Month-long strikes in France reach decisive week

January 5 marks the 32nd day of a strike involving hundreds of thousands of French workers against the Macron government’s plan for pension “reform.” The current retirement systems would be replaced by a single system based on “points” that a worker would accumulate. 

The over-65 poverty rate in France is currently the lowest in Europe, but this could change rapidly. In almost all cases, the unions leading this long, political strike have established that this new pension system would be less secure than the current ones and have a smaller payout.  

The French Communist Party has charged that this new plan is also a “wily maneuver” to open up France’s retirement plan to partial privatization that would benefit the multibillion dollar U.S. hedge fund BlackRock.

The week beginning Jan. 6 could be decisive, with an intensification of the strikes and negotiations between some unions and the government.

Philippe Martinez, head of the CGT (General Confederation of  Labor),

has called for national demonstrations Jan. 9 and Jan. 11. The call has been supported by the other major trade union confederations in the coalition that organized the strike —  FO, CFE-CGC, FSU (Workers Force, French Confederation of Management-General Confederation of Executives, United Union Federation, respectively) — and Solidaires, a union confederation that’s a left-wing split from CFDT.  The CGT position is that the government’s proposal on retirement has to be withdrawn, but the current systems also need to be improved.

Martinez supported the call of the CGT-Energie to blockade all the refineries and fuel depots in France for four days beginning Tuesday, Jan.7. He said, “We support going on strike everywhere, not just in the refineries.” 

Elisabeth Borne, minister of ecology and transitions, declared that these blockades were illegal and service stations would be fully supplied. Martinez responded on LCI, a French cable channel, saying Borne “gives a lot of lessons to us French, talks a lot, but not always with full knowledge.”

The CGT affiliate in the French ports and docks has called for an “operation dead ports,” a total shutdown of all trade on Jan. 9.

Workers in the electrical distribution company EDF, who have given low-cost electric service to low-income customers and cut power to police stations, banks and tax offices, have gotten encouragement from the CGT. The federation and its allies in the labor movement consider such acts part of “French workers constitutionally protected right to strike.” Of course, the government claims they are illegal.

‘Time for government to listen to workers’ demands’

After 33 days of striking, Martinez told LCI that it was time for the government to “listen” to the demands that the social movements — Yellow Vests, workers, farmers — have made these past few years. “They have to leave their bubble of self-satisfaction and understand that there are problems in this country that are necessary to fix.”  (LCI, Jan. 6)

Laurent Berger, the head of the largest French labor confederation, the CFDT (French Democratic Confederation of Labor), which has a reputation as a nonmilitant, accommodating union, was interviewed on France2’s nightly news program “20Hours” on Jan. 5. He explained that the CFDT did support a single retirement system, using points, but found the government’s insistence on setting a fixed age to retire “useless” and “unjust.”  When the government refused to budge on this feature of the plan, the CFDT began to fully support the strike.

Berger pointed out that public opinion in France is strongly against the government’s proposal, even stronger in the area around and including Paris where the disruption of train service has been the most severe. People interviewed on French TV have often said that the unions are right and are fighting for the future of all workers, whatever their age.

The strike support fund set up by the CGT to accept donations from the general public has received over 2 million euros from all over the country since Dec. 5 when the strike began.

The Macron government’s arrogant inflexibility is meeting well organized, massive, militant working-class resistance. 

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