Interview: The formation of the French strike movement

The strikes on the French railway networks, various public sectors and other industries have been going since 5 December 2019, defying expectations that the festive period would slow down the movement. This, however, did not come out of nowhere as a manifestation of ‘strike culture’; rather, it has built on the gilets jaunes movement that started 14 months ago, as well as the conscious and strategic efforts to build up and maintain the current strikes. In this interview, the French collective Plateforme d’Enquêtes Militantes explain the routines of the strikers day-to-day, the sharpening of police repression and what they mean by the ‘gilets-jaunisation’ of political resistance in France.

Photo: @PlatEnqMil on Twitter

rs21: How spontaneous or how organised would you say the current wave of strikes is? Were there preparations in the form of meetings, assemblies or discussions, and if so, what kind? To what extent does the movement build on previous networks of resistance?

Plateforme d’Enquêtes Militantes: To understand the genesis of this movement, two things must be taken into account: firstly, the RATP strike on 13 September 2019, which had a participation rate of over 95%, and secondly, the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movement.

Following the success of the strike throughout the Paris transport network in mid-September, which led to a real disruption of the movement of people in the metropolis and its suburbs, the RATP’s trade union bases immediately set the date of 5 December to open the dances of the fight against the current reform. Why three months later? Because the strike of 13 September had been cleverly self-organised by a dynamic coming from below. And if one wanted to reproduce such a success, one had to give oneself the time to build the strike, by doing grassroots militant work, on a daily basis, in the workplaces. Immediately after the launch of such a self-organization process, other sectors, and in particular the SNCF [the French national railway network], joined the date of 5 January. This is, therefore, a strike which from the outset belonged to the workers, future strikers, and not to the federations or trade union confederations.

As for the gilets jaunes, this movement, its power and tenacity, which has been at the forefront for 14 months, has now affected the imaginations and practices of many mobilisations: we can no longer fight in France as we did before the gilets jaunes uprising. Moreover, the first anniversary of the gilets jaunes, 16-17 November 2019, was a launching pad for the anti-retirement movement: not only because the gilets jaunes claimed it as such, but also because the strikers in the early days explicitly took the gilets jaunes movement and its anniversary as an example: multiplication of forms of action, self-organisation from below, radicality, capacity for initiative and resistance in the long term, broadening the spectrum of demands, attacking Macron directly, etc. It is in this respect that we speak of the ‘gilet-jaunisation’ of the movement.

 rs21: What are people doing, day to day, during the strike?

PEM: Every day, the strike starts very early, at least in the Paris region where the strike is the most visible. One of the most important thing is to form the picket lines, which start at around 4 am. These pickets can be around bus or garbage truck warehouses, refineries and other workplaces, mainly targeting infrastructure.

A little later, there are mobilisations in high schools and middle schools either led by the staff or by those who study there. In recent weeks, rotating blockade practices have been put in place in some of these sectors in order to reduce the already colossal loss of wages after more than a month of strike action.

Then often come the general assemblies of the different workplaces that serve to organise and make decisions on the strike in the different workplaces. It must be seen that these grassroots organisational realities are articulated with inter-professional general assemblies or neighbourhood assemblies that sometimes originate from former inter-professional assemblies. Indeed, the question of action and organisation at the local level arose very forcefully during this movement because of the material restrictions linked to the stopped transport networks.

Some days, there are also the demonstrations, usually held on Tuesdays or Thursdays,  often under police pressure, take, despite their very short itinerary compared to the gilets jaunes a certain amount of time during the week. Saturday, on the other hand, is in this sense a day with a broader composition, which includes those who cannot, for example, go on strike during the week. This Saturday dynamic, which was not very enthusiastic at the beginning of the strike, became much more pronounced during the end-of-year holidays.

It should also be pointed out that the reproduction of the strike also involved the organisation of events to raise funds to maintain the strike: numerous evenings of support, popular canteens collected money to donate to the strike fund.

Photo: @PlatEnqMil on Twitter

rs21: What level of sympathy, or antipathy do the general public have towards the strike and the strikers, and why? Are there any specific ways this has manifested?

PEM: The level of sympathy for the strike in France is quite high, if not very high. This point is surprising in that the strike mainly affects the national railway sector (SNCF) and the Paris public transport (RATP). Indeed, the strike in these historically very mobilised sectors, which have been at the forefront in recent years, is still presented as an obstacle to the ‘freedom to work’ and to move around. However, the issue of pensions not only mobilises but also makes the movements sympathetic to the general public from the outset.

On the other hand, some strikes have become very popular with people, such as the one at the Paris Opera and national operas in general: striking workers have given free performances outside the opera houses during the holidays (24 and 31 December). These performances, which were also actions within the framework of the strike, were all the more important as they took place during the winter holidays, when finding new modes of mobilisation was becoming increasingly important.

The other, less spectacular dimension that indicates the general support for the mobilisation is the daily and financial support, the participation in the strike funds will have been effective on the part, for example, of district committees or environmental activists – to name but a few – who understood the importance of supporting the strike, this kind of initiative has multiplied on the part of very different actors.

rs21: How are official organisations, such as trade unions, political parties relating to the strike movement?

PEM: The parties, apart from LREM [Macron’s party of government], did not play an important role in this strike movement: those on the left (FI, NPA) supported, those on the right did not show too much public support for the project, being very happy to let social discontent focus on Macron. As for the trade union confederations: the question deserves an interview in itself – considering their role since the mobilisation against the Labour Law in 2016 and especially since the gilets jaunes insurgency. To make a long story short, we can say that they have found themselves between the hammer of a government not at all willing to concede anything and the anvil of a massive and conflictual movement, which they did not control… So they were forced, in one way or another, to set several dates for a general strike and to call for days of action and demonstration. One thing was nevertheless clear from the outset: while the strikers refused the pension reform en bloc, the confederations, despite their differences, had the objective of going to negotiate! They have had several meetings with the government over the past 18 months, knowing that the basic foundations of the reform project are untouchable for Macron and his officials.

rs21: How diverse politically is the movement? Is there a significant right-wing or reactionary element present, are there ways in which the strikers are combatting that?

PEM: It is obvious that the previous politicisation of large sections of the strike movement makes it impossible for the right and the extreme right to intervene effectively in the strike movement. Although the Front National affirmed at the beginning of the strike movement its rejection of the pension reform, we still have a position of principle which is almost always adopted by this party. It supports the cops more than the strikers.

Moreover, the fact that a strike raises such a central issue as pensions is a major factor in the fact that the gilets jaunes movement is all the more concerned with social issues relating to wages and the distribution of working time. Since it was through mass political intervention on these issues that the defeat of the right in this movement was decided, the strike is an even more favourable ground for the gilets jaunes to gain ground. We could see this on the occasion of the demonstration of 18 January 2020, during which, despite the police supervision, the spectre of Saturday’s conflict could not be avoided over the ten kilometres of the demonstration despite a huge police presence.

rs21: The ongoing police violence to suppress the gilets jaunes movement over the past year has been excessively brutal and violent. How does the state repression compare to that at the moment and how do the strikers respond to it? What kind of infrastructures are built to resist?

PEM: There was an unprecedented outburst of police violence, particularly on Thursday 9th, for union demonstrations. Workers are now being treated in the same way as gilets jaunes or autonomous and anarchist youth groups. Moreover, the police violence starts very early, as soon as the warehouses and more recently the high schools are blockaded. In this respect, France represents the most advanced point of police repression in Europe, which makes it the counterpart of the intensification of the level of class confrontation in this country. Beyond its colonial past and present, beyond the brutality against racialised populations in the suburbs and beyond the specificity of the ‘doctrine of French-style policing’, since 2016 and especially since the introduction of the gilets jaunes, social and political struggles in France have reached levels of antagonism that are not seen in other countries in Europe.

Plateforme d’Enquêtes Militantes are a radical collective in the gilets jaunes movement in France. They have written in English about the strikes and social movements for Verso and Notes From Below.

A model motion of solidarity with the strikers for trade union branches can be found here.

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