France on the march: Macron vs. the unions

The movement against Macron’s pensions reform is at the crossroads, writes Colin Falconer. Public support for the strikers remains high, but the movement will have to spread to other basic services and key industries to defeat Macron.

5 December 2019 strike. Photo: Matt Myers

As I write these lines in St Denis (on 15 January 2020) a quarter of train drivers are still on strike – down from 75% at the high point of the movement – and many Paris metro lines are still partially closed. The strike is clearly in a downward phase, yet dockers in some ports have stepped up their action. Demonstrations took place in a number of cities yesterday, and another nationwide day of action is scheduled for tomorrow.

In France, we talk about a ‘strike by proxy’ when a mass anti-government movement depends on a strike by a small, militant minority (often the rail workers). The result is often spectacular, as public transport grinds to a halt or petrol pumps dry up, but without the active involvement of broad layers of the class, or at least a favourable conjunction of political circumstances, it is rarely completely successful.

The strikes have now lasted for more than six weeks to date, and the demonstrations have been impressive in scale. On some days there have been more than 200 simultaneous marches. Nonetheless, it was clear from the beginning that only an extension of the movement to other basic services and key industries could win this battle.

By and large, this has not happened, even in the public sector – with the exception of intermittent strike action in schools. There are continuing strikes and militant pickets at some ports and oil refineries, and hundreds of local initiatives short of all-out strike action, many of them effective in the short-term. Still, the tide has undoubtedly turned.

Macron, with his huge majority and control of the parliamentary agenda, holds the trump cards. But the reform is still deeply unpopular, and there is remarkably little hostility towards the strikers. Coming after the year-long gilets jaunes (‘yellow vests’) movement – a genuine if contradictory popular revolt organised from below – the current, hugely impressive wave of strikes and demonstrations has revealed the depth of opposition to his policies. Consciously or unconsciously, it also points to anger at the political and economic system as a whole.

Macron’s pensions ‘reform’

When French trade unions announced a day of action on 5 December 2019 against Emmanuel Macron’s pensions ‘reform’, few observers would have wagered on the dispute lasting beyond the Christmas holiday season. The aim of the reform, it was claimed, was to rationalise the existing regime and, in particular, to abolish the separate pension schemes of several dozen special groups. It was presumed that such ‘privileges’ were unpopular with the majority of workers. The ‘reformers’ were not thinking, of course, of the very real privileges enjoyed by the super-rich so admired by Macron and his clique.

The real goal was to create a system in which workers would have to work longer and/or take lower pensions. They claimed this was necessitated by longer life expectancy, ignoring the fact that longer life expectancy is in large part due to the ability of workers to retire on a decent pension when still in good health.

Underlying the reform is the unspoken idea that individuals should be encouraged to save for their own retirement. It came therefore as no great shock when the government’s ‘retirement czar’, Jean-Paul Delevoye – the man behind the details of the reform and in charge of negotiations with the unions – was outed for his links with the insurance lobby, and forced to step down. Although no real surprise, it was still a public relations disaster for Macron, who decidedly has a genuine problem with the people he nominates for high office!

The details of the plan are too complex to explain here. In reality, they are in many cases ill-defined. Such was the fog surrounding the proposed new law that ministers were often unable to respond to simple questions, adding to the suspicions felt by those who were likely to be affected. Ironically, it is only among those already retired that the reform enjoys majority support.

To simplify, since 1993 private sector pensions have been calculated on the basis of the 25 best years of a career (before that it was the 10 best years). In the public sector, where salaries are often relatively low, pensions are a proportion of final salary. In 2010, the age at which most workers are able to retire on a full pension was raised from 60 to 62, but to qualify they must have paid into the scheme for 41 years, rising progressively to 43 years. Therefore, many workers continue until well past the theoretical retirement age. A full pension only becomes automatic at the age of 67.

Under the new ‘points-based’ system, pensions for employees in both the private and public sectors would reflect total career earnings. This may seem straightforward, but many grey areas remained, including, notably, the mechanism for determining the value of a point. Given the government’s proclaimed objective of maintaining the ‘financial equilibrium’ of the system, this latter point was crucial.

No ‘Christmas truce’

In December, then, probably for the first time in the history of France’s divided union movement, a united front of trade unions called for mass, militant action against the government. Strike action paralysed railways and the Paris metro, and closed hundreds of schools. Up to 1.5 million people took part in marches and rallies up and down the country, and not just in the big cities.

Macron’s appeal for a ‘Christmas truce’ went unheeded, while the traditional end-of-the-year shopping spree turned into a disaster for city-centre shops, especially in Paris. Tourism has been badly affected. The SNCF (French railways) and RATP (Paris buses and underground) have made huge losses and been forced to reimburse season tickets to compensate commuters who struggled to get to work without public transport.

Many other actions have taken place. Oil refineries and ports have been blocked. Workers have displayed great imagination: striking opera singers and ballet dancers have given free concerts, Bank of France workers threatened to cut off the supply of bank notes to cash machines, electricians have made selective (and illegal) power cuts and switched private customers to off-peak rates. Surprise demonstrations have taken place inside shopping centres and public buildings, barristers have boycotted hearings and sung ‘Bella Ciao’ on the steps of the Lyon law courts! In universities, students demanded and often succeeded in obtaining the postponement of examinations, and some campuses were forced to close. Demonstrations have been massive, noisy, joyous and often funny.

Realising somewhat late in the day that public opinion was largely hostile, the government first backed off by saying that the changes would only apply to those born after 1975, i.e. those due to retire in 20 years or so. Remarkably, this did not have the effect of dividing or weakening the movement.

Concessions from the government

In a tactical move to defuse the opposition, the government has now announced a ‘major’ concession. After nearly six weeks of strike action and a good deal of confusion on the government side, it was announced that the planned increase (to 64) of the age at which workers can retire on a full pension was to be dropped. The measure was designed to financially penalise those who exercised their right to a pension at the legal retirement age of 62 and reward with a bonus those who worked to the age of 65 or 66 – or even longer. Now, it was announced, the decision was … postponed.

Even this so-called ‘compromise’ was ringed with conditions: it was on offer only until April, by which time unions and employers were told to agree to a deal that would have basically the same effect. The aim remained the same: to force employees to work longer in order to guarantee the ‘financial stability’ of the scheme. In the absence of an agreement, the government reserved the right to legislate on the retirement age.

Again, this did not have the effect the government intended.

Other changes to the initial plans include raising the minimum for those entitled to a full pension to 1000 euros (equivalent to around £855) per month. This would be an improvement for many self-employed people such as small farmers but represents an insignificant increase for most wage-earners.

As for the so-called ‘special cases’, it soon became apparent that the government had no coherent plan. Teachers, it soon turned out, were due to take a massive cut in pensions. Yet the government and its ‘expert’ advisers were completely taken aback by the militant attitude of the main teachers’ union and the level of support for the strike in schools.

Under enormous pressure, the government announced compensation in the form of a promise of a substantial pay rise, enabling teachers to acquire more points for their future pensions. And still, understandably sceptical, they have continued to strike and march against the reform – as well as to demand an increase in pay, investment in schools and an end to recent changes to the exam system. Once again, the government’s strategy of divide-and-rule failed.

And how to allow for the physically difficult conditions of work of some police officers and military personnel, firefighters, lorry drivers, airline pilots and cabin staff other than by according them a special status? The basic principle of a universal points system, insisted the government, was non-negotiable. Yet, one by one, exceptions were made to the rules. And if for one group, why not for others? If gendarmes or ballet dancers are special cases because of the nature of their work, why not building workers, for example?

Revolt against austerity

The debate about working conditions has opened a Pandora’s box. Lack of job security, aggressive management methods and austerity (affecting the so-called ‘privileged’ public sector), have hit many groups of workers, including managers, technicians and white-collar employees. Work can be mentally, as well as physically ‘painful’. Yet the government and neoliberal economists insist that all (or nearly all) must work longer, despite the refusal of companies to employ older workers, while others are unfit to work even before reaching the present retirement age. At 62, only half of French workers are in full-time employment, and many are unemployed or on long-term sick leave.

The so-called ‘pensions revolt’ is not a traditional trade union dispute. It is also fundamentally not just about pensions. It is part of a much wider, on-going reaction to increased exploitation, austerity and neoliberalism. Many of the demonstrators (up to 1.5 million at any one time) have previously taken part in the gilets jaunes protests for social justice or marched against Macron’s Labour Law, which tore up many of the gains of previous generations of workers as enshrined in the Labour Code. Some have protested against selection at university or cuts to public services. Many young people – those most affected by the reform – have also been involved in climate protests, another area where Macron’s record is hotly contested.

In December, two weeks into the strike, former managers of France Telecom (now known as Orange) were found guilty of harassment and given prison sentences. Their ruthless methods had driven dozens of employees to suicide. The unprecedented court decision served as a reminder of the nature of work in capitalist society in the 21st century. When a primary school head teacher tragically killed herself in a poor northern suburb of Paris last year, she left a suicide note denouncing the effects of austerity. Meanwhile, hospital staff as well as some firefighters have been taking symbolic ‘strike’ action – with over one thousand doctors now threatening to resign.

Redundancies, too, are in the air, with the supermarket group Auchan announcing closures and more than 500 redundancies, and the state-owned broadcaster, Radio France, laying off 300 workers. Some Radio France workers have now been on strike for longer than the pensions protests, leading to programme cancellations.

In this context, it soon became apparent that the majority of the population was far from convinced that they would benefit from the reform. If the new system was in fact beneficial to all and more ‘socially equitable’, for example, why was it that the government were so anxious to appease critical groups such as police officers by exempting them from the reform? (In the case of the police and army, the answer is rather obvious – especially to Marxists!)

Macron himself (‘the president of the rich’) and his government of technocrats claim to be committed to improving ‘competitivity’ and tackling the so-called ‘conservatism’ of French society. Are the millions of gilets jaunes who block roundabouts and march down city-centre streets, braving tear-gas and rubber bullets too ‘conservative’? Or the hundreds of thousands of workers who go on strike to defend the Labour Code or the right to a decent pension, losing money in the process?

It’s no accident that many refer to Macron as ‘CEO of France, plc’. Macron doesn’t do empathy, and there is little sense of a government attuned to the public mood, or even capable of manipulating it, despite occasional attempts to play on a sense of patriotism or ‘national identity’ – such as when French troops recently died in action in the Sahel region of North Africa.

Resilience of the movement

But what of Macron’s strategy to overcome opposition to the reform? Rather obviously, the government had reckoned that the more ‘moderate’ unions would quickly get on board. But this did not happen, at least in the first few weeks.

So even the moderate CFDT union, which actually supports the principle of a points-based system, initially joined the opposition front – though they refused to call for strike action. They have now hailed Macron’s possibly premeditated ‘concession’ on the retirement age as a victory for their moderate approach. In fact, it would never have happened without the strikes and demonstrations they did not support. But as the joke goes, ‘if slavery still existed, the CFDT would try to negotiate the weight of the chains’. Meanwhile, the corporatist UNSA (especially its powerful rail workers branch) and the managers’ union, CFE-CGC, have by and large held the line, along with the traditionally more militant unions (CGT, FO) and the main teachers’ union (FSU).

For the government and its supporters, the battle of public opinion was crucial. In the face of public hostility, Macron rather pathetically announced he would not take his own presidential pension: demonstrators responded by saying he could keep his pension as long as he gave up his reform. The mainstream media naturally highlighted the effects of the strike on the public and on small businesses. However, they struggled to find the usual angry commuters sounding off about ‘selfish strikers’: most said that despite the inconvenience they ‘understood’ the movement. Attempts to manipulate public opinion have sometimes spectacularly failed – when a celebrity TV journalist interviewed a ‘typical’ restaurant owner about his losses during the strike, viewers were quick to tweet that he was in fact the husband and occasional deputy of a local politician belonging to Macron’s LREM (La République en Marche) party.

Knowing that public opinion was largely against the reform, and confronting the organised battalions of the French working-class, the government initially avoided the heavy policing methods they used against the gilets jaunes. But in the last week or so, police tactics have changed. This, however, has not worked to its advantage, especially as it coincided with the particularly brutal killing of a delivery driver by the police after a minor traffic offence. For the first time since the beginning of the gilets jaunes movements (during which dozens of people have lost the sight of an eye or suffered other serious injuries), the serious mainstream media have begun to editorialise about ‘police violence’. In an important turn-around, the Interior Minister and Macron himself have been forced to issue reminders to the cops to be on their ‘best behaviour’.

Astonishingly, at the time of writing, six weeks into the conflict, a poll commissioned by a right-wing media confirms 6 out of 10 people interviewed support the movement. Online crowd-funding for strikers has raised well over two million euros, and local events have helped maintain the morale of the strikers.

France at the crossroads

Politically, the Left has unanimously called for complete withdrawal of the reform. This united front even includes the Socialist Party, which implemented cuts, privatisation and neoliberal ‘reforms’ while in office under president François Hollande. Such public unity in support of workers’ struggle is a rare and significant event, which will hopefully translate into united action on other fronts. It could also facilitate electoral agreements between left-wing parties in the March 2020 local elections, which will be an important political test. Many joint meetings have been held featuring representatives of the union federations and of left-wing political movements – also a rare and welcome event given the dogma of separating politics and economic struggles in France.

On the far right, the party of Marine Le Pen also ostensibly opposes the reform. The mainstream right-wing and former governing party, Les Républicains, while agreeing that ‘everyone must work longer as people live longer’, has been highly critical of the government, hoping no doubt to reap political benefits from Macron’s difficulties.

Meanwhile Macron’s party, La République en Marche (LREM) now seems ironically named: demonstrators joke that Macron has indeed succeeded in getting the country to march. Within the party, there is tension between hard-liners and its so-called ‘left wing’, or rather those rightly fearing an electoral backlash. The critics, however, do not challenge the reform as such: they only deplore the government’s failure to offer significant concessions to the moderate CFDT union at the right time.

The current situation cannot last indefinitely, and without a revival of the strike movement it can only evolve in the government’s favour, at least in the short-term. Prime Minister Edouard Philippe may well be able to steer the final version of the reform through parliament, with or without major concessions to the unions. But at what political cost for the government? And with Le Pen waiting in the wings, at what risk for the rest of us? With the next presidential election in a little over two years, the Left has a huge responsibility.

A model motion in solidarity with the strikers is available here.

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