French Strikes and Popular Mobilizations Continue, Contesting Not Only Retirement Rollback, But Also Police Brutality and Authoritarian Politics

Since January, more-or-less weekly mass labor mobilizations have continued against a new law that would increase the retirement age from 62 to 64, even after it was rammed through without a vote on March 16. It should be noted that these days of action, ten of them so far, and two of them since March 16, involve the loss of a day’s pay for those who strike work. This would add up to two weeks’ pay so far this year, no small sacrifice for members of the working class.

In recent weeks, youth participation surged not only in defense of the working class and worried about their own future, but also in response to the blatantly undemocratic manner in which the government rammed the measure through parliament without even taking a vote, which it would have lost. The youth have also fought against police brutality and have protested over issues related to the climate emergency.

Ever since January 19, the first nationwide labor mobilization, all eight of France’s major labor union federations have retained a solid front of refusal of Macron’s “reform.”  This is virtually unheard of, as the union federations have disparate organizational and political histories, ranging from former links to the Communist Party by the large and relatively militant General Confederation of Labor (CGT) to avowed “moderates” or even one with a relatively conservative Christian orientation. Their unity was aided by the tone-deaf arrogance and intransigence of the government of President Emmanuel Macron, who years ago gained the title “Jupiter” in public opinion.

March 2023: “The Hour of Truth”

By late March, the movement had reached a crossroads. As leftwing philosopher Frédéric Lordon told a mass meeting, “The hour of truth is approaching for everyone” (Julie Carriat, “A l’extrême gauche, la tentation de durcir la mobilization,” Le Monde, March 16, 2023). The relatively moderate tactics of the trade unions have led to impatience among their base and even more so among the youth who’ve been drawn into the struggle. With the retirement measure now enacted as law, the movement cannot go on much longer in the same form. As Jamel Abdelmoummi of the leftwing Solidarity union federation put it: “These marches, these little songs and choreographies are too nice” (Julie Carriat, “A l’extrême gauche”).

One possibility is that the movement could split into more moderate and more militant factions, each undermining the other. Or it could dissipate gradually in the face of defeat. But another possibility is that it will be able to escalate its militancy while not losing its overwhelming support among the population, eventually forcing the government to back down.

So far, the unity among the various sectors seems to be holding, despite tensions among the trade union leaders who simply want to continue the weekly days of action, leftwing political leaders who urge greater militancy, and the youth who are already engaging in militant tactics that place them in direct confrontation with the police and the state.

Another cleavage is found in how the union bureaucracy wants to confine the movement to the single issue of rescinding the pension reform, even as much of their base and most of the active youth are by now reaching for larger goals like forcing the present government to resign, doing something about police brutality, or even overthrowing the semi-authoritarian constitution of the Fifth Republic.

March 28 was the tenth more-or-less weekly day of mass strikes and demonstrations since January. While slightly smaller than the week before, demonstrators still numbered 740,000 across the country. That’s according to official government estimates, which tend low, whereas the unions put participation at over two million. Once again, many schools, much public transport, most trash collection, and several oil refineries and distribution centers were shut down across the country.

The movement shows no sign of weakening, even in the face of the fact that the pension law was passed, albeit without a real vote, by March 20. Nor have opinion polls suggested that public anger against the pension law has abated, with nearly two-thirds remaining opposed.

March 23, the ninth day of mobilization and the first one after the law’s passage, was even larger than March 28, with even more massive economic disruptions, including cancellation of flights, trains, and buses, schools on strike, and strikes that blockaded oil refineries and fuel depots. The government admitted that over one million hit the streets that day, while unions estimated a turnout of three million. According to the leading student organizations, some 500,000 students were among those on the streets that day, 150,000 of them in Paris alone.

Enter the Youth

Young people now came out in increased numbers, despite fears of harsh police response. Many of them stayed on the streets after the end of the legally sanctioned mass marches to engage in “wild demonstrations” a term for those without a permit. One student demonstrator declared, “The atmosphere is very, very tense at the moment and we risk getting beaten when we block the streets or demonstrate, but we refuse to give in and are taking to the streets all the more” (Thibaud Métais, “Une moblisation en reflux malgré le renfort de la jeunesse,” Le Monde, March 30, 2023).

On that night, youth clashed with police across France. Most dramatically, they set fire to part of City Hall in Bordeaux. Sensing an opportunity, President Emmanuel Macron lashed out, calling his government “the last rampart against violence and anarchy” on the streets (Claire Gatinois, “Emmanuel Macron s’érige en garant de ‘l’ordre’ et fustige LFI,” Le Monde, March 30, 2023).

But this recourse to scare tactics seems to have fallen flat, with leftwing party France Unbowed’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon riposting, “France is not a country that can be led by blows from a cudgel” (Claire Gatinois, “Emmanuel Macron”). Even some mainstream trade unionists have refused to condemn the violence, given police provocations and the utterly undemocratic manner in which Macron’s “reform” was enacted. As one retiree in Strasbourg remarked while demonstrating in a legal action during the day, “It’s the government that exhibits violence,” adding, “it is reaping what it has sowed” (Thibaud Métais, “Une moblisation”).

He was referring not only to police attacks on pro-labor demonstrators, but also to the pitched March 25 battle between thousands of ecologists and riot police near a private reservoir complex built for agribusiness at Sainte-Soline. In that confrontation, 200 demonstrators and 47 police were wounded. One March 28 demonstrator in Bordeaux, Carine Desbrousses, drew a wider net: “As was seen on Saturday at Sainte-Soline, people are beginning to lose patience.  Several causes are coalescing, as in the time of the Yellow Vests. There is also the question of wages, of sharing water. Why is that for the benefit of a handful of people rather than for the general interest of society?” (Thibaud Métais, “Une moblisation”).

Youth mobilization and clashes with police began in earnest on the night of March 16, right after the Macron government used article 49.3 of the Constitution to push through their highly unpopular pension cuts without an actual vote in parliament, where it would have gone down to defeat. This maneuver allows a no-confidence vote in the government as the only recourse, but that failed by just a few votes on March 20.

It should be recalled here that France’s semi-authoritarian Fifth Republic constitution, which includes that notorious article 49.3, is the result of a military coup carried out by General Charles de Gaulle in 1958. Moreover, as was recently underlined by leftwing labor activist Christian Mahieux, no leftwing government – of which there have been several since then, if one counts reformist social democrats — has ever attempted to get rid of 49.3 (“Grèves et manifestations en France (3),” A l’encontre-La Brèche, March 22, 2023).  That is on the agenda today, however, with the largest leftwing party, France Unbowed, calling for a new constitution in a Sixth Republic.

On the night of March 16, as thousands of youths hit the streets, police response was overwhelming and brutal. Whole streets were cordoned off, with demonstrators trapped – “kettled” as is said in the U.S.  – and subject to mass arrest.  In the first week after March 16, police arrested some 800 people, mainly youth, in Paris alone. Video footage of police employing physical threats, racist and xenophobic insults, and sexual assault upon young detainees has also emerged. Most notorious here have been the actions of BRAV-M (Brigade d’action violente motorisée), a particularly violent unit of the riot police. This has led to calls for its disbandment.

Contradictions of the Macron Presidency

The Macron government’s highhandedness and arrogance have been expressed in ways large and small. Millions were amused – albeit with bitter laughter – when Macron was caught on video removing the very expensive watch he normally wears just as he was to begin a TV appearance. More substantively, it was widely noted that he has refused to hold a single meeting with the trade union leadership since last year, not even going through a pro forma meeting where he would have pretended to “hear” their grievances before going ahead and enacting his retrogressive pension law.  This is highly unusual in a country where, ever since World War II and the Nazi Occupation, governments have engaged in “social dialogue” with labor.

In this way, Macron has broken with 80 years of class compromise. Is he seeking a Margaret Thatcher type moment, or at least something similar to the axe Gerhard Schröder wielded against Germany’s social protections some two decades ago? This seems to be the case, but the pathway is by no means clear for such an agenda, especially during a period when neoliberalism has lost much of its appeal in the wake of the economic collapse of 2008.

Macron and his ilk have succeeded in the electoral arena by pointing to the threat of rightwing populism and neofascism, as in the 2022 elections, when he stood against far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen in the final round. But France has also seen in recent years a resurgence of a left that, while still reformist, is more combative than the Socialist Party, of which Macron himself was a member, albeit a rightwing one, until 2015. (As a Socialist Party minister, Macron tried to roll back France’s 35-hour workweek in the name of “competitiveness.”) By 2022, with the left’s resurgence, a more leftwing social democrat, France Unbowed candidate Mélenchon, who attacks both capitalism and police brutality, came within one percentage point of entering the presidential runoff against Macron rather than Le Pen. More tellingly, the New Ecological and Social People’s Union (NUPES), a parliamentary coalition involving Socialists, Communists, and ecologists, and in which France Unbowed is the principal component, took a far larger share than Le Pen’s party in the 2022 parliamentary elections, thus establishing itself as the principal opposition force in the National Assembly.  In this way, France has become the only major industrialized democracy that has a large party to the left of the neoliberal centrists, something that occurred for several years in the UK with Labor under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

In fall 2022, Macron was able to contain strikes in the oil sector for higher wages in the face of galloping inflation. This period also saw mobilizations of hundreds of thousands of workers in national demonstrations against the cost of living. But neither of these limited actions suggested that the surge of the left at the polls in spring 2022 had found an echo on the streets that could really challenge the government. It was in this atmosphere that Macron began to plot his assault on the country’s pension plan, perhaps underestimating the level of resistance that was to come.

Macron’s neoliberal offensive – and his arrogant, even insulting intransigence — has succeeded in uniting the trade union bureaucracy as never before.  Working people feel daily that he insults their dignity and have stood solidly behind the resistance to Macron.

Limits and Contradictions of the 2023 Struggle

At the same time, the struggle has so far been conducted within narrow limits, mobilizing millions, it is true, but not bringing the economy to a halt in the way that an unlimited strike or mass occupations would do.

There is a huge difference between ritualized general strikes of short duration, planned well in advance by trade union leaders, and the type of general strike that carries with it revolutionary implications. This is the case even when a strike becomes truly general, or nearly so, shutting down most of economic life and state administration, something that has not yet happened in France in 2023. As Rosa Luxemburg noted over a century ago, “A mass strike born of pure discipline and enthusiasm will, at best, merely play the role of an episode, of a symptom of the fighting mood of the working class” This, she added, differs from a mass strike that upsurges from below as part of a revolutionary process or a pre-revolutionary situation: “If the mass strike is not an isolated act but a whole period of the class struggle, and if this period is identical with a period of revolution, it is clear that the mass strike cannot be called at will, even when the decision to do so may come from the highest committee of the strongest social democratic party” (Rosa Luxemburg Reader, p. 197).

A second limitation is found in the movement’s confinement for the most part to the state sectors, vs. those controlled by private capital, whether large or small-scale workplaces. The same has been true of other strike waves in the developed world in recent years, whether in the U.S., the UK, or Germany. However, some hints of a spread to the French private sector emerged in March, with small actions at some Amazon facilities and at PSA group, which has absorbed automaker Citroën. But so far, these are no more than hints.

A third limitation is the movement’s failure, including on the part of the trade union leadership, to address directly and forcefully the rampant racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, anti-immigrant sentiment that have reached epidemic levels in France in recent years. The demonization of “wokism” in France, including among many intellectuals who should know better, can sometimes seem as virulent as that in Florida, while the virulence of the anti-immigrant language of Le Pen – and further to the right, her competitor Eric Zemmour – has been on the increase as well. Combined with racist fearmongering about crime, in which Macron’s government enthusiastically participates, there are many bases on which popular support is being rallied for reaction.  The fact that the current movement has changed the subject toward class and economic inequality and precarity does not negate that kind of threat.

2023 and 1968

Despite these limitations, France has reached a new stage with the 2023 demonstrations. Some are comparing the present situation to 1968, when students occupied their universities and workers engaged in a general strike, ten million strong, with many also occupying their workplaces. The “events” of May-June 1968 nearly brought down de Gaulle’s government in the closest thing to a social revolution that the industrially developed world had seen since the 1920s. At that time, the system was saved by the reformist Communist Party, which controlled the largest union federation. The CP made a secret deal with de Gaulle to bring the mass labor strikes to a close in exchange reforms like a 10% wage increase and new elections, which the Left proceeded to lose amid wide disillusionment.

2023 is different, in both positive and negative terms. Today, there are no vanguard parties like the French CP that have that kind of prestige among the workers. And the students of today’s post-2008 world of precarity are not the relatively privileged youth cut off from the working class of 1968. In 1968, that socio-economic divide abetted rather than weakened by the CP and the CGT, since last thing they wanted was contact between the anarchist/far-left-Marxist tendency among the youth with “their” workers. The CP and the CGT used parade marshals and the closed gates (for “security’) of occupied factories to prevent as many such interactions as they could. Scholar activist Robi Morder has spoken to these differences, and the revolutionary possibilities of today:

“And if — in the unsuccessful revolution of May and June 1968 – the unity of students and workers was more often a slogan than a reality with so many barriers in place at that time, how satisfying it is today to see in the streets the strike pickets and the working class coming together in all its components – in school or training, at work or out of work, or in retirement – a unity in diversity defending its rights and its common future” (“Et si tout devenait possible? Le souffle et l’esprit to mai en mars,” Mediapart, March 23, 2023).

But a barrier exists today that was not present in 1968. In that revolutionary year, both the anarchist/far-left-Marxist tendency and the basically Stalinist French Communist Party agreed that it was possible to transcend capitalism. Even if the Stalinist vision was really one of state-capitalism that covered over the class nature of the Soviet Union, many CP members and followers really believed another world was possible. For its part, the far left was even more explicit with its famous slogan, “Be realistic, demand the impossible.” While even these genuine revolutionaries lacked a real philosophy of revolution and a comprehensive vision of an alternative to capitalism, at least they were placing the abolition of capitalism on the agenda. Today, on the other hand, few even on the left believe that the construction of what we would call a socialist humanist society is on the horizon, now or in the coming period. This is seen in how the 2023 struggle is basically a defensive one.

2023 as a Turning Point?

That said, even a defensive struggle can morph into a revolutionary offensive. That is why the global bourgeois media, while generally supporting Macron, is also expressing worry on the part of global capital and its politicians about his tactics, his arrogance, and his tone-deaf speeches. They fear that this could turn into a real challenge to neoliberalism, if not to capitalism itself. They observe the resurgence of labor across the industrially developed world, the ongoing uprisings of Black people and other people of color and Indigenous people, the deep anger and mobilizations of women and of LBGTQ people, especially trans folks, and the renewed militancy of the environmental movement.  And they fear, rightly so, that France, as in the past, could become a detonator for a broader struggle against capitalism itself.

In closing, let me quote declarations from two different sectors of the population that speak to the deep social fissures that Macron has stirred up. Such sentiments carry with them possibilities far more revolutionary than what has been seen up to now:

“The street has a legitimacy in France. If Mr. Macron can’t remember this historic reality, I don’t know what he’s doing here” – anonymous youthful protestor in Nantes (BBC, March 23, 2023)

“This government doesn’t want to negotiate. Well, at a certain point they’re going to find themselves up against people that don’t want to negotiate either” – Renald, mechanic blockading an oil facility the Port of Marseille (Cole Stangler, “In France, the Damage Can’t Be Undone,” New York Times, March 25, 2023).