A second ‘day of action’ yesterday (31 January) saw huge crowds hit the streets of France to oppose Macron’s planned attacks on pensions. The CGT union confederation put the attendance figure at 2.8 million, which if accurate would be the biggest single manifestation since 2010.
In addition to strong participation by teachers, oil refinery workers, transport workers etc., multitudes of young people, and especially school students, were on the streets to oppose their futures being sacrificed on the altar of profit. The masses’ anger is palpable. But where do we go from here?
We reproduce the latest editorial of Révolution (the French paper of the IMT), which appeared on the eve of the national day of action. The comrades explain that, irrespective of its magnitude, no day of action, on its own, can roll back the government’s attacks. What is needed is a programme of escalation for indefinite strike action!
Macron and his ministers have realised that they may have to modify their pensions bill. They could, for example, change the current clause that sees women retirees penalised twice. Other ‘adjustments’ could be advanced in the hope of weakening the opposition movement. But big business and the government at its service remain determined to preserve the essence of the bill: the increase in the duration of contributions, the postponement of the retirement age and the end of special regimes for certain workers.
From the point of view of the bourgeoisie, this counter-reform is a major challenge: on the one hand, it will lead to significant budgetary savings (on the backs of the workers); on the other hand, it will promote the development of the private pension market, which is a potentially colossal profit-making opportunity.
For his part, Macron knows that, if he loses this battle, he will come out of it so weakened that he will have to dissolve the National Assembly, without the slightest guarantee of finding a new majority at the ballot box. This is strengthening the determination of the president and his ministers.
19 January confirmed what the polls already indicated: the overwhelming majority of the working population is opposed to this new counter-reform. But it is clear that this powerful mobilisation was also fuelled by other factors: inflation, the deterioration of working conditions, the precariousness of employment, the destruction of public health – and many other problems that the crisis of capitalism is constantly aggravating. The country is plagued by a deep, growing anger. The wisest strategists of the bourgeoisie understand this. They know that once the floodgates of social anger are open, the torrent can escape safe channels, go beyond the framework of ‘days of action’, and take the form of a vast movement of strikes, spreading from sector to sector until there is a complete paralysis of the country.
Union leaders such as Laurent Berger cannot be counted on to advance beyond days of action / Image: Mutualité Française
The government will only back down if the movement is firmly committed in this direction. Let’s not forget that, if Jacques Chirac gave up his First Hire Contract (CPE) in 2006, it was not under the pressure of single days of action. The fight against the CPE escaped the control of the union leaders. High school and university student youth were massively mobilised, day and night; they invaded the stations, provoked walkouts in public services, and won the sympathy of the whole working class. Strikes broke out spontaneously all over the country, including in companies reputed to be ‘peaceful’. At a certain stage, Chirac – who experienced May ‘68 first hand – felt that the stubbornness of his government risked provoking a generalised social upheaval.
The conditions of our victory are therefore quite clear. Everything must be done to involve as many sectors as possible in a movement of indefinite strikes. Naturally, we shouldn’t count on Laurent Berger (leader of the CFDT) to advance a millimetre in this direction. And unfortunately, Philippe Martinez (leader of the CGT) is hardly any more militant: he concentrates all hopes on the strategy of days of action, despite their notorious inadequacy over the past 20 years. That being said, several federations of the CGT – including those of the energy and chemical industries – have set up a “calendar” for an escalation towards indefinite strikes. The railway workers have also announced mobilisations, complementary to the days of action. One thing is certain: either these initiatives take shape and expand to other sectors, or the government will win this battle.
Could there be a third way, in the form of a government concession to the CFDT? Laurent Berger is against pushing back the retirement age, but very much in favour of increasing the duration of contributions and the destruction of special schemes. He opposes cyanide but offers us a glass of arsenic. This is the formulation of this conscious agent of the bourgeoisie within the labour movement. It cannot be completely ruled out that, at some stage, if the opposition movement grows, Macron will waive the raising of the retirement age and keep everything else in the bill. But it is far from inevitable, because such a concession would be a double-edged sword: it could encourage the movement instead of dividing it. In addition, the government would emerge weakened. Macron therefore has no immediate interest in such a compromise.
Go on the offensive!
We have said before: mobilisation feeds on a generalised anger. Precisely for this reason, the movement must not content itself with demanding the abandonment of the reform project. It must have a positive and offensive programme. In the editorial of the previous issue of Révolution, we explained as follows:
“In a context where blows are raining down from all sides (inflation, growing poverty and precariousness, breaking up public services, etc.), young people and the workforce will take action in an exceptionally massive and lasting way only if the objective of the struggle is much broader than the abandonment of this reform project – which we know well that, if driven out the door, would come back through the window a few years later, if nothing else changes. The objectives of the fight must be up to the sacrifices it requires.”
Of course, it is not excluded that a vast movement of indefinite strikes could begin on the basis of the single slogan of abandoning the reform project. But a more militant programme would facilitate the involvement of broad layers of youth and labour.
The slogan “Macron, out!” should be accompanied by a militant programme / Image: Left EU, Twitter
For example, take the situation of youth. They know very well that their right to retirement, in three or four decades, will not be linked to the fate of the current reform project. It knows more or less that its future, on all levels, is threatened by the crisis of capitalism and the reactionary policies of governments. Certainly, we cannot exclude that the youth will mobilise massively against the current reform project, if only with the aim of inflicting a defeat on Macron.
But the mobilisation of young people would be greatly facilitated if the leadership of the movement called for measures that directly concern their current living conditions, for example: free higher education, and doing away with the unfair allocation of university places.
A militant programme, widely disseminated and properly built for, should include the right to retire at age 60 (maximum), a general increase in wages in line with inflation, the massive hiring of civil servants, the repeal of the last two labour laws – and other such measures. This should be crowned by the slogan which, four years ago, resounded every weekend in the cities of the country: “Macron, out!”
At the time of writing, the leaders of the movement are not taking this path. They limit themselves to days of action and a defensive programme. For his part, Jean-Luc Mélenchon of France Insoumise reduces objectives to the lowest common denominator: “We are in a time when the offensive must unite and find a way round our subjects of disagreement. This is the reason why we accept the withdrawal from our programme”.
We have tried to demonstrate that this is a serious strategic error. However, nothing is decided. In the days and weeks to come, the torrent may rise – and sweep away everything in its path, despite the mistakes and conservatism of the movement’s leaders.