France, like every other European nation is reeling under the combined weight of: (1) self-inflicted financial meltdown as the Euro economies are throwing themselves and their workers to the wolves in a futile effort to save US hegemony; and (2) the ever-present cyclical crises of overproduction within the capitalist system which always lead to financial stagnation, destitution for many poorer people, and wars of terrible ferocity, spoliation and brigandage on a massive scale.
President Macron has fought battles with the French working class before, notably taking on transport workers, students and others in 2018, when he brought forward the road fuel tax which precipitated the mass revolt of the ‘yellow vests’ (gilets jaunes) – who kept up their highly militant protests until he was forced to climb down. Now, a much weaker president, whose party lost control of parliament last June, is pushing plans to ‘reform’ pensions – ie, to use workers’ pension money to bolster the economy – and so the French working class is gearing up for another epic battle.
Macron, from his point of view, has no choice: he must try to shore up the crumbling sandcastle that is the French economy.
However, what might seem logical steps – like making sure everyone has money to spend on French-produced goods to help keep the economy afloat, increasing taxes on the rich to fill the national coffers, cutting spending on weapons of war, especially from other countries such as the USA, taking no part in the futile wars against the Russian Federation (both the economic one and the shooting one that all Euro nations are being pushed into by the lead imperialist US government) – are not options he is prepared to contemplate.
Like any other bourgeois politician, his first thought is to bleed the working class dry.
The French working class has begun a determined fight on the streets of France’s towns and cities, with demonstrations and strikes. This will be where the real battle will take place, and the French workers will, as always, with bravery and determination give a good account of themselves.
If only they had proper communist leadership, what could they not achieve?
The French think tank Terra Nova has argued that “cleaning up” the accounts of France’s redistributive pension system should be everyone’s business: the working population, companies and also retirees, with one of the possible options being to under-index the pensions of those who receive more than €2,000 per month. The think tank advocates for this solution, pointing out that “our seniors” have a “significant capacity to contribute” in terms of “income or assets”.
Hervé Boulhol of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has said that “In the general pension scheme, there is a rule that pensions are indexed to inflation. It is complicated to break away from this rule, because it means betraying a commitment that was made, calling into question a form of social contract and therefore, in the end, harming confidence in the system.”
However, he claims that “economic realities” like the present high and climbing inflation rate mean that pensions rose at a higher rate than most wages in 2022. So Mr Boulhol attempts to set workers against pensioners when he states: “Is such a situation fair for pensions above a certain threshold? It is legitimate to wonder.” Or, in other words, it’s only ‘fair’ that the bourgeois government should milk pensioners more thoroughly since they are allegedly too well off!
French workers, who understand fully that they are tomorrow’s pensioners, are not by and large buying this Boulhol sleight of hand, which attempts to pit younger workers against older ones, and are prepared to defend every penny of every pension, even the higher ones.
Antoine Foucher, the president of consulting firm Quintet and a former director of Muriel Pénicaud’s office (French minister of labour from May 2017 to July 2020) also echoes the workers v pensioners theme, describing it as “a question of social justice”!
“This debate also refers to the future of France. Today, we are overinvesting in pensions and underinvesting in education, youth, measures to raise the skills level of working people. That is a way to collectively organise our national decline.”
Again, class-conscious French workers understand that any money taken from pensioners now, and themselves in the future, will not be going towards education or any other social programme. It is needed to keep a rotten system afloat.
In fact, even if French workers surrendered and allowed themselves to be robbed quietly and without fuss, the government’s ill-gotten gains would be unlikely to be sufficient to undo the massive damage that is currently being done to the French economy by the crisis of overproduction and the country’s participation in Nato’s war against Ukraine and Nato’s sanctions against Russia.
For President Emmanuel Macron, the assault on workers’ pensions is nothing new: in 2008, while he was at the finance inspectorate, he presented a report claiming; “Our socio-fiscal system leads to transfers that, on the whole, are exercised in favour of age groups over 60.” In 2017, he proposed a programme to ‘correct’ the pensions ‘mistake’.
Then, at the beginning of his first presidential term, he tried to apply a 1.7 point increase in the CSG (generalised social contribution, similar to the British national insurance) payable by pensioners, a pensions tax if you will, excepting only those on the most meagre pensions.
Opposition to this levy, combined with a virtual freeze on pensions, provoked the strong public discontent that was incorporated into the yellow vest movement, as a result of which, in December 2018, Macron had to climb down to the extent that the extra levy was partially cancelled for people whose baseline taxable income was less than €2,000 per month.
After this humiliation there seemed generally very little appetite among either conservative or social-democratic parliamentarians for another attack on pensioners, yet now here is Macron once more wading in to try to increase the age of pension eligibility by two years along with a raft of other ‘reforms’.
What dogged persistence in manfully attempting yet again to do the only thing that, according to the dictates of the 0.1 percent elite of France’s bourgeoisie, has to be done!
The French people are being told that the increase in the age and duration of contributions will bring in €17.7bn per year by 2030, but these figures come without any breakdown by income level or by social class or profession. And, according to economist Thomas Piketty, this is with good reason: if the government were to present these figures, he argues, it would immediately become apparent that the richest are being asked to contribute at a much lower rate than the middle classes and the poorest. Mais bien sûr!
Of course, if you need to raise more funds for the state coffers, and that is taken as a universal goal amidst a crisis-hit capitalist world, then, even within the present system, there remains the possibility of increased taxation of the wealthy, putting a break on the war drive (the donating of all your military hardware to Ukrainian ‘heroes’, if you will), remembering that this war drive will in turn leave you open to restocking your national arsenal at great expense from US imperialism.
There is the option of nationalising the more important industries (energy especially) to protect your infrastructure; and stopping the financially suicidal practice of boycotting Russian energy and other produce might also help.
Of course, if those things were done, France wouldn’t be the imperialist devil that we know she is!
Still, when we see over one million French workers on the streets opposing the robbery of pensioners; when we see in their midst banners and placards linking the dire financial situation with the support that the government is giving fascist Ukraine; and when we hear slogans to that effect coming from the massed ranks of militant workers, we can only take heart.
Even without a communist leadership, the French workers are standing up to the aggression of their state, slowly putting together the all-important puzzle of who rules, why and what to do about it and naming all the guilty parties. It can only be a matter of time before those real communists that do exist within the French proletariat become a real force to be recognised.
Meanwhile, the unions are preparing more examples of militancy to fill French streets and occasionally our TV screens (even if only in very brief glimpses), showing the rest of Europe that fighting against tyranny may not be easy, but what is the alternative?
“Either place yourself at the mercy of capital, eke out a wretched existence as of old and sink lower and lower, or adopt a new weapon – this is the alternative imperialism puts before the vast masses of the proletariat. Imperialism brings the working class to revolution.” (JV Stalin, Foundations of Leninism, 1924, Chapter 1)