For over a month, France has been hit by a massive strike wave, which was spurred by government attempts to overhaul the country’s policies on retirement and pensions. Although most transport workers are now returning to work, many strikers affirm that the protests will continue, with a big mobilization planned for Jan. 24. Socialist Resurgence received the following report on Jan. 21, written by a participant in the strikes in Paris. The reporter is a member of the Anti-capitalism and Revolution current within the French New Anti-capitalist Party.
After the success of the huge Jan. 9 demonstrations and strikes, the French government announced the withdrawal of the “pivot age,” meaning the determination of an age before which one would be allowed to retire with a lesser pension, or a bigger pension if one keeps on working beyond that age. To determine a “pivot age” is a way of changing the legal age of retirement.
A great majority of the population can see it plainly. Withdrawing it (only temporarily, on top of it!) was purely a maneuver, and a very large part of the population and of the strikers can also see that. As it was designed to do, it provoked the most bureaucratic and integrated unions to withdraw from the movement. As they had barely been building the movement, it overall had little to no effect on the actual mobilization.
The movement is taking root and spreading, but the strike is declining in the two sectors that have been most mobilized: SNCF (rail) workers and RATP (greater Paris public transportation) workers. We are in a key moment when the mobilization is taking new forms and can win if it expresses its full potential and rebounds in those two sectors. There are several factors explaining this:
The fundamental thing to understand is that the movement came to be against the will of union leaderships. The union leaderships are following the impulse from the rank and file. Calling for an unlimited strike very vaguely during the first weeks, and now calling for three day’s strike at a time, is not enough. This pension reform has been about 30 years in the making and is central in the eyes of French and international capital. There will be no easy access or shortcut to victory.
RATP workers, who gave the impulse and provided large numbers of strikers and have a huge impact on daily life (not only in Paris and its region; given how France is centralized, their impact is multiplied) are less channeled by unions than other public services and private companies. The CGT, the main national union federation, was discredited by bad practices. Good militants are scattered in various unions, often in discordance with their national union leaderships. For years this has resulted in an extremely low level of struggle.
We are now seeing the flip side of that situation. Those workers are more open to self-organization, to links with other sectors, and are more radicalized by the dynamics of their struggle. They also had illusions that came with a lack of experience. The idea that the government would not last more than a few weeks was widespread. Now that the real strong-arm contest begins, they are disoriented.
SNCF workers are faced with a stronger union bureaucracy. The immediate effect is that even when strike numbers are very high, their assemblies are more like forums where the union leaders address the workers than a space for everyone to share their ideas and come up with a common plan to win. So the turnout in the assemblies is pretty low. They are also scarred by a three-months losing battle in 2018. Considering that situation, the fact that even a majority came out shows the anger and the will to fight of the working class. Their strike numbers started very strong and slowly declined.
In both cases, those who were more closely linked to interprofessional assemblies are resisting better. Most of them voted to continue the strike until the Jan. 24, the next big day of demonstrations. Most of the others voted to suspend the strike and come out in mass on the 24th. The lack of clear perspectives, combined with the prospect of a hard financial hit, are weighing negatively. The strike fund’s progression from donors to the strikers is impeded by bureaucracy and has not yet reached its goals.
Another illusion was that they would soon make other sectors go on an unlimited strike with a majority of workers, but that has not happen that clearly and quickly.
A few strategic sectors are more or less on an unlimited strike—energy (gas and electricity), ports, and the refineries. Those (particularly the last two) are controlled by the CGT bureaucracy and put into action when it wants to demonstrate its determination. It weighs positively in the situation, but we are weary of seeing them suddenly withdraw when the CGT decides so. A lot of those are not in Paris and not seen in the bourgeois media, which lessens their impact.
Teachers are another story. Many mobilizations had been going on but were dispersed. Now for the first time since 2003, all levels of the education system are on strike at the same time, with a significant level of self-organization. In many places, striking teachers have been the glue that is keeping interprofessional assemblies together. They have been able to bring numbers of people to blockade actions in the RATP shops, for example.
The strike has also spread to a number of other sectors that give depth, broadness, and a strong symbolic impact to the strike. That is the case with lawyers, and most spectacularly of all, arts and culture workers. There have been strikes in hospitals and fire brigades for months, but they are neutralized by requisitions (being lawfully forced to work while on strike), and in the case of the hospitals by the corporatism of doctors.
Youth are certainly one of the biggest potential reservoirs of mobilization, but so far the government has succeeded in keeping the universities in check. Many of them closed preventively and then held exams. Blockades of the schools or mobilization to cancel the exams have happened but are not generalized.
The first installment of a new version of the Bac, involving a first round of exams in the coming weeks, will be a definite focus of mobilizations for teachers and maybe high school students. It will be one of the levers to reinforce the movement in the next weeks.
Maintaining and expanding the strike is the way to win. The role of grassroots assemblies, specifically of the interprofessional assemblies, where workers in majority strike can add up their forces with workers who are in the minority or even striking alone, or unemployed, retirees, etc., will be even more crucial. Very slow steps are taken to coordinate those assemblies in the Paris region.
This task has been very much delayed by ill-willed rivalries inside the far left, to a very troubling result. This needs to be overcome and a pluralistic, self-organized, grassroots coordinated force needs to take the leadership of the strike in the greater Paris region. A national coordination of grassroots assemblies also needs to happen soon.
Photo: Thibault Camus / AP