Challenges for mass workers’ movement in France’s battle over pensions

The minister strode up to the microphone, puffed up by his made-to-order suit and $200 haircut. He’ll convince the people tonight that they should work two years longer for everyone’s good, for the good of France. They’ll eat it up.

From the back of the crowd he hears a noise. “Clang clang clang.” What’s that, he asks himself. “Clang clang, clang clang.” The noise spreads through the crowd. 

‘Cassarolade’ banner honors those banging pots and pans, Nantes, France, May 1, 2023.

It’s those damn pots, he thinks. I’m being casseroled. 

The minister’s face gets red. He turns toward his aide and orders, “Turn up the microphone.”

The aide comes closer. “Sorry, sir,” he whispers. “It’s those damn electrical workers. They turned off the power.”

“Have the cops arrest them,” the minister sputters.

“They can’t arrest anyone,” the aide answers. “No one knows who they are. None of them will talk. They stick together.”

Scenes like this have played out all over France this spring. Nowhere can the representatives of the government get the people to listen. (New York Times, May 22, “The Sound of France’s Pension Fury? The Saucepan”)

Poster depicts President Emmanuel Macron as King Louis XVI, whose reign and life ended with the 1789 French Revolution, Paris, March 23, 2023.

On International Workers Day, May 1, some 2.3 million people joined union-led marches and rallies in over 300 big cities, small cities and towns to tell President Emmanuel Macron where to stick his pension reforms.

That May 1 action was the latest of 13 mass marches that began this Jan. 19 and have continued since then, each one bringing 1.5 million to 2.5 million people into the streets. The longest gap between such gatherings is now taking place, with the next countrywide action set for June 6. 

Faced with the arrogance of Macron’s banker regime, workers in France have raised their struggle in 2023 to a level unmatched in 55 years. It feels like May 1968, when students rose up against French capitalist society and 10 million union workers held a prolonged general strike. 

At that time, the mass uprising in France inspired the world with the dream of a struggle for workers’ power. That uprising subsided but has not been forgotten.

What’s hard to predict is how far Macron’s regime will go to impose his plan and how long the workers, students, farmers and their supporters will keep on challenging a brutal state power to defend benefits they had been promised and had paid for with their labor. Even in this pause, resistance continues.

Pension cuts and class struggle

Macron framed the current class struggle by demanding what he and his class of bankers and capitalists call “pension reform.” Basically –– aside from a few exceptions –– the banker-president insists that, instead of retiring at 62 years old with a full pension as had been promised, the workers must continue to labor until 64.

Most union issues involve a conflict over wages and working conditions. They take place in one industry, sometimes in one factory. One capitalist or one group of shareholders try to keep wages as low as possible. The workers and their unions try to win higher wages or, in some cases, safer working conditions or laboring fewer hours for the same pay.

That is the classic model of the class struggle. Workers produce all the wealth of society — what Karl Marx called surplus value. Their labor adds value to what is produced. The capitalists own the means of production, which, under capitalist law, allows them to steal as much of that added value as they can get away with.

In today’s conflict, the capitalists in France and throughout Europe –– indeed, banks and capitalists anywhere in the world who own shares in corporations –– have a material interest in reducing the workers’ share of that surplus value. Macron, representing these bankers and capitalists, has his orders to reduce retirement pay as part of that theft.

The form of this class struggle pits France’s capitalist government against all the workers in France. Its essence is the same historic struggle over how much of the wealth produced by the workers will the capitalists, bankers and landlords grab for themselves. 

The movement’s strength

France is a former colonialist power and still holds some colonies. It is one of the G7 imperialist countries that dominate much of the world. It is rare that in such a developed capitalist society will an overwhelming majority of the home population oppose the government and support those who battle it.

Polls have shown that, as of the end of March, at least three-fifths of the general population opposed the pension cuts, and 70% disapproved of Macron. (CNBC, April 12) Even more telling, a stunning 90% of active workers said they oppose Macron’s plan. 

Perhaps support for the workers would be less overwhelming, if the class struggle had taken the form of a conflict over wage levels. But the people in general have looked forward to their retirement. They consider this benefit theirs, already won. 

Macron’s pension cut means workers are to be deprived of two years of life in which they no longer have to serve some boss. 

There are eight union confederations in France, from the most militant to ones that have in the past conciliated with the capitalist government. All have joined together to form a coalition to fight to save their pensions. So far, this coalition has stayed united. The truth is that even if some union leaders wanted to give in, they would need to be willing to face the fury of their own members.

Strengthening today’s popular resistance is France’s revolutionary traditions. Its revolution in 1789 was the most thoroughgoing upheaval in a Europe until then universally ruled by nobility. The mass movement in France not only overthrew the monarchy — it beheaded the king and a swath of nobles. 

All spring, demonstrators against Macron’s pension law shouted chants reminding him that King Louis XVI lost a battle with the guillotine.

The Paris Commune of 1871 erected the first workers’ state in European history, albeit short-lived. The French general strikes of 1936 and 1968 were massive. Even less dramatic national struggles, like the truckers’ strike in 1995, went much further in France than in other NATO countries.

The regime’s weaknesses

Unlike Charles de Gaulle in 1968, Macron has no personal prestige that might help a leader push through an unpopular program. He was a banker, with no rapport with the population. When he speaks, he oozes arrogance.

Macron won the election only because his main opponent was the fascist-like Marine Le Pen. Voters chose what they believed was a lesser evil. Some say they were betrayed.

The European Union has demanded limits on government spending in all EU countries, which lead to cuts in social services. In 2015 the EU’s “Troika” imposed cuts on Greece’s social-democratic government, crushing it. Now the EU demands that the governments attack the working class. 

Europe’s billionaires and bankers observe the wave of strikes in Britain, a groundswell of worker militancy in Italy, mass demonstrations demanding health care in Portugal and workers mobilizing in Germany to try to recoup the sharp loss in purchasing power — and they fear the possibility of contagion from France’s mass struggle. 

Like the banker he’s been all his life, Macron is obeying EU orders to make no concessions. However, the French president was unable to win a vote in parliament, even from other pro-capitalist parties, to pass the new pension plan. To impose these cuts on the working class, Macron was forced to use a maneuver in mid-March to pass the plan by decree. 

Though this maneuver was technically legal and constitutional (Article 49.3), it was an insult to democratic rule. Workers’ anger exploded. Unionists in France, especially those in the industrial and transport unions who are members of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), held periodic walkouts. They stopped transit, held up refining fuel and withheld electric power. They showed just how vital the working class is in capitalist society.

The government’s sole response has been to use the capitalist state to assault the workers’ movement. It has ordered police to beat and arrest demonstrators and judges to keep them in jail awaiting trial and has made it illegal just to protest. Even people just walking near demonstrations have been arrested.

Challenges to the movement

So far, Macron has refused concessions. The workers have refused to submit. The class struggle, instead of softening through some sort of negotiations, has intensified.

The workers’ movement has drawn to its side students, sections of the impoverished small-business people and farmers, who in some cases have sent food to striking workers. Yet –– and in France this is the same as in nearly all countries in the imperialist world since the 1989-91 counterrevolution in the Soviet Union –– this movement lacks the kind of workers’ political party that has the authority to direct such a complicated mass struggle against the centralized capitalist state. 

Building such a party has occupied revolutionaries’ thoughts and actions since V.I. Lenin and his comrades, who built the Bolshevik Party that led the 1917 Russian Revolution, wrote and discussed this issue.

The French Communist Party (PCP), which in the past had hundreds of thousands of active members and strong ties to the most militant union, and which received between 18% and 28% of national votes between 1945 and 1980, is currently ineffective. The PCF got only 3% of votes in the last Assembly elections and has refrained from opposing NATO’s actions in Ukraine. 

Despite having no strong party, retirees, workers and youths in France are finding ways to continue the battle and confront state repression as they prepare for the June 6 mass mobilization. 

Individual factories and industries have gone on strike, like the 72 women workers at the Vert Baudet factory who make children’s clothes. These workers have been on strike for over a month as of May 31. 

Small groups hold guerrilla-like actions. One invaded the headquarters of the investment giant BlackRock in Paris. If they can, they disappear before being arrested. When Macron’s cabinet goes out to speak to the people, the people greet them by banging pots and pans to drown out their lies — what they call a “casserolade.”

Still, within the PCF are tens of thousands of veteran communists who dream of socialism, plus others in the more revolutionary and anti-imperialist organizations trying to build a fighting party. Other hundreds of thousands of young people dream of a decent world –– which can only be a socialist world.

Despite the difficulty for activists facing an armed state apparatus and a capitalist class that is backed by all of Europe’s bankers –– along with U.S. imperialism –– the current struggle in France provides an opening for committed revolutionaries. They have the challenge of assisting the mass struggle, while organizing their party at the same time. 

The current struggle provides on-the-job training for professional revolutionaries, for those who are inspired by the breadth of mass struggle to devote their lives to making a better world for humanity by fighting for socialism.

Those outside France who want a socialist world can not only learn by studying the events there but can assist by holding solidarity actions –– in solidarity with all in France who have joined the struggle to stop Macron’s pension cuts. 

To read about Workers World’s analysis of the May 1968 uprising in France, see for articles by two of WWP’s historic leaders, Vince Copeland and WWP Chairperson Sam Marcy. They wrote these articles in the heat of the struggle, based on whatever information they could get filtered through the corporate media, mostly print and broadcast.

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