France - working class fights on the streets

by Jean Auld

Huge strikes by French transport and other workers have paralysed the country for several weeks. The unions are demanding an end to Macron’s plans to reform the pensions system. The strikes brought public transport to a halt throughout December, and at different times closed schools, chemical works and oil depots. The first wave of mass marches in dozens of French cities drew 1.5 million protestors, the second 850,000 and the third 1.8 million, with the pro-establishment CFDT union joining for the first time.

The strikes initially shut down seven of France’s eight oil refineries – and strikes by tanker drivers caused petrol shortages at service stations. About a quarter of Électricité de France workers have also been on strike, leading to rolling power cuts in different regions. Train drivers in the most militant CGT union centre said they would continue striking until Macron’s pension reforms were scrapped. Railworkers in other unions also took a tough line.

The CFDT union centre, however, supports the new points-based system and is only striking over one central aspect, the raising of the retirement age to 64. Despite these differences, there has been a new level of co-operation and unity between the traditionally rivalrous union centres – and unity between trade unionist gilets rouges and gilets jaunes, who have marched together in towns and cities across France. The militant mood follows more than a year of gilets jaunes demonstrations, along with strikes throughout the summer and autumn of 2019 – by firefighters, hospital workers, teachers and others.

Macron’s new points-based retirement scheme would abolish the 42 individual pension schemes operating in different sectors and replace them with a universal system, based on points accumulated over a working life – though exactly how points are earned is unclear. Currently, pension calculations in the private sector would be based on an employee’s 25 best earning years. Public sector pensions are based on earnings made in the last six months before retirement. Macron claims the reform is necessary to pay for an ageing population, with pension system deficits forecast at €17 billion by 2025. But there is widespread public recognition that he has started a race to the bottom on pensions. In one opinion poll (Dec 11-12), 70% of respondents saw the reforms as an attack on pension rights, and there is solid public support for the strikes – this despite the fact that only 8% of French workers are unionised.

The reforms would force people to retire later or face reduced pensions when they retire. Though over the past ten years the official retirement age has risen from 60 to 62, France still has one of the lowest retirement ages of the rich OECD countries. The plan would make employees work till 64 to draw their full pension. Currently, France has one of the lowest rates of pensioner poverty in the EU but that would change drastically under the new scheme. Communist leader Fabien Roussel said the plans “attack the principle of solidarity that is the basis of French social protection,” and “individualise” pension pots. Another Left MP said that “under the alibi of universality, the government is picking everyone’s pockets.”

Coupled with France’s earlier austerity measures, such as the Code Pénicaud, which targeted national pay bargaining and undermined union representation, and the Thatcherite programme of privatisation, the pensions reforms aim at rolling back the social advances made since 1945. It represents a direct challenge to the power of trade unions, who have suffered a series of defeats in recent years.

A danger for Macron is that the pensions protests have begun to link with other struggles, drawing increasing numbers of people into the struggle. One example is healthworkers who have struck against underfunding and unacceptable workloads, joining the pensions protests in the streets. Equally difficult for Macron are the signs of ‘convergence’ between gilets jaunes and unions. Such unity has until recently been hindered by the gilets jaunes’ suspicion of organised labour, and the unions’ initial suspicion of gilets jaunes as chaotic and right wing. But here too there have been growing indications of unity. A one-day protest in February 2019 saw them marching side-by-side, and in November the CGT welcomed gilets jaunes’ calls to support the pensions strikes. The regular gilets jaunes Saturday marches throughout December were joined by strikers, such as the RATP Paris public transport workers, all condemning the pensions reforms. 


The gilets jaunes protests began in November 2018, and have continued ever since – though Macron’s PR stunt of a ‘great debate’, a sham engagement with the people in early 2019, had the effect of dampening them down. Aside from the weekly demonstrations known as Actes, gilets jaunes have occupied roundabouts and shut down motorway toll booths, where close-knit groups have formed. They have become an important symbol of resistance – against the establishment, against austerity, and against the French constitution. As a result they have met with harsh state violence. Police have used anti-terrorist emergency powers to inflict a level of visible brutality not seen since the Algerian war. So far, at least two people have been accidentally killed, and 25 protestors have lost an eye, and 5 a hand. 4,000 have been injured, 315 with serious head injuries including broken skulls and jaws. Flashballs, banned elsewhere in Europe, and considered weapons of war, have been widely used. Amnesty, the UN and the European parliament have all condemned the excessive use of force.

Despite such repression, the protests have continued week after week. Initially sparked by fuel price rises and the provocative lowering of wealth taxes, they developed into a wider expression of revolt. Over a year into the movement, 69% of French people still believe it to be “justified”.  Yet the media in Britain has blatantly ignored the movement and the violence against it, while highlighting the demonstrations in Hong Kong and Venezuela, which it suits the British establishment to support.

Condemned as a rightwing mob by liberal commentators and initially by the unions, gilets jaunes protests have at times taken on a reactionary appearance and some leading individuals among them have expressed xenophobic views. According to a poll conducted during the last election, 60% of those finding it “very difficult” to cope financially voted for Le Pen over Macron. That means that many of the gilets jaunes would have been Le Pen voters. But the gilets jaunes are by and large not ideological right wingers. Their demands are progressive: for higher wages, pensions, and benefits. There are also demands to tax big business, rebuild hospitals and other public services, and renationalise utilities and SNCF. Demonstrators may sing the Marseillaise and wave the Tricoleur, but these symbols have been reclaimed for their original revolutionary significance. The early demonstrations attacked the Stock Exchange, large department stores and even the Elysée Palace. Though the gilets jaunes are supported by the Front National, they are also backed by the Communists and Mélenchon’s leftist France Insoumise.

This is a movement of the poor and dispossessed who found a spontaneous expression of class discontent in the gilets jaunes, just as the vote for Brexit expressed working class anger in Britain. It arose after a period of successive union defeats, including the key defeat of the railworkers against the privatisation of SNCF, and when the once powerful Communist Party had been weakened by decades of ideological retreat.

The gilets jaunes mostly come from small towns and villages rather than cities, places cut off by lack of public transport – hence the furious reaction against the petrol price rises of 2018. This geographical isolation is coupled with chronic employment and lack of access to care. 9 million people in France live below the poverty line; 30% of French people feel they live in neglected areas. But such poverty is not confined to rural areas. Urban protestors join the weekly protests that coalesce in the big cities, and in summer 2019 the movement spread to undocumented migrants in the Paris area. These gilets noirs – a movement of about 1500 migrants – made headlines with several high-profile occupations protests in Paris, most notably of the Panthéon, and Charles de Gaulle airport. But despite some local gilets jaunes’ expressions of solidarity with migrant victims of police violence, there has been little ongoing joint action between them and gilets noirs.

The movement, based outside workplaces, has not hit the economy directly – apart from blockades of fuel depots, impeding the circulation of heavy lorries, and disrupting tourism and the retail trade during demonstrations.

The movement’s most visible call has been for direct referenda. The RIC (référendum d’initiative citoyenne or citizens’ initiative referendum) is a plan to allow a referendum on any proposal that gains 700,000 signatures or more. The problem with this idea is that referenda can simply be ignored, as we in Britain know. The RIC demand reflects widespread distrust of politicians and the current system of representation, and is an attempt to bypass parliamentary democracy. This rejection of state structures has led to some positive experiments in grassroots democracy, such as the various assemblies, local organising groups and, so far, four assemblées des assemblées, most famously in the small town of Commercy, attended by delegates from gilets jaunes groups around the country. More important, the regular informal local protests, as well as the larger demonstrations in cities, have drawn thousands of people into active political struggle.

But the movement’s refusal to join with established working class organisations such as the trade unions has been a weakness. It has kept the gilets jaunes isolated and has prevented a potential alliance that would help them achieve their demands. Separation from the organised Left also means the movement has not developed a clear view of the state as a vehicle of class rule – despite the police violence.

The gilets jaunes did win some victories in the early stages: the fuel price rise was halted, and Macron announced a €10 billion package of wage increases and tax cuts for low earners and pensioners. Companies were also encouraged to give out Christmas bonuses, which would be tax free up to €1000.  But these giveaways did not address the fundamental grievances.


Now there is potential for ‘convergence’ to make headway. Work has already been done in a number of cities. The Communists in Marseille, for example, successfully brought activists together at an early stage in the gilets jaunes movement. Nationally, the wave of strikes has begun to create a gravitational pull, drawing the gilets jaunes towards the labour movement. On a wider political level, the demands of both strikers and gilets jaunes are incompatible with continued membership of the EU, whose rules lead to the driving down of wages and welfare cutbacks, including pensions. The need is to link the current struggles with demands for a new constitution – a 6th Republic – and for popular sovereignty outside the EU.

In a possible sign of government weakening, Macron’s Pensions Minister Delevoye was forced to resign in mid-December for his failure to declare outside interests – one of which was administering an insurance training institute, a sector that could benefit from the planned pension reform. Macron has offered the possibility of concessions on the age of retirement in an attempt to divide the CFDT from the other unions. But at the time of writing (end of 2019), the unions are united and not giving way. This has been the longest running strike action since the railworkers’ strikes in 1986-1987.



Riot police bear down on Gilets Jaunes in Paris (photo by Norbu Gyachung