French Pension Strikes Rattle Bourgeoisie

For a general strike to smash Macron’s attack! No to class collaboration!

25 March 2023

French President Emmanuel Macron made it known last autumn that his government would press ahead with increasing the retirement age (from 62 to 65—later dropped to 64) along with the numbers of years ordinary people must work to receive a full pension. In September, he launched his National Refoundation Council (CNR), aimed at drawing in opposition parties as well as representatives of the trade unions and business interests to discuss a range of issues the government intended to address. Just over four months beforehand, Macron had won a second term as France’s head of state in a run-off election pitting him against far-right candidate Marine Le Pen of the Rassemblement National. Yet the legislative elections that followed in June failed to secure a majority for Macron’s party, La République en Marche (soon rebranded as Renaissance), and the political agenda of the “centrist” forces seemed far from secure. The main opposition parties and labor movement leaders (with the exception of the heads of the historically more conciliatory CFDT, CFTC and UNSA) declined to participate in the CNR, but nevertheless attended a series of “concertation” meetings with the minister of labor, Olivier Dussopt, to discuss the government’s desire to overhaul the pension system. Macron’s ally, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, also pursued talks with the union leaders before presenting the outline of the pension reform bill on 10 January. In addition to raising the retirement age by two years and accelerating a planned increase in contribution years, the bill promised to scrap the separate pension schemes of workers in the transportation and energy sectors and encourage seniors to work longer.

Aware of the unpopular character of the pension reform, the government had hoped the inclusion of the trade-union leaders in “concertation” would give the impression that the bill represented a reasonable compromise. It didn’t work, and the population has been seething with anger, sending elements of the ruling class into a panic. Richard Ramos, a leader of the “centrist” MoDem party, warned: “We are sitting atop a social powder keg. We can’t let this bill be the fuse that ignites it” (franceinfo, 18 January 2023). Even the unions that had participated in the CNR now joined with the leaders of the more “militant” unions (CGT, FO, Solidaires and the FSU) in announcing a day of action on 19 January to protest the pension reform (Le Monde, 10 January 2023). The intersyndicale labor coalition was pushed into action by mass hostility to the government’s plans—an opinion poll indicated that 93 percent of active workers rejected raising the retirement age (another poll showed that 68 percent of the total population were opposed).

As with previous major attacks on the pension system in 1995, 2003 and 2010 (see “Class Struggle in France,” 1917 No.33), Macron’s gambit ignited a wave of strikes and protests. According to the unions, 2 million people took to the streets on 19 January, 2.8 million on 31 January, 2 million on 7 February and 2.5 million on 11 February (including half a million marching in Paris), as workers in a range of sectors engaged in labor actions. Strikes and protests continued, though the numbers declined to 1.3 million protesters on 16 February before spiking back up to 3.5 million on Tuesday 7 March. Workers blocked highways, refineries and transportation in Paris and other major cities, as the strike wave rippled through the public and private sectors. Spooked by the amplitude of the movement, the leaders of the intersyndicale issued an alarmed press release:

“This cannot last. The silence of the president of the republic constitutes a serious problem for democracy that is leading inevitably to a situation that could become explosive. The intersyndicale will act responsibly and send him a letter asking for an emergency reception and for him to withdraw his reform.”

Despite growing concerns within ruling circles that the situation was getting too hot, Macron refused the offer to meet with the union leaders, and his government continued to push the bill through parliament. Another day of action on 11 March brought more than 1 million people out in protest. Over 1.7 million protested on 15 March, as garbage collectors (for the tenth consecutive day), teachers and other workers were on strike. Police attacked protesters with “charges and tear gas in several other cities, including Rennes and Nantes in eastern [western] France and Lyon in the southeast” (PBS News Hour, 15 March 2023). Government spokesperson Olivier Véran warned that the Interior Ministry might smash the sanitation workers’ strike in Paris if the city’s mayor, Anne Hildalgo, refused to do so.

Uncertain of his ability to pass the law in a National Assembly full of jittery legislators, Macron activated Article 49.3 of the French constitution the next day (16 March), allowing him to bypass parliament to ram through the pension reform. The extent of the hostility to the government and outrage at the president’s circumvention of parliament is indicated by an opinion poll conducted immediately after the announcement that found that 71 percent of the population favored the resignation of the government while 65 percent wanted the struggle against the overhaul to continue. The intersyndicale responded “with gravity” by calling for “calm and determined actions” to block the reform, and announced another day of action for 23 March. Spontaneous protests erupted throughout the country. In Paris, more than 500 people were arrested. One university student, who had joined a march to support striking sanitation workers, told reporters after his release: “I was in a cell bursting at the seams with protesters. There were students, RATP [Paris transportation] workers, and a pensioner. Next to us, in another cell, there were high school students. It was a collection of everyone who is protesting in France” (franceinfo, 20 March 2023).

On 23 March, more than 3.5 million people took to the streets, according to the CGT. Instead of killing the movement, Macron’s heavy-handedness breathed new life into it. Workers in several industries in every corner of the country went on strike, joined by university and high school students. As the situation has grown more tense, the police have been increasingly aggressive in their performance of their repressive role for the ruling class. In Paris, where as many as 800,000 people protested, cops used tear gas on and injured demonstrators, arresting more than 100 people. The leaders of the intersyndicale issued a call for a tenth day of action on 28 March and indicated their hope that the pension reform could be overturned through a referendum.

Class Struggle, Not Class Conciliation

Had the union leaders initiated a general strike, Macron might have been forced to scrap the pension reform early on. But they preferred to engage in negotiations as “social partners” with capital and the state while calling for staggered “days of action” and strike “extensions” in isolated industries. Instead of preparing a general strike, this strategy has dragged out the conflict for more than two months, threatening to undermine the material and psychological capacity of the working class to shut down the economy until the pension reform is withdrawn.

The heads of not only the CFDT and the “reformist” unions but also those of the CGT and the “militant” unions are too frightened of the pent-up energy that would be released by a general strike. Viewing themselves as “responsible” statesmen of organized labor, these leaders are in fact the upper echelon of a trade-union bureaucracy that attempts to mediate the class conflict rather than push it to its logical conclusion. Rooted in the working class and relying on a proletarian base whose interests cannot be met by capitalism, the labor bureaucracy nonetheless enjoys relative privileges (a good salary, perks, authority, prestige) derived from the system, which it has no desire to overturn. Most of the bureaucrats would probably prefer not to see the retirement age rise, or have the “special schemes” mothballed, but they would rather risk a victory for Macron than forego the advantages and social networks their moderating role affords them.

The political counterpart to the trade-union bureaucracy is the leadership of those parties which claim, in some manner, to stand in the tradition of the working class and/or socialism but which instead promote class collaboration and an electoralist strategy of using parliament to stave off attacks. The Parti Socialiste (PS), Parti Communiste Français (PCF) and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Parti de Gauche (PG), which is the central force in the left-nationalist La France Insoumise (LFI), are the most significant examples. Each of these formations voted for Macron in the second round of the 2022 presidential election and then joined with the “center-left” Europe Ecologie–Les Verts (EELV) and a smattering of small petty bourgeois outfits to form the Nouvelle Union Populaire Écologique et Sociale (Nupes) in May 2022. This classic popular front (i.e., a coalition of bourgeois workers’ parties and openly capitalist parties) denied Macron his majority during the legislative elections and now has the second largest number of seats in the National Assembly. One of the Nupes’ members of legislative assembly is Jérôme Legavre, a leader of the Parti Ouvrier Indépendant (POI), one of two groups claiming the mantle of the pseudo-Trotskyist current associated with the late Pierre Lambert (Mélenchon, in his youth, was also a member of the Lambertist tendency). Popular frontism is political poison for the working class—a dangerous and demobilizing ideology that binds the proletariat to the bourgeoisie and assists the labor bureaucracy’s sabotage of workers’ struggles. In 1936, Trotsky correctly argued that “the Popular Front is the main question of proletarian class strategy for this epoch” and provides “the best criterion for the difference between Bolshevism and Menshevism” (“The POUM and the Popular Front”).

Genuine Trotskyists seek to present a class-struggle alternative to the labor bureaucrats of both the “reformist” and “militant” persuasion. One of the weapons in the arsenal of the class struggle is the general strike—an all-out, indefinite mobilization of broad sectors of the working class with the aim of defeating egregious attacks, e.g., the pension reform, wage reductions through inflation. Since it aims to unleash the power of the working class, educating the masses in how to use collective action to assert their authority over society, a general strike—even one with a limited aim—poses the question of which class should rule. The trade-union bureaucracy and its popular-frontist counterpart in the reformist political parties have no intention of preparing workers to take power from the capitalists. Any rhetorical nod they might give toward a general strike merely reflects the pressures they feel emanating from their base. Trotskyists, by contrast, forcefully advocate for a general strike when there is sufficient sentiment in the working class to carry one out, as is clearly the case now.

One of the most important arenas for such class-struggle agitation are workplace general assemblies (AGs), which are rank-and-file meetings that any worker, regardless of union affiliation, can attend. In France, AGs spring up like mushrooms after a heavy rain during periods of acute struggle such as the present one, and they discuss and vote on taking strike action, often putting pressure on the trade-union bureaucrats (who are also welcome to attend) to acquiesce to actions that are more radical than they would prefer. AGs do not solve the problem of the labor bureaucracy, and they do not sidestep the trade unions, but they do constitute a parallel form of labor organizing that the bureaucracy cannot control as easily—and one that provides class-struggle militants a greater scope to promote their ideas and convince their fellow workers to take decisive action. As part of the push for a general strike, Trotskyists advocate the creation of AGs in every workplace and working-class neighborhood, as well as the election of delegates from the AGs to industry-wide and regional bodies—all the way up to a national-level strike coordinating committee. We also call for the creation of workers’ defense guards to protect strikes and protests from the cops and fascists—such guards should themselves be directly subject to the authority of the AGs.

In the present struggle, the heel-dragging and open sabotage of the labor bureaucracy (aided by the class collaboration and reformism of the bourgeois workers’ parties) is likely to wear down the movement, leading to bitter defeat in the near future and a continuation of Macron’s austerity agenda. It is conceivable, however, that prolonged disruption of the economy by militant strikes in strategic sectors will wear down the government, at great cost to the workers involved, and that the pension reform will be withdrawn (or not applied in some face-saving maneuver). Given Macron’s timeline of implementing the pension later in the year, however, the government would have the advantage in a drawn-out conflict.

Another possibility (albeit very unlikely) is that—even in the absence of a broad network of AGs and the strike committees emanating from them—the pressure from below will be sufficient to break the constraints the trade-union leaders are placing on the rank-and-file, and a general strike will be imposed in the short term. If that were to happen, it could topple the Macron government and destabilize the entire bourgeois system. Without mass revolutionary leadership, the popular front (i.e., some version of Nupes, perhaps expanded to the right and/or to the left) could step in to restore order as the ruling class gathers its forces behind Rassemblement National and other far-right and fascist formations. More than ever, the need for a revolutionary socialist party pursuing the line of class independence would be acutely felt.

‘Trotskyist’ Left: Tailing the Labor Bureaucracy & Popular Front

There is no genuine Trotskyist party today in France. Instead, there are competing organizations which, to one degree or another, identify with (or are identified with) “Trotskyism,” but which are a poor substitute for the real thing. These organizations fail to uphold working-class independence from bourgeois parties while tailing the labor bureaucracy (into which some of their members are integrated).

The POI, which centers on a nominally Trotskyist current issuing from the Lambertist tradition, has consolidated its descent into liquidationism by openly joining the popular front. The other Lambertist formation, which animates the more leftist POID (that is, the POI “démocratique” associated with Daniel Gluckstein and Gérard Schivardi), offers no real alternative—both have had leading positions in the FO union bureaucracy and share a heritage marked by adaptation to anti-EU French nationalism. When the Parti des Travailleurs (PT), common political ancestor to both the POI and POID, ran Schivardi for president in 2007, we wrote:

“Schivardi, a former member of the PS and mayor of the small town of Mailhac, billed himself as a ‘mayors’ candidate’ who would champion the interests of French municipalities against the European Union (EU) bureaucracy. Daniel Gluckstein, the PT’s leading spokesperson, has touted this campaign as a step in the direction of breaking France’s ‘subordination’ to the EU, which ‘empties universal suffrage of all meaning’ (Informations ouvrières, 18–24 January [2007]).”
—“No to Popular Frontism!”, 1917 No.30

The Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste (NPA), which split in half in December, was launched almost a decade and a half ago in a conscious break from the revolutionary tradition its founders once claimed (see “NPA: France’s New Reformist Party,” 1917 No.32). Last year the NPA refused to take a formal position on whether to advocate voting for Macron in the second round of the presidential election—essentially what they said in the 2017 election: “not a single vote should go to Le Pen. On Sunday, 7 May [2017], many will want to block the FN [forerunner of Rassemblement National] by voting for Macron. We understand. But let’s also understand that Macron cannot constitute a lasting defense against the FN” (L’Anticapitaliste, No.381). Emphasizing the impossibility of voting for Le Pen while failing to do so for Macron amounts to endorsing a vote for the latter, albeit with a guilty conscience.

Neither of the fragments of the NPA (both of which claim to be the NPA) offers a truly revolutionary perspective. The NPA that is centered on the old Platform B associated with Olivier Besancenot and Philippe Poutou—the larger and more reformist of those fragments—claims that it wants to “strengthen the political confidence of the proletariat to create an alternative to bourgeois power. The classic formula is that of the ‘workers’ government’” (“Construire la grève et gagner le combat politique contre Macron,” 16 March 2023). Yet the NPA’s commitment to fighting for a workers’ government should be evaluated in light of its leaders’ record of supporting popular fronts and even voting for bourgeois candidates, e.g., Jacques Chirac in 2002 (“La LCR appelle à voter « contre Le Pen »,” Le Monde, 30 April 2002). When Melenchon’s LFI (in the guise of the Union populaire) approached the NPA to join what would later become Nupes, the Executive Committee of the NPA responded with a friendly letter:

“The question of the legislative elections is posed differently [than ‘a program of anti-capitalist, revolutionary and internationalist rupture’]. The main reason is the assessment of the overall relation of forces, of the urgency of a united fightback against the ruling class. Moreover, it is not about voting for an individual or a program elaborated by one current but about 577 people [i.e., the number of seats in the National Assembly], with the possibility of finding mediation, balance and compromise around a dynamic transcending the logic of apparatuses and/or shopkeepers [i.e., small group considerations] while allowing our different political positions to be represented.
“For all of these reasons, we reply favorably to your request for a meeting to discuss the possibility of common candidacies in the legislative elections.”
—“Courrier du Nouveau Parti anticapitaliste à l’Union Populaire,” 19 April 2022

The deal-breaker for the NPA leadership was not the cross-class and necessarily reformist character of the “Union populaire” but the possibility, which came to pass, that the PS would participate in it.

It is not surprising that, while paying occasional lip service to the idea of a general strike, the NPA merely promotes a slightly more militant version of the intersyndicale’s days of action and “extendable strikes.” Instead of clearly calling for a general strike, the leaflet it issued just before the fifth day of action, for instance, simply observed that “we cannot let some sectors [of the working class] enter into extendable strike action by themselves” (“Contre Macron et son monde, à partir des 7 et 8 mars, bloquer le pays, partout et en même temps !”, 14 February 2023).

Despite making more noise about the need for a general strike (see “Notre motion de censure, c’est la grève Générale,” 20 March 2023), the leadership of the other claimant of the party name, associated with the old Platform C, is also complicit in the NPA’s liquidationist project. The leaders of this grouping seek to “continue” the NPA, which they claim “always conceived of itself as a pole of regroupment for revolutionaries” (“Déclaration du congrès du NPA,” 11 December 2022). In fact, the NPA was founded on the abandonment of even a nominal identification with Trotskyism, i.e., genuine revolutionary socialism, and from its inception it advanced a reformist perspective. On the eve of the party’s launch, its leaders signed a joint statement with the PS, PCF, PG and the bourgeois Mouvement républicain et citoyen (MRC) arguing that “a large public debate is necessary in the country on the alternative measures to the current political choices that really and effectively go after the roots of this crisis and impose a different distribution of wealth and another type of development” (“Communiqué commun des organisations de gauche réunies le 4 février,” 5 February 2009).

In June 2021, around 300 members of the NPA led by the Trotskyist Fraction-Fourth International (TF-FI, a Morenoite tendency centered on the Argentine Partido de los Trabajadores Socialistas) left the party and formed an independent organization called Révolution permanente (RP). During the pension strikes in France, RP has taken a militant stance: “With no ambiguity, we affirm, contrary to what the intersyndicale defends, that we will have to shut down the country and construct a general strike to win” (“L’Intersyndicale, entre absence de détermination et recherche de compromis impossible,” 11 March 2023). In the second round of the presidential election, RP also correctly adopted a “neither Le Pen nor Macron” position. Yet the leaders of RP/TF-FI have a history of adapting to the reformist consciousness of the masses, as evidenced by their repeated calls for a “constituent assembly” in countries that have had a long experience of bourgeois democracy (see “On the ‘Revolutionary Constituent Assembly’,” 1917 No.34).

The other sizable “Trotskyist” current in France is Lutte Ouvrière (LO), which in the current struggle has tended to simply emphasize the need for more strikes rather than an all-out general strike. LO published a chant sheet issued for the 23 March day of action that included the slightly awkward “Tous ensemble, tous ensemble, grève, grève”—a slogan that traditionally, and more fluidly, goes “Tous ensemble, tous ensemble, grève générale!” There is more missing here than a couple of syllables. LO’s leaders feel compelled to issue statements that include favorable references to the idea of a general strike (often couched in the terminology of “extendable” strikes), but their criticisms of the intersyndicale and its demobilizing “days of action” tactic are lukewarm at best. Indeed, LO argues that “the days of actions are a useful springboard allowing the working class to find new confidence in itself” (“Le mouvement doit se développer et se renforcer,” Lutte Ouvrière, No.2846).

To its credit, LO advocated a spoiled ballot in the second round of the presidential election rather than backing Macron (or hinting that it would be acceptable to do so), and it has made the obvious connection between Nupes and the Popular Front of 1936—both “in the service of the bourgeoisie.” But LO voted for the popular-frontist candidacy of Ségolène Royal in 2007 and later joined popular-front slates with the PS, PCF and the bourgeois MRC, Parti radical de gauche and Greens for municipal elections the following year:

“In the current political circumstances, Lutte Ouvrière desires a union of all the forces of the left beginning in the first round, and we are ready to participate in it. Our candidates will be present on such lists except where the Socialist Party, the Communist Party or both prefer division and refuse this alliance. Only in this case will Lutte Ouvrière present its own lists.”
—“Lutte Ouvrière et les élections municipales,” Lutte Ouvrière, No.2060

In the unlikely event of the collapse of the Macron government and the destabilization of the bourgeois order, it is not out of the question that the POID, NPA and even LO would join a popular-front government. If this idea seems too harsh and even offensive to members of these organizations, they need to consider how the past and present actions of their leaders have planted the seeds of that idea.

Cohering a Bolshevik Nucleus

Undoubtedly there are hundreds, if not thousands, of sincere subjectively revolutionary elements inside and around the organizations of the ostensibly Trotskyist “far left” in France. The problem is not simply that they are scattered across a fragmented political landscape but that they adhere to organizations whose leaders and programs are incapable of articulating a break from capitalism. The situation may sometimes appear hopeless, but that is because these militants are stuck in an adaptationist framework that yields seemingly endless paths to class compromise. The squabbling between the various pseudo-Trotskyist organizations often involves important questions of principle, and it is sometimes appropriate to take one side or another in a particular dispute. But what stands out most clearly is the shared abandonment, to one degree or another, of the principle of working-class independence in the quest to expand rapidly in the context of a relatively large proletarian vanguard open to the idea of socialist revolution. Conditioning this liquidationist impulse is the proximity of much of the leadership of the far left to the trade-union bureaucracy.

Breaking out of this organizational and programmatic impasse—and actually building a party that could serve as a real pole of attraction for the proletarian vanguard and challenge the sabotage of the trade-union bureaucracy—involves gathering the best militants of the existing groups into a new formation cohered around a genuinely Trotskyist program. Rather than simply adding one more acronym to the list, the task is to break the mold by returning to the intransigent opposition to class collaboration associated with Trotsky’s Fourth International. Starting now with even a small number of militants, it is possible to cohere a Bolshevik nucleus and—by engaging in united-front actions in defense of pensions and other gains of the working class and to protect the democratic rights of the oppressed—act as a catalyst for the regroupment of revolutionary forces. Building a revolutionary party does not involve a tiny group going “to the masses” (though abstention from the class struggle is impermissible) but must instead center on the articulation, defense and aggressive promotion of a Bolshevik program. A genuine Trotskyist party will be built through a process of splits and fusion—a process of revolutionary regroupment, both nationally and internationally, involving active engagement in the class struggle and, most importantly, placing program above organizational gains.

In French:
Les grèves contre la réforme des retraites font trembler la bourgeoisie

Related articles:
Class Struggle in France (1917 No.33)
NPA: France’s New Reformist Party (1917 No.32)
No to Popular Frontism! French 'Far Left' Moving Rightward (1917 No.30)