This is not the first time that France is experiencing a spectacular social upheaval. The country’s history is very rich in social movements, some of them even historic. At the time of writing, French workers have been mobilising and organising successive strikes for two months, against the deregulation of the pension system ruled by the government. Thursday, March 23, was a day of general strike, indeed an historic one. This came after President Macron declared that he is not backing down on Wednesday, March 22, while his government narrowly survived a vote of confidence by just 9 votes on Monday, March 20. Yesterday’s strike was very successful, with high participation and large demonstrations in all the country’s cities. Some sources report that the number of demonstrators reached 3.5 million. The marches were brutally attacked by the police.
Wednesday, March 15, marked the ninth day of a nationwide strike and large demonstrations, which have been going on since mid-January. Participation in that strike by workers in public services, cleaning, energy and transport was already reaching very high levels, while schools and universities were blockaded or occupied and millions of people had been taking to the streets almost every day. Refinery workers even threatened to cut off gas to key industries.
The scale of the movement and its impact was such that President Emmanuel Macron and Élisabeth Borne’s government resorted to evoke Article 49.3 of the Constitution, so as to pass the bill without a parliamentary vote, as there were reports of large vote leaks from Nicolas Sarkozy’s Republican Party, which is now playing a regulatory role in the National Assembly. Certainly, Macron considers this law as a milestone for his posterity – he will not be a candidate in the next presidential election anyway. But above all, it is a crucial political move for French capitalism, which is measuring its competitiveness by wrecking workers’ rights and wants the country to stop having the lowest retirement age in the entire EU.
The narrow victory of Macron and his government in the confidence vote debate was a decisive moment for the movement. Immediately after the vote, demonstrations were sparked almost everywhere in the country in Saint-Etienne, Strasbourg, Amiens, Caen, Toulouse and, of course, in the big cities: Paris, Lyon and Marseille. Hundreds of demonstrators were arrested, but this did not deter the movement. Around 1,500 demonstrations and actions were organised again over the following two days in various cities, Even more schools and universities were occupied, tonnes of rubbish piled up in the streets of big cities, energy plants and major road junctions were blockaded.
Macron may be happy about the legal imposition of the pension law and because his government escaped being overturned, but his popularity is falling dramatically and he has lost much of his legitimacy. A CGT trade unionist told the Guardian:
“There has been a denial of democracy. Macron thinks of himself as a kind of king, Jupiter up high looking down on us. We’ve got to hold out until he listens.”
According to a Council worker from Ivry:
“This has gone far beyond pensions, it is about our political system. The president has executive powers that need to be rethought. It’s about protecting France’s whole postwar system of social protection. It’s about hanging on to our welfare state, as Macron tries to unpick it – from housing benefits to the unemployment system. French people are well informed and politicised, they won’t let this pass.”
At the same time, international analysts are reasonably questioning how Macron will govern from now on given the mood in society. Even more so, because Nicolas Sarkozy’s Republican Party is going through an internal crisis; after the confidence vote, a section of its youth decided to leave the party because, according to them, the party did not meet the demands of the majority of the French people by supporting the Macron government in the confidence vote.
All the mobilisations so far were called by a trade union coordination front, in which the eight largest trade union confederations in France participate. This has definitely played a positive role in the morale of the movement.
However, the most admirable and inspiring fact is that French workers insist on not giving in to the government’s decisions. On the contrary, Macron’s manipulations have made them even angrier. Participation rates in the strike and demonstrations, which had been in relative decline around March 10, rose again when it became known that the government intended to make use of Article 49.3 and a general enthusiasm for the general strike of March 23 developed. This mood pushed the trade union leaders this far. But this is not enough.
The movement needed and still needs a well worked out plan, but the union leaderships seem to support this need. It is very telling that Laurent Berger, Secretary-General of the CFDT and Philippe Martinez, Secretary-General of the CGT (affiliated to the French CC) are trying to turn the public’s attention to holding a referendum on pensions:
“Since he is so sure of himself, the President of the Republic only has to consult the people. We will see the response of the people”.
The March 23 strike
But the best referendum is the one that has been going on in the French streets for two months. According to reports there were 800,000 demonstrators in Paris and a total of 3.5 million across France in yesterday’s strike.
The march in Marseille is worth noting, as it is believed to be the largest ever seen in the city, with 250,000 demonstrators.
Trade unionists and demonstrators stormed Paris train stations and the Bordeaux Town Hall, while public services, transport, the energy sector and most workplaces were paralyzed. It is significant that President Macron asked Prince Charles to postpone his visit to France, which had been scheduled for this weekend, claiming that the current conditions in the country did not allow for a friendly welcome.
It is obvious that the French people, whom Macron called a “mob” in his statements on March 22, are not at all willing to back down, despite the government’s manipulations and the unprecedented police violence.
The general strike on March 23 was a crucial moment. The workers, who have been mobilising for two months now, have shown a clear determination not to back down.
Many militants internationally are watching closely to see the final outcome of this struggle, especially as workers across Europe are facing similar attacks, but are also showing a similar militant mood, like in Britain or Germany. The government and Macron are clearly cornered. While pictures and reports of the historic protests, of the tonnes of rubbish and of burning buildings appear in the media across the whole world, the French ruling class is now going through a nightmare. Given this situation, the struggle needs to be broadened. The unions are calling for another 24-hour strike on Tuesday, March 28. This is correct but most probably not enough. The mood within French society is clearly in favour of continuing and escalating the general strikes. This could not only overturn the pension reform, but even “Louis Macron”’s government itself.