As the wave of revolt against pension reforms in France coninues, Clément Mouhot writes about the latest stage of the movement: its potential, its limtations, and the role the radical left ought to play if it is to succeed.
A demonstrator sitting on the ground with her hands up in front of a police cordon at the 11th inter-union demonstration against pension reform. Photograph by Martin Noda / Hans Lucas France, Paris, 6 June 2023.
Copyright : Photothèque Rouge /Martin Noda / Hans Lucas.
On Thursday 13 April, France erupted again with the twelfth “journée d’action” (day of action) in the ongoing movement against President Macron’s pension reforms. All the unions, united in the so-called “intersyndicale”, put out a nationwide call to strike and demonstrate in every city. The first such day of action was three months ago on 19 January. The number of people marching in the two most recent dates was probably halved compared with the previous days of actions but remained very high in absolute terms. After the Constitutional Council approved the reform and anti-democratic process on Friday 14th April, Macron immediately enacted the law overnight. This ruling class arrogance and disdain for democracy have no precedent since the Second World War. In spite of this, the anger is stronger than ever; undeclared demonstrations have occurred, and many groups of trade-union activists have announced more strikes and demonstrations. The persistence, determination and the duration of the movement is remarkable.
A magnificent united social movement…
There have been a number of mass workers’ movements in France in recent years, in particular a victorious one against austerity and pension cuts in 1995, another victorious one against a reform to casualise young workers in 2006, and two defeated ones against previous attacks on pensions in 2003 and 2010. In some aspects, the current movement surpasses them: the rejection of the pension reform is so massive that the poll institutes have stopped testing it, and the anger towards the government and the wealthy elite is evident everywhere, including in the mainstream media. The size of the demonstrations, in particular in smaller cities, has no precedent, probably since 1968. The unity of all the unions, including the centre-left CFDT that had betrayed all previous mass movements, and the unity of the left parties, including the “Blairite” Socialist Party (PS), is also historical. It is important to notice that the latter is a product of the pressure from below: the leader of the CFDT, Laurent Berger, was outvoted in the last congress of his union in December when he seemed tempted to support Macron. And the PS only survives by participating in the new electoral left of Jean-Luc Mélenchon. Just as important, the three months of mobilisation have already had a massive impact on the mood and political consciousness. It has created a situation full of possibilities that all strikers and activists must absolutely continue to develop; if necessary by opposing calls for mediation or a capitulation by the union bureaucrats, or to a referendum by Mélenchon – the latter would require 4.8 millions signature and would at best happen in 18 months, killing the dynamic of struggle.
…nurtured by the previous collective experiences…
Public opinion has continued moving towards supporting more and more explicitly the most radical forms of the movement, with 65 percent supporting direct actions to block the economy. In some sectors, such as the public transport, the oil refineries and the rubbish collectors, and some public media, strong indefinite strikes (“grèves reconductibles”) have rooted themselves, with strikers oscillating between a quarter and three-quarters of the workforce. Some smaller strikes happen in other sectors like education and sporadically in a few private companies on the “days of action”. Besides, with sometimes a beautiful sense of collective intelligence, the different strategies of the previous movement have been slowly blended into the current one, hence filling in the blanks on the canvas laid out by the big days of action. This has accelerated after the Macron government bypassed the vote of parliament. Small wild guerrilla demonstrations inspired by the Gilets Jaunes and the black blocs have become common these last weeks: they try to exhaust the police. The students, inspired by the mass movement of 2006, have started holding massive general assemblies with sometimes more than 1000 attendees to vote on the blockage of their university campuses, and organising a “National Student Coordination” with delegates from each university. Strikers have organised many symbolic graphic actions on monuments and cultural venues, and many blockades of roads and roundabouts. Now a call to block the organisation of the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris is emerging as a reply to the arrogance of Macron.
…and stepping foot into radical ecology
Another important aspect, radical ecology, has emerged in the current movement, and this has no historical precedent in the previous national mass movements. Independently of the struggle over pensions, a coalition of ecological organisations, Les Soulèvements de la Terre (The Uprisings of the Earth) had planned a demonstration on Saturday 25 March, at the rural commune of Sainte-Soline, against the construction of a large water reservoir for unsustainable farm irrigation. The demonstration had been banned; it nevertheless happened with more than 10,000 people, and the reaction of the government was incredibly violent. They mobilised 3,200 policemen and threw more than 5,200 gas grenades. They put two demonstrators into comas – one of them still fighting for his life at the time this article is written. These ecological movements have been, in a surprisingly smooth way, supported at least passively by the rest of the movement; the unifying point is simply the hate of the government and its police. The most emblematic slogans of this unification are for instance “Retraite, Climat, Même Combat – Pas de retraite sur une planète brulée” (Pension, Climate, Same fight – No retirement on a burned planet) in the “Pink Bloc”, or “Against Macron and his world” in the broader movement. The far-right interior minister Darmanin is now trying to ban the coalition; a broad campaign to support it has been launched. The trade-union leaderships have of course largely refused what they call a “politicisation” of the movement and have argued for restricting its demands as much as possible. As with the issue of radical ecology, this is the opposite that is needed: more politicisation and engagement with the burning issues of inflation, wages and democracy would make the movement stronger rather than weaker.
But weaknesses need to be discussed
In spite of all these positive elements, the situation is also not what some leftists groups or intellectuals would like it to be, and repeated mistaken slogans can also have a demoralising effect on demonstrators and strikers. The situation is not “pre-revolutionary” (as claimed by the influential philosopher Lordon and some small organisations) or even “insurrectional”. Even in currents not mischaracterizing the situation, some strategic discussions are strikingly poor and often reduced to criticising the timetable of the days of action. This timetable is problematic indeed, and typical of how bureaucrats see their dream social movement: well-behaved, calm and slow, with foot soldiers marching on command, a minimal amount of strikes, the rulers “negotiating” with them after a few big days of action, and no challenge from below to their central command. In the violent neoliberal version of capitalism we live in, this Teletubbies style movement is unlikely to work any more. But it is important to realise that the historical unity of all unions and left parties is also what has allowed the movement to start and be so massive. In spite of the very real anger in the whole population, the strike movement is only strong in sectors with high unionisation. Opposing the passivity encouraged by the union leadership is certainly part of the solution, but thinking that simply denouncing these leaders will be a winning strategy is wrong. In short, one has to address the strategic question more seriously and the leadership from above has to be challenged by other leaderships rather than simply denounced.
The parallel with May 68 points at what is missing…
A popular slogan in the demonstrations is “Si tu nous mets 64, on te mai 68” (a pun over the pension retirement age, 64, and the year 1968, and the conjugated French verb “mets”, here meaning to impose, and the month “mai”, May). The demonstrations rank among the most massive ever seen in France, and the number of blockades and wild direct actions is high, as during the Gilets Jaunes movement, and all this should certainly continue. But, to keep a sense of perspective (and calmly look at the tasks ahead!), the number of strikers in May ‘68 peaked at around 7-8 million out of a working class of about 15 million, while the strikers in the isolated weekly or bimonthly days of action today have peaked at probably less than 1 million out of a working class of about 26 million. Even more importantly, the level of self-organisation is below what we have seen in recent mass movements. It is clearly below that seen in 1995 with the “interpros” (general assemblies to coordinate actions between sectors in a given area), but seems until now even below that seen in 2010 (on pension) or in 2016 (on a labour law reform). This is in my opinion the blind spot of most strategic discussions, and this is where efforts should be concentrated. Going beyond the so far unsuccessful “play it safe” strategy of the intersyndicale requires democratic tools, starting with elementary ones such as assemblies, information channels, delegates, etc. It will require starting to discuss the limits of “unity at all costs”; the unity was fundamentally useful to start the movement, but it has also meant that the more bureaucratic and less combative leaderships, the CFDT in particular, have been hegemonic. The recent congress of the more militant union federation the CGT this month has shown that there is a deep appetite for this among trade union rank-and-file activists: for the first time in the century-long history of the CGT, the incumbent leadership lost the vote to approve the action of its past mandate and did not manage to impose its choice for the next leader. One of the main points of contention was indeed the “play it safe” strategy of the intersyndicale.
Challenging the coordination from above
On the left, the strategic contributions of the leaderships of the different parties have been frustrating to say the least. The French Communist Party (PCF) has been an embarrassment with its leader, Roussel, openly supporting the police, supporting anti-immigrant measures and calling for unity with discredited Blairite-type former ministers like Cazenave. Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise has been focusing on the parliamentary fight – which boosted morale in the beginning – while simply supporting unconditionally the intersyndicale; it has never tried to spark any other forms of coordination. On the far-left, Lutte Ouvrière (LO) has been simply repeating more angry versions of the calls of the intersyndicale to “strike, demonstrate and do indefinite strike wherever possible”. The other main far-left party, the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA), has been calling for a unitary meeting of left parties and a march towards the presidential palace, which is not a bad idea in itself, but is in effect one more demand to the bigger leaderships in the absence of any alternative leadership from below. Finally, the small current Révolution Permanente has been rather successfully organising calls from a combination of artists, intellectuals and strikers, and has been maintaining a high propaganda profile on social media, but its main strategic arguments are very much in line with the orthodoxy of many small Trotskyist groups: (1) denouncing union leaderships for preventing further mobilisation and (2) asserting that the true “programme” is needed, i.e. that having the right demands (broader than simply the pension reform) would lead to more sectors mobilising. Both points contain some obvious truths, in that the leadership from above is insufficient and that it is good to politicise the movement, but they remain abstract in the absence of alternative leadership from below. Of course, many members in all these organisations are trying to build rank-and-file democratic tools, but such questions are strangely absent from most discussions in the radical left, with a few notable exceptions. So far the only coordination of the movement is from above, and after three months this should be alarming. This fact is also the main reason the situation is not pre-revolutionary: anger is not enough, it needs to become self-aware and raise its own challenge to the existing structures. For example, when the government sent the police to break the strikes in some oil refineries or of the rubbish collectors, and the union bureaucrats stayed passive, the movement could not organise its own self-defence.
However, the future is not written, and the voices of the radical left organisations and activists do matter. So far, we have not “hammered the nail” strongly enough at the same time, and the government has seemed inflexible, even though small cracks have started appearing. The contrast between this situation and the slogans arguing for a “general strike” can be demoralising. Without properly discussing the relatively small number of strikes, the small economic impact so far, and the lack of adequate self-organisation, the natural conclusions are either a denunciation of the union leaderships as “traitors”, or a pessimistic view that the population is too lazy to really act. In fact, we need unions, including their leaderships, to put people in motion, and the unity of all unions has been useful. We can’t initiate things from nothing. To go beyond the so far unsuccessful coordination from above, we now need more coordination from below. The level of anger and revolt are unprecedented for decades, but they require the means to express themselves politically and to get organised into movements. Social media have unfortunately reinforced the “illusion of spontaneity”, with a confusion between a chaotic flow of information and an empowering coordination. These means are built over time, they are traditions and social relations and ultimately the product of the human labour of activists. We need self-organisation, starting with basic things such as census of strikes, actions, local general assemblies, etc. This will be hard and might take time, because the current period is the result of decades of attacks, often successful, on the workers’ movement. The anger is much higher than the level of self-organisation it would require to explode, which is frustrating, but as I have tried to show, this movement is starting to discuss it and whatever happens, it will be a step towards constructing it.