By Najete Michell and Paul Taylor
The fight of French workers against austerity – moving wealth from labour to capital – continues to gather momentum.
The proposal to increase the retirement age has sparked anger across France. President Macron proposes to increase the rate of exploitation of the French working class by raising the age of retirement from 62 to 64.
The fight over pensions has unleashed a tidal wave of resistance, strikes, and protests across France, led by the working class. The struggle has reached deep into French society.
Women have mobilised in massive numbers in response to an attack that will particularly damage them. Many students and young workers have joined the resistance. Young people are struggling with low pay, insecure jobs, access to housing, and poverty. They understand that a victory on pensions today is also one for their future. Moreover, the opposition has extended to rural areas and those sections of the petty bourgeoisie living on low incomes and inadequate pensions.
The class struggle in France is being fought on the streets and in parliament. The two are inextricably linked and raise significant questions for socialist strategy and tactics on how best to unite and advance the class struggle. Specifically, how to transcend the division between the so-called political and economic struggles: the first to be led by the left political parties and the latter to be led by the trade unions.
A national blockade with strikes and demonstrations
On March 7, over 3.5 million protested against President Macron’s pension reform attack across France. Over 700,000 took to the streets of Paris. There were 300 demonstrations nationwide. The day also saw a massive strike wave, including workers in the public sector, energy, and transport, with calls for a national blockade of the economy.
The days after March 7 have seen sustained mass action against Macron.
The national blockade of the economy continues as the trade unions deepen their opposition to the pension reform by organising a rolling strike to force the government to retreat.
International Women’s Day, March 8, saw further big protests across the county, focussed on the unequal, detrimental effect of pension reform on women.
Strikes by workers in energy, transport, and the docks continued after March 7. France 24 reported, ‘French train and metro drivers, refinery workers, garbage collectors, and others were holding further strikes.’ Other actions include the blocking of ports and the river Rhine.
The movement against the pension reform has overwhelming popular backing in opinion polls, with 72% of the population supporting the action of the trade unions. 59% of those polled said they are entirely or somewhat in favour of renewing the transport strike after March 7.
The March days of action built on the momentum generated by the five days of protests and two days of strikes in January and February. Unions are calling for another day of nationwide demonstrations on Saturday, March 11.
The resistance to the attempt to use the pension reform to increase the exploitation of the working class has deep roots.
In 1995 strikes and protests – the biggest since May 1968 – defeated the Juppé retirement reform plan. In 2007, following huge protests, Sarkozy’s attack on pensions was also defeated.
But in 2010, the retirement age was raised under Sarkozy from 60 to 62, notwithstanding the huge protests at that time.
What is new today?
The unity, breadth, strength, and determination of the opposition to pension reform are founded on two key new elements compared to the defeat in 2010.
Firstly, the economic crisis facing most people shows no sign of ending. Austerity, as elsewhere, is redistributing wealth in obscene amounts from the people to the rich and the profits of big business. Meanwhile, real wages continue to decline as inflation hits hard. The social gains since 1945, notably health care, continue to be eroded. The neoliberal policies of successive governments of the right and the Socialist party have generated profound depths of anger and pessimism about the future.
Secondly, the 2022 presidential and legislative elections led to new opportunities for the left.
Although Macron was re-elected president, he was wounded. He won in the second round against Le Pen in April 2022 with less support than five years ago and largely because voters did not want the far-right to win. Only Pompidou in 1969 won the presidency with less support in the history of the 5th Republic. The second round also saw the second-highest level of abstentions and spoilt ballots over the same period.
In the legislative elections two months later, Macron received a bloody nose. His party lost its absolute majority. La France Insoumise (LFI) emerged as the largest party on the left due to its record of being the most consistent opponent of austerity and racism.
The proposal by Mélenchon of a parliamentary alliance of the LFI with the Socialist party, the Greens, and the Communist party led to the formation of NUPES.
This move strengthened the working class. A national agreement meant that each constituency only had one left candidate, thereby maximising their chances of success. It meant the left became the second-largest bloc in parliament and the official opposition.
The NUPES alliance prevented the far right under Le Pen from being the largest party in parliament with all the privileges, legitimacy, and profile that would go with that.
Demonisation of the left
Since the parliamentary elections, capital, the media, and the right have attempted to divide the left and isolate the LFI by depicting the latter as rabble-rousers and the sin-of-sins, being unparliamentarian.
The Macronists have, on the whole, been given a free pass in the media concerning their undemocratic behaviour. Notably, ruling by presidential decree through using Article 49.3 to push through legislation without a vote. (Something that has not been ruled out on the pension reform bill) Powerful sections of the media have also downplayed the significance of the rotten bloc between the Macronists and Le Pen’s far fight RN, alongside depicting the LFI as enemies of the Republic.
Socialists and parliament
The strategy and tactics of socialists in parliament should be based on some key principles if they wish their conduct to increase the influence and power of the working class. Firstly, a recognition that the struggle in parliament is subordinate to the broader class struggle in society. Additionally, the struggle on the streets and inside parliament must be consciously linked by socialists. In short, the fight in parliament must be conducted in a way that strengthens the position of the working class as a whole.
These principles seem to have inspired much of the strategy of the French left in parliament. Their specific application in France continues to be worthy of serious evaluation by all socialists.
The left in parliament has correctly brought the class struggle into the National Assembly. It has played a critical part in breaking the wall between the political and economic struggles: a divide that weakens the power of the working class.
Mathilde Panot, president of the France Insoumise group in the National Assembly, explained it very well: ‘those walls [of parliament] aren’t thick enough to protect you from the anger rising outside.’ The left continues to strive to make that a truism.
Since the 2022 presidential elections, the left has played a weak hand well. The left entered those elections divided and weakened by the toxic legacy of Hollande’s capitulation to neoliberalism. A legacy that had also boosted the right and far right.
The left’s subsequent advance is predicated on not playing the conventional parliamentary game. However, that should not be confused with ignoring parliamentary strategy and tactics.
Some examples to illustrate these points merit highlighting.
Mélenchon’s approach following the presidential elections last year was pivotal. Macron’s victory was not mainly a positive vote for him but much more a vote against Le Pen. Mélenchon successfully exploited this reality and called on voters to use the legislative elections as a third round of the presidential elections and deny Macron a parliamentary majority.
To achieve this, Mélenchon and the LFI persuaded the Greens, the Socialist party, and the Communist party to form an electoral bloc – NUPES. June’s legislative elections vindicated this approach. Macron lost his absolute parliamentary majority. The left emerged from the election as the leader of the opposition. Macron’s bid to further reconfigure French politics by marginalising the left and claiming to lead a Republican front against the far right had stalled.
Consequently, Macron has not been able to use parliament as a rubber stamp for his reactionary legislative programme. Instead, the LFI, in particular, has used the profile of parliament, especially in the media, to expose Macron’s anti-democratic, neo-liberal agenda and propose alternative policies that benefit the vast majority.
Pension bill debate
The left has also used the national platform of parliament to expose government deceptions about the reform and provide an alternative.
The left inside parliament has echoed and amplified the voices of the people outside parliament. Left MPs are visible and vocal at demonstrations, picket lines, and TV studios.
The left showed that, contrary to claims by the government, the reform proposal would not see the majority of new retirees entitled to a guaranteed pension income of not less than 85% of the net minimum wage, or roughly 1,200 euros per month at current levels.
For example, the LFI defied the government’s claim that it was either the reform or national bankruptcy. On the contrary, pensions at 60 are viable with a more progressive taxation system. The left also used the parliamentary debate to raise public awareness about the unfairness of the proposals, particularly how they penalised women.
The parliamentary debate on pension reform encapsulates the value of a class struggle parliamentary left. The Macronists wanted to rush the debate and vote on Article 7 to extend the retirement age through parliament before March 7. They hoped to present the vast majority outside who reject the pension bill with a fait accompli and thereby be demobilised.
After a debate within its ranks, the LFI refused to accept this. The other parties on the left were split on the matter. However, the LFI refused to withdraw its amendments to the pension bill, and parliament ran out of debating time. The bill is now in the Senate. The Macronists and the LR conservatives are trying to save the pension bill with compromise amendments to cobble together a majority when it returns to parliament.
For the moment, Macron is refusing to retreat. In the weeks ahead, the government may resort to undemocratic methods to force its bill through parliament, potentially igniting increased opposition on the streets.
The class struggle in France looks set to intensify. Racism and foreign policy will further test the left in the months ahead. If it is to move from opposition to government, the left will need to set out a comprehensive, independent agenda in the interests of the working class and oppressed on these and other matters similar to the stance it has taken on pension reform.