As pension cut becomes French law: Unions fight back

Following the April 14 rubber-stamp approval by France’s Constitutional Council, on April 15 President Emmanuel Macron signed into law the unpopular “reform” bill cutting workers’ pensions. 

Caen, France, April 13. Banner reads “No to working longer”

The General Confederation of Labor (CGT), the most militant of the union federations in the “Bloc” of eight union confederations leading the fight against pension changes, immediately called for protest actions at the end of April. The united workers’ movement called for a massive response on May Day, a traditional day of mass worker demonstrations in France that this year promises to go beyond symbolic protest.

After Macron signed the pension plan into law, he invited the unions to meet with him to talk about how it would be implemented. They turned him down cold and said they would meet neither with him nor any member of his government, unless withdrawing the new pension plan was on the table.

Outside the French Constitutional Council, Paris, April 13, 2023.

The Constitutional Council, a cabal of pro-capitalist former politicians, and Macron ignored the millions of French workers, both active and retired, youth and students, farmers and other progressives, who took to the streets April 13 to protest. The CC approved the new pension system, with a few minor objections, and disapproved a request to hold a popular referendum on this issue.

April 13 was the 12th day of nationwide protests and strikes since Jan. 19, which have brought millions of workers, active and retired, plus students and youth into the streets.

France’s unions, which have led the protests since Macron introduced the attack on pensions in January, quickly said that the people’s struggle was going to continue against this “unjust and brutal law.” They supported the blockades, local strikes and protests and disruptions that began within a few hours after the CC announced its decision.

Refinery workers are already on strike, as are the sanitation workers in Paris. The unions have maintained united opposition in spite of Macron’s attempts to break their alliance apart. Macron’s offensive included personal attacks on Laurent Berger, the moderate head of the French Democratic Confederation of Labor (CFDT). 

Macron rejects democracy

While the French bourgeoisie exalts France’s democratic roots, Macron jammed through the new pension rules –– something affecting everyone working in France –– by maneuvers to limit discussion. 

Public opinion polls indicated that some 90% of active workers in France oppose this new system that raises the age to qualify for “full retirement” from 62 to 64 years old. The law reinforces current lower pensions for women, workers with low-income careers and people with disabilities. Polls showed that about 70% of the general French public oppose the changes.

Even right-center Republicans in Parliament felt the mass pressure. The bill was doomed to failure in the National Assembly. Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne then invoked Article 49.3 of the French constitution, which allows the government to bypass democratic norms by skipping a vote in the Assembly.

Workers, angered by these authoritarian steps and buoyed by popular support, acted April 13. Members of the small militant union Sud-Rail occupied the offices of LVMH, the large owner of very profitable luxury brands like Givenchy and Louis Vuitton. “You’re looking for money to finance pensions? Take it from the pockets of billionaires,” said Sud-Rail unionist Fabien Villedieu, as the LVMH headquarters filled with red smoke from flares.

Cops brutalize demonstrators

Videos of demonstrations in France broadcast by TV2 or TV5, which are archived on francetvinfo.fr, show what is a common cop tactic. After flooding the area with tear gas, some 50 to 200 baton-swinging cops surround demonstrators who stumble, those who hold their ground to film or those just passing by and beat them to the ground before assaulting the next protester. 

Sebastian Roché, a research director at the French National Center for Scientific Research and professor at Sciences Po Grenoble, writes, “The French police are, in Europe, the ones who kill the most in maintaining order.” Roché listed three demonstrators killed and two put into comas in France since 2014, compared to none in Netherlands, Germany, Norway, Greece, Spain or Britain. (Le Monde, April 14) 

Roché also points to the high number of “mutilations” that French cops inflict. During the recent Yellow Vest struggles, dozens of demonstrators lost an eye or suffered other head wounds, most often being hit with rubber-coated bullets.

How the cops beat people on a physical level mirrors the “brutal and cruel” effects this new retirement system will have on millions of workers on a social and political level if the mass movement can’t reverse it.

What’s next?

Macron’s apparent intransigence against the working class, despite the opposition of the vast majority of people in France, has the support of not only the bosses in France but the bosses and bankers of the European Union and the United States — who otherwise might despise the French banker-president.

Meanwhile union members are becoming more radical, more conscious of their power and the need to struggle. During the April 6 national protest, members of Sud-Rail, along with members of the CGT, occupied the Paris office of BlackRock, the largest investment company in the world, for 20 minutes. They were chanting “Anti, Anti, Anti-capitalist.’” (tinyurl.com/mryaja68)

G. Dunkel

G.Dunkel@workers.org

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G. Dunkel
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