The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Three Months of Strikes and Demonstrations

Mar 26, 2023

The following article is based on large excerpts from two articles appearing in Lutte de Classe, (issue #229, February 2023, and #231, April 2023), the political journal of Lutte Ouvrière, the French Trotskyist organization with which SPARK is in solidarity.

The pension “reform” announced on January 10 by President Macron’s Prime Minister, Elisabeth Borne, is particularly brutal. By immediately pushing back the legal retirement age by 2 years to age 64, and by extending the years worked to 43 years required for a full pension, the government is attacking the condition of all workers. Macron and his government were banking on a certain resignation; instead, they aroused anger in the world of work. And they managed to build unity of the major union confederations against their reform.

The reform is all the more shocking to the world of work because the most exploited categories of workers are the most directly concerned: home helpers, medical care assistants, factory and slaughterhouse workers, security guards, construction and public works workers, delivery drivers—the many arduous jobs, where someone is often worn out at the age of 50, or dismissed, put out in the street well before reaching the legal retirement age.

This reform comes on top of a series of recent attacks, including inflation, which reduces the purchasing power of working-class families, and the reduction of unemployment benefits. Food and energy prices explode, while wages stagnate. The workers’ standard of living decreases, while the profits of big companies explode: 73 billion euros in the first half of 2022 for the TOP 40 companies alone…. The context is that of a deepening crisis, in which the threat of war is ever stronger.

No one knows the future of the pension funds, but the government of Macron/Borne have already announced their objective: 150 billion euros are to be “saved” in ten years. For the bourgeoisie, it is a question of ensuring that as little money as possible goes to workers’ pensions, and that as much of the state budget as possible can be reserved for support to big business and the rich. The bourgeoisie is already taking cuts out of what the state should spend on hospitals, health care, public transport, education, local authorities, etc. Pensions are just one more item on which they want to cut back. Following the same path laid down by the Sarkozy and Hollande governments before him, Macron’s governments have cut tens of billions of euros in tax revenues since 2017, measures favoring the wealthiest and the companies. New subsidies have also helped the wealthy. During the Covid crisis, the state disbursed 200 billion euros. Every year, some 160 billion is to be distributed to companies in the form of subsidies, aid and various exemptions. So why is it up to active workers to pay for pensioners? Why not the bourgeoisie, which makes its fortunes from the toil of the workers? Making employees pay an additional 15 billion per year is not common sense (which they pretend with their slogan, "we live longer, we work longer"). It is a class choice.

What’s Next?

The movement launched on January 19 is currently led by the trade union leaderships, including that of the CFDT. The CFDT had earlier supported more than one pension “reform,” and recently opposed strikes head-on, such as that of the oil refinery workers in the autumn or that of the train conductors this past December. But the union confederations have been scorned by Macron and his government, which has rejected all their demands, including the most limited ones. The unions called for a fightback only late in the day. They had to demonstrate that an attack such as this counter-reform of the pensions must necessarily be negotiated with them and that the government was wrong to want to ignore the union leaders. The scale of the demonstrations since January 19 and the fact that the movement has endured reinforced their position. They now show that they are indispensable, but also that they deserve this role, showing their capacity to control the reactions of workers. This is what they did by setting a date for a new day of strikes and demonstrations on January 31, not to mention later dates that depend on the parliamentary calendar. How far are the trade union confederations prepared to go in a movement against the government’s so-called reform? Certainly, they hoped to obtain some concessions from the government, some changes to this plan, which would allow them to justify abandoning strikes and demonstrations. But up until now, they did not get any concessions. And Macron’s use of an administrative procedure, rather than a parliamentary vote, made that point clear.

And so, the question now is: Where does this mobilization go? In any case, the workers cannot give the trade union leaderships a blank check, leaving it entirely up to them to lead a response that concerns all workers.

A Government without a Majority

The fact that Macron couldn’t line up enough votes in Parliament to get his reform passed, and instead had to depend on an administrative measure (Article 49.3), shows the weakness of the new government’s position. Obviously, in the ranks of the right, few elected officials were ready to take responsibility for this “reform” by voting for it. It is overwhelmingly rejected by public opinion and even by part of their own electorate.

Macron, recently re-elected, no longer has a majority in Parliament. According to French Constitutional law, he could dissolve Parliament and call for new elections, in an attempt to gain a majority. But it is unlikely that Macron will opt for this choice in the short term, since he and his supporters are weakened and isolated. So, he is probably heading toward increasing the use of procedures that bypass the Parliament: ordinances, decrees and other modalities proclaimed administratively. Macron himself hinted at this when he said that Parliament was already debating and voting on too many laws and that "not everything goes through the law.”

If the next months see a long sequence of parliamentary circus acts, this may well strengthen the conviction in a part of the world of work that the workers’ fate will not be played out among the notables in their supper clubs, but on the field of the class struggle, of the strike and in the street.

A Non-Explosive Movement but One that Lasts and Spreads

Since January, the days of action and demonstrations have followed one another, maintaining their massive character, with a total of several million participants and strikers, including in many small towns. And this is without counting the passive support that this movement enjoys in a very large part of public opinion, well beyond the ranks of the working class and the workers who do the most arduous work, the ones most affected by the reform.

This movement remains marked, however, by its non-explosive character and by the fact that the work stoppages that accompany it have not yet turned into a real strike, renewed from day to day, and even less into a general strike. Only a few sectors, such as the refineries or the SNCF, which had already mobilized strongly last autumn, as well as the garbage collectors in some large cities, the dockers, the energy workers or a fraction of the teachers, have engaged in such movements.

By passing his pension bill through the National Assembly using the 49.3 procedure, Macron perhaps thought he would quickly put an end to the movement of strikes and demonstrations launched by the trade unions on January 19. Not only was this not the case, but his own declarations on the eve of the ninth day of mobilization gave new impetus to the anger and protest among workers.

Appearing on television on Wednesday, March 22, with his usual arrogance and contempt, Macron himself may have given strength to the mobilization. Bragging that he was "unapologetic" and sticking to the reform with "will and tenacity," he compared the "crowd" of protesters to the rioters on Capitol Hill in Washington in January 2021. He drew the hatred of workers like a lightning rod draws lightning. The day after the president’s interview, the streets were even more crowded.

He found it necessary to cancel the state visit of the King of England, which was supposed to celebrate no less than Franco-British reconciliation. Macron, himself the king of provocation, pulled back from offering up for popular derision the image of a sumptuous reception at the Palace of Versailles.

Toward a Generalization of the Strike?

The only thing that could change the situation would be a large and determined entrance of the working class into a generalized strike. Nothing indicates to date that we are moving toward this change, which would disrupt the arm wrestling between the trade unions and the government—even though many commentators and activists affirm there is a radicalization. They refer to the multiplication of blocking actions in front of companies, traffic circles or toll booths. But for the moment there is no evidence that such actions mean a transformation of the situation. In fact, this “radicalization” they speak of could even be, if it were to replace strikes in the workplace, a sign of despair and renunciation of engaging in the struggle in the only place where workers can win it. It is only the strike that can make the bourgeoisie bend. For, as LO comrade Nathalie Arthaud said, "radicalism does not mean setting fire to garbage cans, it means not picking them up."

To have a real chance of winning, it will take not only massive demonstrations, like those of January 19, but also strikes that hit the capitalists in the wallet. The movement must spread, the anger must be expressed sufficiently to worry the government and the employers. The strike of a few thousand refinery workers last September and October aroused a fierce hatred in the thousands of employers, who believe the workers have no right to lead the class struggle, only to suffer it. Well, if important sectors of the working class get involved in the movement, if it is sufficiently determined, it is the bourgeoisie itself that will go and ask its servant Macron to withdraw his reform. And a strengthened, mobilized and conscious working class will be able to impose other setbacks to the political power of the government and the employers.

The history of the workers’ movement teaches us that the rhythm, the ebb and flow of the class struggle can vary greatly. If, for example, the strikes of June 1936 had an explosive character and changed their nature with the occupation of the factories, the first signs of this workers’ surge had been observed, in a completely different context, in 1934 and 1935, in strikes which, violently repressed, had remained isolated and had not then tipped the balance of power with the bourgeoisie.

For the moment, it is Macron who crystallizes most of the hatred and resentment. But we can hope that the working class will learn from the experience of the movements that have shaken the world of work in recent years without having reversed the course of things: responses to the previous attacks against pensions, against the labor laws, or the yellow vests movement. It is in a position to draw the conclusion that it will only be able to win through powerful, generalized strikes, which it will itself control—strikes that will attack the profits and power of those who really run the economy: big business, the bankers, the financiers, that is, the very ones who dictate their roadmap to Macron and, tomorrow, to his successor....

In this perspective, the forces of the revolutionaries are today far too weak to be decisive and play a real role. On the other hand, the situation itself and the discussions it allows, the eyes and consciousness that it opens allow our ideas to find an echo in a fraction of the youth and of the mobilized working class. This will be a precious downpayment on the fights to come.

Excerpted from articles written on January 20, 2023 and March 26, 2023