Workers of all ages defend pensions
French unions in revolt

Bulletin: The vote in the National Assembly took place March 20 and the government survived by nine votes. The battle continues.

Protesters hold a banner that reads “Pensions, not an extra day, not one euro less” during a demonstration against the French government’s pension reform plan as part of the fourth day of national protests, in Paris, France, February 11, 2023. REUTERS/Yves Herman

March 19. With thousands of tons of uncollected garbage rotting in the gutters of Paris’ streets, hundreds of protesters arrested daily and the vast majority of the workers demanding the removal, if not the head, of French President Emmanuel Macron, his government faces a vote of no confidence in Parliament March 20, which will only open a new and more intense class struggle.

Macron has been pushing for a significant reduction in the benefits offered by France’s pension system, ever since he was reelected to a second term in 2022. The proposal, placed before Parliament this year, calls for raising the age for full retirement from 62 to 64. It requires more years of active work, gives less support for women and for people with physically demanding jobs or for those who work under harsh conditions.

All major French labor unions and student organizations have recognized Macron’s proposal as a major attack on the working class and have united in a coalition to combat it. The coalition held its first demonstration Jan. 19, which drew over 2 million protesters all over France, including in the big cities like Paris, Marseilles and Toulouse and in small- and medium-sized cities like Rodez and Besançon. 

Since Jan. 19 was a workday, many protesters had to make use of their constitutional right to strike to join the action. Workers in some unions — working in refineries, electric distribution and production, and public transportation — held one- or two-day walkouts.

Since then there have been eight days of protests/strikes called by the union coalition. All the protests have involved millions of workers on the streets. More than 3.5 million people joined the March 7 protest, this in a country with a population of 68 million.

Two significant strikes began March 7. The major refineries went out, and sanitation workers in Paris, as well as in Le Havre, Nantes, Antibes and Rennes, stopped working. By March 15, 10,000 tons of garbage were piled up on the sidewalks of Paris.

Government lights the fuse

After the French senate passed Macron’s package March 15, the next day Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne invoked constitutional provision 49.3 before the National Assembly to declare Macron’s proposal adopted as law. Using 49.3 removes all pretense that this move is “democratic” — it is rule by decree.

As Borne attempted to speak, the parliamentarians belonging to France Insoumise (France Unbowed) stood up waving signs and singing the Marseillaise. The parliamentarians belonging to Rassemblement National, Marine Le Pen’s semifascist organization, banged on their desks and yelled “Resign!” as they tried to exploit the mass anger at Macron with demagogy. 

Some of the other members of parliament just sat at their desks and waited for the din to die down, while others walked out to protest Borne’s undemocratic but constitutional proclamation.

Outside of Paris, the General Confederation of Labor (CGT, the leading union group) called some of the more militant and organized protests, which were attacked by the cops with water cannons and tear gas. There were large marches through major shopping centers and department stores in Paris by a group of youthful workers calling for a general strike. The strikes at the French refineries are intensifying, and in some areas gasoline has become hard to find.

In Paris and a few other cities where sanitation workers are on strike, protesters set fires in the dumpsters that were filled with garbage, as the cops chased them through the streets.

One can hear tweets of workers’ chants that invoke the 1789 French Revolution: “Louis Sixteenth, we cut off his head; Macron, Macron, we can start this again,” and a group of sanitation workers — referring to the current war in Ukraine — chanting, “Money for wages, money for pensions, not for war!”

Some 650,000 students are scheduled to take part of the baccalaureate examination Monday, March 20, which will determine where and what they study after graduation from secondary school. They face two problems: Scattered strikes in mass transit might affect their ability to get to the exam sites, and some of the teachers who administer the test are on strike.

To avoid disrupting the youths’ exam, the union coalition deliberately chose to wait a few days until March 23 to begin their protests, marches and strikes. The early part of the week is scheduled to be filled with parliamentary maneuvers and legal moves. The unions decided that union power is best applied in the street and on the shop floor.

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