Will workers turn toward taking the offensive in France?

For the 11th time since Jan. 19, millions of people in France, led by the workers of the major union confederations, especially the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), took to the streets all over the country on April 6. Once again, they shut France down.

Early reports in the New York Times claimed, with little evidence, that the demonstrations were “losing some steam.” Meanwhile, tweets from many small- and medium-sized French cities showed a growing militancy. Perhaps this was rooted in the Yellow Vest struggle — but this time it was led by a reinvigorated union movement. Police filled the streets of these towns and cities with tear gas.

Once again, the workers in France are showing the world that, without the working class, nothing is made and nothing moves.

Demonstrators break into headquarters of the giant investment group, BlackRock, in Paris, recognizing it as their enemy, April 6, 2023.

The bosses and bankers of France, of the European Union (EU) and of all the imperialist world had opened up a war on the working class, demanding it accept an increase in the age of retirement. This class-war offensive is part of the attack on the working class taking place throughout the EU and in the United States, where it includes layoffs in many industries to shrink labor costs and prevent workers from demanding wage increases.

For almost three months, the class struggle in France has been growing sharper. A meeting on April 5 between the union confederations and Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne ended after half an hour. Neither side had flinched. 

“The prime minister turned us down,” said the new secretary general of the CGT, Sophie Binet, “and we will respond in the streets.”

The government refuses to bargain seriously. The unions and especially the rank-and-file workers who carry the struggle refuse to submit. One can easily ask, are Borne and President Emmanuel Macron trying to provoke an explosion? And if the struggle explodes, how will workers worldwide show their solidarity with workers in France?

‘No’ to 64

Like the ongoing class conflicts between workers and bosses since the beginnings of capitalism, this one in France is over how much of the wealth the workers keep for themselves and how much the capitalists steal. Only workers produce wealth.

Through their class struggle over the wealth they create, workers in France had already won the right to retire with full pensions at age 62 — with certain adjustments, depending on the type of work. With the EU bankers demanding cuts to government deficits — in effect cutting social programs — Macron and Borne essentially imposed a wage cut by insisting on raising the retirement age to 64. The workers answered “No way,” and they protested. 

Unable to pass the new pension program through a vote in Parliament, Macron and Borne used Article 49.3 of the French Constitution. This article allows the government to pass the new law by decree. That Macron used such a maneuver exposed his own weak position. He abandoned all pretense of democracy and has enraged most of the population and all union workers.

The days of action have been led by eight union confederations, whose united activities have attracted support from other sectors of the population — and not only in the large cities. Students from secondary schools and universities have joined, along with their teachers. Farmers have brought food to help feed workers, who have lost wages by striking.

Many people from the Yellow Vest movement of a few years ago have been joining. They remember that Macron’s regime had police shoot out the eyes of Yellow Vest demonstrators with rubber-coated bullets. 

Since the last mass action day, workers and their allies have continued to disrupt business as usual. Some 50 tankers that should have unloaded fuel are waiting offshore. At first, fishing boats impeded their landing. Then stevedores refused to unload them should they land.

While only a quarter of all union members belong to the CGT, they are concentrated in the key industries: transport, including railroads; machine tools; electric power; refineries; chemical plants; mines; etc. Without labor, nothing gets done. And the workers don’t just withhold their labor — they take action together.

Tight solidarity

For example, it’s assumed that electrical workers will cut off power to the wealthy neighborhoods, to Macron’s party and to organs of the government, while providing free electricity to hospitals and schools. Getting caught performing these acts would land a worker in jail. This action requires a high level of class consciousness, skill and solidarity to protect whoever does it. 

Who did it? No one knows their names.

In another undemocratic act, the regime has attempted to “requisition” workers in key industries, like refineries and electric power plants, to force them to work. This is something like conscription, where the agents of the government deliver a summons to the worker; those who refuse work are jailed.

But other workers — perhaps joined by farmers and shop owners — have prevented the government agents from delivering the requisitions. You can’t refuse the requisition if it hasn’t been served.

In small towns, where local police know all the people — and the people know the police — some cops have refused to serve requisitions or break up demonstrations. Firefighters who refused similar orders were cheered by the crowds. The firefighters replied by raising clenched fists.

Poster at protest says, “I fear the cops, not the Bloc” of union confederations, April 6, 2023.

An emergence of ‘red’ union leaders

Two months of struggle have given rise to a new layer of leaders in the CGT. An April 4 article in the periodical Communist Initiative refers to “new red leaders” of the popular movement. According to the article, these leaders are open to internationalism and thus the movement against NATO and the bankers of the EU. 

One such union leader is Olivier Mateu, who after the abrupt meeting with Prime Minister Borne on April 5 said: “The united union movement should be called on to carry out an unlimited general strike.” Commenting on Twitter, Mateu summed up the situation this way: “This regime has a single goal, to make France the champion of the billionaires. That’s called class struggle, and we have to lead it and win it. There is no turning back.” 

If Mateu is right, and the workers refuse to “turn back,” while the capitalists worldwide — with Macron as their battering ram — refuse to grant workers’ demands, that points toward explosion. Macron himself is a mediocre politician, really a glorified banking agent, unpopular with no personal base. More than half the voters abstained in the second round when he was last elected, running against the openly racist Marine Le Pen.

Some participants in this struggle, like former CGT Secretary General Jean-Pierre Page, have pointed to one advantage the workers have in France: their historical traditions of struggle to the end.

Page refers to the general strikes of 1936 and 1968, the mass strikes and struggles of 1995 and 2016 and the Yellow Vest struggle of 2019. “This is no time for concessions,” writes Page, either “in wages or purchasing power, either for active workers or for retirees.”

One could add to this list the original French Revolution of 1789, which beheaded the king and queen and many other aristocrats, and the Paris Commune of 1871, which was the first example in a European colonialist country of a workers’ state. The worldwide ruling class of billionaires and bankers is ganging up on the workers in France, but the outcome of a class war, as in military battles, is unknown before the battle is on.

There has already been a day of a major warning strike of hundreds of thousands of workers in Germany March 27, larger than any other in 30 years, that shut down transit. 

In Belgium this week, workers from the main labor confederation blocked trucks bringing petrol from TotalEnergie to France, which the Belgian union denounced as strikebreaking. There were demonstrations of solidarity with the struggle in France in Italy, Argentina and Australia.

Regarding what workers’ organizations can do in the United States, the day to recognize the international character of the working-class struggle is little over three weeks away. May 1 provides an opportunity to show such solidarity. For major labor organizations this is unlikely, but internationalists have a responsibility to show the way. 

On International Workers’ Day, it is essential for workers’ organizations in the U.S. to demonstrate solidarity with the young workers organizing at Starbucks and Amazon, with the Palestinian people and with their class siblings in France. 

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