike forward and measures that can point the way towards democratic workers’ control.

At the moment there are very few workplace assemblies. Where they exist they are more informative and technical than anything else. Few workers understand the necessity of them, and the trade union organisers have little idea about what to do. Deepening discussions on a programme to oppose Macron is for the moment limited.

This clearly reflects years of retreat and the current weakness of workers’ struggle and organisation. But this can be rebuilt through the change in consciousness of the most advanced workers, strengthened by the new union members, and the education of hundreds of thousands of strikers in the recent school of class struggle. But events don’t develop in a straight line and at the same rhythm. At times they will slow down and at others accelerate.

At the moment, none of the workers’ organisations are helping the working class understand its central role, linking the strikes, the question of a general strike and what type of government can implement our demands on pensions, but also on wages and the rebuilding of quality public services. We call for a workers’ government that takes measures in the interests of the working class and breaks with capitalism.

The class struggle is intensifying but the working class is not consciously at the head of the mobilisations. The NUPES political alliance, created on the initiative of France Insoumise (FI), Mélenchon’s organisation, is seen as a radical electoral alternative on the left despite the fact that it is non-existent outside of parliament and has a politically weak programme. It doesn’t even call for retirement at sixty. The Parti Socialiste (PS) and the Greens who, thanks to this alliance, saved their political skins, are looking to differentiate themselves as soon as possible in order to remain credible for a section of the capitalist class in the event of a change of government.

Despite being the most important political force on the left, France Insoumise itself remains weak politically and organisationally. After the presidential elections, its leadership, with Mélenchon at the head, refused to call for the movement to become organised and structured, with a membership, thus limiting its appeal to workers. Even if its 74 MPs wage battle in parliament and oppose the government’s policies, this doesn’t make FI a solid political alternative. It values social struggle, but to a certain extent from the outside – giving support but without a programmatic response, apart from in the presidential elections. The need to organise to end capitalism and build socialism are not put forward. They are only guided by the perspective of early elections and getting into government.

The absence of a real workers’ party, with an independent programme from the capitalists that could form a workers’ government, is at the heart of the difficulties that the workers’ movement faces. This is why we call for a new mass workers’ party while building our own Marxist forces in Gauche Révolutionnaire.

In the functioning of new parties, we defend the freedom to organise in political currents. A new workers’ party would be a step forward for the revolutionary socialist struggle, a means to discuss in a democratic way ideas, programmes and demands.

There are no indications at the moment that a workers’ party could come about through FI or from militant trade unionists. But it nevertheless remains a need both organisationally and politically. It is therefore part of the socialist programme that we fight for in our daily political work, in the trade unions and where we participate in France Insoumise. ■