On 7 February, France effectively ground to a halt. Three-quarters of national train services were shut down, roughly one in three air flights were cancelled, a quarter of civil servants went on strike and nearly two-thirds of primary schoolteachers did the same.
That day of coordinated action followed a string of separate one-day strikes in January, and now it has been announced that public transport workers, truck drivers and nuclear power technicians are to turn up the pressure, rising from one-day strikes to indefinite rolling strikes.
The main focus of the strikes and demonstrations has been the latest attempt by President Emanuel Macron’s government to extend the pension age from 62 to 64. This is Macron’s second serious stab at pension ‘reform’. His first attempt in 2019 met with such massive resistance that he was forced to abandon the plan, using the Covid emergency to spare his blushes.
He is now trying to speed up the draft law raising the pension age, rushing it through before the end of March. Macron no longer has a parliamentary majority, so cannot guarantee that the law will pass muster. However, a useful kink in the constitution theoretically enables the president to ignore the national assembly’s decision and force the law onto the statute book – if he really wants to spark a political crisis.
Ever since the government of former president Jacques Mitterand reduced the pensionable age to 60 in 1982, successive governments have fought to push it back up. At present, it stands at 62.
In one sense, the vacillations and retreats of successive French governments on this issue bear witness to the doggedness with which France’s unions have resisted the capitalist efforts to intensify the terms of workers’ exploitation. The militancy of French unions like the CGT puts most British unions to shame, and is much to be admired.
In another sense, though, the sad fact that, 40 years after the Mitterand reform, French workers find themselves still fighting the same battles, confirming the ultimate futility of limiting the class war to the struggle to improve the terms of wage-slavery, and neglecting the historic task that confronts workers: the abolition of wage slavery itself.
Until capitalism is overthrown, every temporary reform conceded to workers under pressure can be watered down or reversed when the dust has settled and the ruling class has had time to regroup its forces.
Whilst the pensions battle is currently the specific focus of proletarian revolt in France, and deservedly so, it clearly indicates a much wider dissatisfaction with the capitalist order in crisis, a dissatisfaction which can only be fully addressed by fighting for socialism and the end of wage slavery.