The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2020

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FEB 2020 Issue
Field Notes

France: A Political Strike

I. A real strike against fake promises

At the end of November, 2019, the French government announced a “reform” of the pension system. A strike movement erupted. This movement, which has become the longest and strongest strike since the mass strike of May-June 1968, started on December 5, 2019, with the shutdown of the national railway company SNCF and the Paris public transportation system, which includes the subway, trams, buses, and suburban trains. The strike quickly spread to the public schools at the national level and also to the national hospital system. These two last sectors had experienced social agitation for more than a year already, fighting the constant transformation of the programs (in schools), the lack of material means and jobs, and harder working conditions. Other sectors also joined the movement against the new pension system proposed by the government, including the Paris National Opera dancers, musicians, and other employees. And in the first days of January, 2020, the oil refineries workers stopped production and reduced deliveries to gas stations.

Within a few days, the whole country was affected by the strikes. First of all, because the railroad network—which in France is quite large and of great importance in connecting different cities and areas—came practically to a halt. Transportation was also blocked in Paris and its suburbs, and in some big cities most of the schools were closed and the hospitals functioned at a slow pace.

The shutdown of public transportation in a big metropolis like Paris transformed the atmosphere: the streets were full of people walking, the shops lost many of their customers, workplaces, offices, and shops were paralyzed or could not function because the employees were not present, or arrived late and left early, tired of walking for miles to get to their jobs. Some people declared themselves on strike to justify staying at home on sick leave or just to take some days off. The present structure of urban areas, pushing working people to the periphery, far from offices and services, became a weak spot in the economic functioning of the system.

The strike and its objectives, the meaning of the government’s “reform,” were at the center of discussions among people everywhere. In Paris, it was common to hear hot debates on those issues inside the few buses running, where people were packed like sardines—in disregard of the scab driving the bus. People were strongly divided for and against the strike but, despite the difficulties of daily life created by the situation, the big majority of the working population expressed a quiet solidarity with the strikers. There were few aggressive attitudes, but more commonly a sense of shared care. At the same time, there was a lot of fatalism. In the rare subway stations that were open, groups of strikers confronted the scabs—quite often managerial staff—driving the trains, while people waited without intervening. The feeling that “They are fighting for all of us” became quite general. This is especially meaningful if one takes into consideration that today the great majority of the people affected by the strike in the transportation system in the big urban areas are precisely the precarious workers who cannot go on strike and need to get to work in order to keep their jobs. If the social agitation was concentrated in Paris and some other big cities, the whole country was concerned by the movement and closely followed its development and outcome.

All this is to say how quickly the strike lost its original corporatist aspect, the issues particular to the rail and Metro workers. Behind the rejection of the “pension reform” and the defense of “special advantages” of the rail workers and the Parisian transportation system workers, the strike expressed a deep refusal of a shrunken version of the welfare state.

Day after day, week after week, the strike went on, facing an unmoving government. Everyone recognized the vital need to develop the movement in other sectors, but this was difficult to realize and remained an empty desire. Nevertheless, each time one feared that the movement was about to lose energy and strength, it stayed firm. It became obvious that the strikers were moved by a rare determination and energy, were able to stay mobilized in hard times marked by defeats, individualization, and atomization of the labor force and in particular during the period of Christmas and New Years.

The Macron government is now clearly seen as one of the most conservative and reactionary in French society since the war. Its cold and arrogant manner of running public affairs, the repression turned against the social movements—the Yellow Vests and their demonstrations suffered the worst police violence since the protests against the Algerian war in the 1960s—is accompanied by Orwellian propaganda, presenting its political choices as an “improvement and modernization” of society. The “reforms” destroying the old social welfare system are presented as “progress,” indeed, the only way to save the system. As the official propaganda constantly repeats, the leaders are doing this to achieve a better life for the people who, every day, realize how much their lives are getting worse … Meanwhile, these “improvements “ and “modernizations” open the doors of public institutions to private interests. The majority of the working population sees that the new “Macronist” politicians are moved by the intention to destroy what is left of the social welfare system which has characterized French society since World War II—their neoliberal incantation being the privatization of everything. Masked by the ideological proposition according to which there is no more political difference between “Left” and “Right,” the president’s new party is a conglomerate of opportunists and ambitious politicians, mostly from the younger generations, coming from right and left parties. By “Left” I mean the Socialist Party, which has for a long time adopted the neoliberal orthodoxy and that had, in fact, created many of the Frankenstein creatures which are now in power. More precisely, the Macron gang has close and open ties with the big industrial sectors of French and multinational capital, such as nuclear energy, the military-industrial complex, big agro-industry, the chemical industry, the medical industry. Many of its ministers are the direct expression of the interests of these sectors, in which they have earlier had careers. All this is an old story, of course, but it has become more transparent and obvious today. As a Yellow Vests poster put it in one of the December demonstrations: “Having a banker for president is like having an alcoholic in charge of a wine shop.”

II. Force the poor to pay for the poor and let the rich live their good lives

Before we underline some trends in the movement—which is still developing—it’s important to understand the nature of the government project and its objectives, why they enraged people and motivated them to engage in this long conflict in such a determined way.

The “pension reform” followed a sequence of other “reforms,” which had attacked different aspects of the existing social welfare system, from weakening labor laws to drastic changes in unemployment coverage and relief. A complicated system of modifications and transformations masks the essential goal of the project, that can easily be reduced to a few lines: The new pension system should be in “financial equilibrium” and not supported anymore by the state budget. This is the main objective imposed on the European governments by the central EU bureaucracy in Brussels, ideologically dominated by the neoliberal current and supported by European capitalist interests and world financial groups. This explains the ongoing political reaction that takes the form of what has been called “populist” tendencies, the Brexit saga being a particular example of the nationalist reaction of working people to European neoliberal capitalism. The European institutions are more and more identified as a bureaucratic machine connected with global capitalism producing social restructuring and impoverishment. The push for “reform” of the pension system is only the most recent episode.

Until now, every retiree in France had a pension which corresponded to what they contributed and was a function of their best-paid years. In the new system, the pension will be calculated over the whole career and calculated in “points.” There will be no more guaranteed amount, since the value of the “point” will be calculated at the moment a person reaches retirement age, and therefore will depend on several economic and political factors, such as the general economic situation and the state’s financial condition. A great deal of detailed analysis is not required to conclude that the goal is to reduce the general level of pensions. Worse, the new model, while preserving the right to retire at the age of 62, introduces an age of “financial equilibrium” at 64. You can always retire at 62, only your pension will be reduced in accordance with the two years left to the “age of equilibrium.” And this “age of equilibrium” is intended to be flexible, changing with the financial situation of the pension system at each year. This model, which is visibly nothing but a racket to reduce pensions, is officially presented by the Macron people as a means to establish “equality.” Equality here signifies: equalized to the lowest level; as a striker in a picket line told me, “It’s going to be like in China and North Korea, we will be all equally poor at the bottom, while the wealth will be more and more concentrated in the top.”

A side aspect of this racket is the cynical introduction of private pensions into the game, pushed by powerful world financial-capitalist interests such as the American firm BlackRock. The press recently discovered BlackRock’s connections with the Macron government and the role their “specialists” had played in the fabrication of the pension project. Not surprisingly, in the new model of pensions, management and high wage-earners will not pay anymore into the public pension system but can choose to pay into private pension funds. Add to this the fact that the capitalist class has seen its tax burden reduced constantly by the different governments, both of the Right and the Socialists. The solidarity principle inherent in the earlier system would be restricted to the low-wage earners; the rich will not pay anymore for those who have less. In this way “equilibrium” is to be reached among the poor.

This totally unequal egalitarian system—a perfect example of what equality means under the capitalist system—based on “points” was proposed two years ago in Belgium, but a general strike forced the government to withdraw it. If it can now be passed in France it would mean the end of all the European pension systems based on the old calculus.

The lies and hypocritical arguments of the French government have reinforced the general understanding that the present goal of the political nomenklatura is the defense of the interests of the capitalist class. The strike has already forced them to retreat in some aspects, preserving some specific parts of the pension system for particular sectors of the labor force. But if the government is able to impose the system on the strongest sectors, all the others will follow in the years to come. The idea is to divide the movement—so far without success.

Two particular developments show how the government is trying to overcome the difficulties. After some hesitation, the army and the forces of repression were left out of the model. Everybody understands that they need the police to repress social revolts and the army to defend the interests of French capitalism abroad. More ironic is the introduction of what they call a “grandfather clause”, the promise that the “reform” will be implemented only for those who will start to work after the law is passed. This is a cynical message to the majority of young people who believe that they will never have a pension system anyhow. A victory of the liberal ideology, this belief is also the recognition of the reality that a large number of these young people are part of the precarious working class. Ironically enough, the “grandfather clause” confirms that the new system is worse than the previous one: otherwise, why protect the old wage earners from it? The reformist unions were ready to accept this clause but most of the strikers saw what is wrong with it. One strong answer came from the strikers at the Paris Opera, who had refused the clause in a general assembly: “We will not be the generation which sacrifices the next generation.”

III. How the secret agents of the Yellow Vests infiltrated a union strike

From the beginning, the strike developed inside the limits of the unions. But at the same time, from the start, the the rank-and-file strikers have been the conscious actors of the movement. The unions have followed without trying to oppose them. In a way, the unions and the government have been playing a close game, letting the movement lose momentum while intervening little. The present weakness of the unions explains this attitude. Even so, and especially within the more reformist unions, the national leaders have been strongly criticized by the rank and file. This is the case in the Paris transportation system, where the workers have gone the furthest in theirs actions and have often opted for direct action. This is a sign of the movement’s radicalism, that the rank and file have set the pace and determined the spirit of the actions. Nevertheless, the strike has not created its own organizations, the union locals being the organization centers. It’s true that these locals are now more autonomous and independent from the central bureaucracies than in the past. Quite often, they are now centers for the most political and active militants. The union apparatus is seen as an intermediary in the negotiations with the government. The general assemblies in the workplaces, open to union and non-union members, became the place where decisions were taken and it seems that the strikers felt no need to create new organizations which would do what they are doing already through the union locals.

The absence of self-organization can also be interpreted as a sign of an inability to spread the movement to other sectors. The tendency towards self-organizing was not expressed in the creation of new forms of organization, but in concrete direct actions—blockades, opposition to scabs, attempts to connect with the exterior. Also, in some urban areas, inter-professional assemblies were set up, allowing different groups of workers and employees, from rail workers to teachers, to talk together about the problems of the strike. Those assemblies were also open to people from outside, to anyone who wanted to participate in or support the strike. That was also the case with the pickets which blocked the public bus garages. Quite a number of young people, pensioners, students, and precarious workers showed up to join forces with the strikers. Many Yellow Vests activists were also present in the assemblies and blockades. This open spirit characterized the movement and showed a clear desire to break down separations and isolation. It is a change from previous strikes in sectors which were, for decades, totally controlled by the union apparatus, where people coming from outside the workplaces were not welcome. Not to mention May ‘68, when workers and students with the May spirit were violently expelled from the shops and enterprises controlled by the unions, particularly the orthodox Communist union (CGT). Today, every struggle is immediately open to everyone who wants to take part on it. On the question of information, the movement showed some weakness. The use of social networks, phones and internet, has been important, but in the end the union bureaucracy preserved its role in keeping control of contacts, especially between Paris and the rest of the country.

These new aspects, unusual in a typical union strike, can only be fully understood if we take into consideration the transformations the labor force has undergone in most of the European societies, and particularly in France. In one Paris bus garage where I went to participate in a blockade, I was introduced to this new labor force, with a different composition than in the past. The drivers and mechanics were mostly young workers of immigrant origins, living in the suburbs. They had installed a sound system playing political rap, which woke up the whole area (it was 5 a.m.!) The few old union delegates were a bit lost in this atmosphere of energetic rap culture and a spirit of conflict, one quite different from the traditional moderate union attitude. In the schools, a new generation of teachers, mostly young women, very determined and ready to act, dominated the movement.

The influence of the Yellow Vest movement and their practices is unquestionable. One should see this strike as new milestone in the different mobilizations and struggles of recent years, from the “Nuit debout” square occupations in March 2016 (after demonstrations against the new labor laws passed by the then Socialist government)1 to the recent Yellow Vest mobilizations.2 In each of these movements one can find attempts at collective direct action. Whatever the outcome of the present conflict will be, the ties created in the action between the most active and determined workers and the groups of Yellow Vests will remain as a radical development. In the recent past, the leaders of the unions have done their best to keep a distance with the Yellow Vests movement and its actions. The present strike has made the connection and the resolute spirit of the Yellow Vests is attractive to the more militant strikers. What the consequences of this will be for the future of the union movement is a new question, since the Yellow Vests fight for direct action and no compromises while the nature of union activity is negotiation. As a slogan painted on the wall put it: “There are no unions without leaders, with leaders there are no Yellow Vests!”

More violent than the physical repression of the strikers, demonstrations, pickets, and actions has been the arrogant attitude of the government, its authoritarian contempt, and the amplitude of the lies justifying the “reform.” This attitude explains, in part, the intense rage of the strikers and why the struggle has become such a big issue. It’s not anymore simply a strike against the new pension system, it’s a strike against a new organization of society, the impoverishment of the living conditions of the majority. After the creation of a precarious working class amongst youth, migrants, women, and other weak sectors of the labor force, the project is now to create a population of poor working-class pensioners, as has already been done in Sweden, Germany, and Great Britain. In the words of a striker interviewed for a radio program:, “They want us to work our whole lives and at the end be poor or homeless.” If the Yellow Vests have influenced the spirit of the strike it is in part because this movement is a mirror of where society is heading: low incomes, isolation, with fewer and poorer public services, transportation, health, and social aid.

The French strike remains, so far the largest and strongest movement in Europe to refuse the consequences of the neoliberal measures taken by the capitalist class. It clearly stands against the model of society which has been slowly but constantly advanced as the only possible future. In this sense it is part of a larger movement of global revolts against the present conditions of reproduction of capitalism, with its growing social inequality, corruption, and concentration of wealth, from Lebanon to Chile, from Haiti to Algiers and Iraq.

It’s obviously hard to stay on strike for more than a month, especially during the special period of Christmas and New Year celebrations. The strikers face great material difficulties in meeting the needs of daily life. Without its currently impossible extension to a larger number of sectors, the struggle is bound to end. It’s impossible to say now if the strikers will perceive this outcome as a defeat or as a transitory stage from which to bounce back.

The government, and the capitalist forces it represents, seem headed to a victory as far as the destruction of the old pension system is concerned, which will open the way to the financial groups interested in the development of private pensions. Meanwhile, in one aspect, the government has already lost: its propaganda campaign presenting the “reform” as an “improvement” on behalf of all. The class meaning of the word “reform” is more and more clearly exposed: it means an attack on the earlier living conditions of working people, with impoverishment for the majority. This clarification is now here to stay, as well as the fact that a large part of society doesn’t accept it, whatever happens. This amounts to the adoption of the Yellow Vest slogan: “Nous sommes toujours là!” (“We’re still here!”). There is no victory but also no defeat; we are in a new period.

From now on, the bourgeois principle of the “general interest” has a big crack in it, one which is going to widen.

January 5, 2020


Charles Reeve

Charles Reeve lives and writes in Paris. He is most recently the author of Le Socialisme Sauvage (Paris: L'échappée, 2018), with translations into German, Portuguese, Spanish, and Portuguese (Brazil).


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2020

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