Trash has piled up high on many of the streets of Paris, barricades still burn in the night across France, as French workers carry on the fight to overthrow their government’s attack on their pensions.
French president Emmanuel Macron’s government pushed a bill to increase the retirement age from 62 to 64 through parliament without a vote, in what he may have hoped was a sign of his authority and determination to rule; but, in reality, showed only that he expected to lose any vote on the issue.
He has now stamped on the dragon’s tail, and the ensuing flames of revolt may be impossible to put out while he remains in office.
On many of the daily and nightly clashes, firefighters called out to douse the burning barricades stood down and removed their helmets in a symbolic gesture of solidarity with their fellow workers. On at least two occasions, some gendarmes have taken the same action.
At the moment, though, the police are still generally following orders. But if they do buckle significantly and reach a position where President Macron can no longer rely on their loyalty, he will have to hope that soldiers, if they are called in, will not also join a battle against a plan that affects them and all their families as badly as it does those protesting.
For Macron, there can be no surrender: he and his regime have everything staked on winning this battle to make the French working class pay for the current crisis of overproduction that is plaguing all the western ‘democracies’; and also to finance the country’s total prostration before the USA’s aggressive imperialist proxy war against Russia in Ukraine, which is dragging the European states towards ruination as they strangle their own economies to do the bidding of US imperialism.
Since the protests started, there have been regular turnouts of millions of workers and students. Following the forcing through of the pensions bill without a vote, the French interior ministry said 1.089 million protested across the country, including 119,000 in the capital, which was a record since protests started in January.
The CGT union says that three and a half million people have marched in the country. There has been a limited national strike, many other ongoing strikes in various industries, with transport and energy workers, teachers, dockers and public-sector workers (such as museum staff) having gone on strike. Trade unions say the reform will especially penalise low-income people in manual jobs, who tend to start their careers early, forcing them to work longer than graduates, who are less affected by the changes.
French colleges and universities are regularly closing owing to walk-outs by students, staff and sometimes both togethers. In the end, pensions affect everyone, but they do, like everything else, affect the poorest the most.
Police have fired tear gas into crowds in Paris, Nantes and Lorient in the west, and Lille in the north. Water cannons have been used in several cities to batter workers whose crime is a determination not to be robbed by their government.
British journalist Lewis Goodall, covering the demonstrations in Paris for the Guardian, reported that police were “on pretty brutal form” – detailing how a member of his team had been targeted by police despite asserting they were press – and were also throwing their stun grenades with “abandon”.
Thousands have been arrested. Injuries are mounting in numbers and severity. Unionised workers have blockaded a major oil refinery in Normandy and another one in Fos-sur-Mer in the south of the country, while transport networks (including air traffic, internal and international) are being turned off and on by strikers across the country.
CNN has reported the blocking of terminal 1 at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport by protesters.
On 23 March, the doors of Bordeaux city hall went up in flames causing the British king to postpone a visit to France, including a visit to the aforementioned city hall, that had been scheduled for 26-9 March, as the Macron government had to admit that it could not guarantee to give him full protection.
The French masses, when roused, do have a certain reputation for taking care of monarchs, after all.
Macron is insisting that the law to extend the age of retirement by two years will come into force by the end of the year. He compared the popular protests against his attack on all working people in France to the storming of the USA Capitol on 6 January 2021 in a statement that left his friends and foes alike staring open-mouthed and wondering about the state of the president’s mental health.
Meanwhile, interior minister Gerald Darmanin is telling anyone who will listen: “There are thugs, often from the far-left, who want to bring down the state and kill police officers.”
In the end, Macron seems to be clinging on, perhaps hoping that the rising prices, high inflation, fuel shortages, etc will sap the workers’ willingness to strike. Maybe that will happen, but it is just as likely that those further attacks on workers’ living standards will harden their resolve and lead them to step up their actions.
There is a desperate need now for a unified and genuine revolutionary leadership for the defiant French workers, but their stubbornness may take them on regardless in the short term.
We marvel at their continued struggle and wish them success. We will also be watching with interest, not only the details of the struggle but the development of the political understanding from the lessons which must be learned from their situation and their splendid fightback.