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France: Stop the lull turning into a retreat

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The strike movement against the pension reform is at a turning point after two months of mass action that not only put the fear of god into Macron, but also became an inspiration for millions across Europe. The government, and the attacks it is forcing through, are still unpopular, even hated. Macron, the self-proclaimed and autocratic Sun King of a "humanitarian" (neo) liberalism, reveals once again his anti-worker face.

Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, continue to take part in the days of action and strikes called by the trade unions. The demonstrations reveal not only deep-seated anger and indignation, but also the determination, dynamism, creativity and willingness to fight of the working class.

Millions of wage earners from all sectors of the economy, students, the remnants of the Gilet Jaunes, old and young alike, consider the strike as their cause and show their solidarity during the action days or through donations to activists who have been holding the line for weeks.

Since the beginning of December, the strikers on the railways and metro and the teachers in the public service have shown that Macron and his government can be thrown onto the defensive, even overthrown, if the working class puts all its fighting strength on the line.

At the same time, however, the weaknesses and problems of the movement are also revealed. Below, we will briefly describe these in order to address the question of how they can be overcome.

CFDT betrayal
The Macron government managed to split the unions by making an offer of negotiations to the strike, based on a non-binding offer to suspend part of the reform for workers due to retire before 2027.
But the core of the reform, long demanded by the bosses’ camp, which consists of a massive reduction in pensions by changing the basis of their assessment from the 25 best-paid years to 43 years of contributions, was never up for discussion.

The sole purpose of the ploy was to split the workers’ united front by giving the leaders of the country’s second-largest union, the CFDT, a reason to break ranks. General secretary Laurent Berger didn’t need to be asked twice; in taking up the offer he declared the ‘victory’ of the strike movement that his union had opposed from day one.

The leaders of smaller trade unions like UNSA, which is well represented among Paris Metro workers, followed the CFDT’s lead, in spite of opposition among sections of the rank and file who continued to participate in the action against the will of their executives.

The emergence of contradictions between the leadership and rank and file within the unions close to the government shows the weakness of the government’s position. Nevertheless, the CFDT’s strikebreaking has been instrumental in helping the government regain the initiative by playing the unions off against each other.

Suspension of the strike movement
Ultimately, the split in the union movement only aggravates an even bigger problem: the fact that no new sectors have joined the strike for weeks. The major days of action this year cannot conceal the fact that the strike has stagnated in numbers since December, and that stoppages in many sectors are declining.

In addition, the teachers, after transport workers the most militant component in the struggle, did not join the indefinite strike. The main teachers’ union, FSU, and most of the strike assemblies, (assemblée générale, AG) concentrated on the days of action, with the vast majority of teachers continuing to work in the interim.

Thus, on 20 January, after 45 days of intense industrial action, a majority of the AGs in the transport sector finally decided to “suspend” the indefinite strike, except during the national days of action.

Even if these lead to one-day strikes and mass demonstrations of over a million people, the reality is that the movement has abandoned its most potent means of struggle against the government.

The exhaustion of the most militant sections of the class comes as no surprise after such a long time. For now, the lull has not yet become a rout. But what is clear is that such a major political attack by the government cannot be repulsed if the strike is limited only to the working class vanguard and new forces are not drawn in.

Role of the Trade Union bureaucracy
Why was it not possible to extend the strike? There was no lack of appeals from socialists or trade union activists in the AGs. During the demonstrations in January, the increasing popularity of slogans calling for the broadening of the struggle and for a general strike showed that the base of the movement were searching for a solution.

In order to understand why the strike has not been extended, we need to understand the role of the trade union leaderships, who, despite the dynamism and initiative of the grassroots, were ultimately given the leadership of the movement.

Unlike the strike-breakers on the executive of the CDFT, most of the unions have so far rejected the government's bargaining gambits. The joint union coordination (Intersyndicale) of the CGT, FO, FSU, Solidaires, FIDL, MNL, UNL and UNEF ultimately sets the pace of the movement and determines the days of action.

But the conservative character and inhibiting role of the bureaucracy of these unions and their leaderships became apparent from the outset of the movement.

Firstly, most of the federations did not bring their own members out on strike beyond those sectors already taking action. In fact, only some of the Intersyndicale unions were actually on strike; the CGT, SUD and the FSU – and even the CGT barely tried to call into action its members outside the transport sector.

Secondly, the existence of a political non-aggression pact between the trade union leaderships meant the more active leftwing unions refused to publicly campaign among the leadership and grassroots of other unions to join the indefinite action.

This approach does not come out of nowhere. It reflects the priorities and objectives of the union leaderships, including the de facto leading force, the CGT.

For all its militant rhetoric, the CGT leadership (and with it the entire Intersyndicale) led the battle over pension reform not as a political class struggle with the government, but as a particularly determined and publicly effective normal trade union, that is, economic, conflict.
Ultimately, they hoped to be able to force the government to accept a “real” offer of negotiation through the pressure of action.

But the Macron government and the entire French ruling class are waging the struggle on the basis of what it really is: a class struggle which aims not only to impose massive cuts in pensions, but also to shift the balance of power permanently in their favour.

For this reason, Macron refused genuine negotiations and instead successfully divided the unions with a sham offer. After the strike weakened, the government even backed off from the concessions promised to the CFDT, with the Health Minister confirming in the draft law’s first reading that the retirement age of 64 would remain.

At the same time, the government is hardening its tone towards the strikers and demonstrators. The occupation of the CFDT headquarters by militant workers was branded “terrorism” in the bourgeois press, and the mood in the country is to be turned upside down by claiming the government is standing up against a “minority” of strikers who are “holding the majority hostage”.

The trade union leaderships were not prepared for this political counter-offensive. This was not out of political ignorance or naivety, but because they wanted, and still want, to avoid a decisive political battle with the government. For it is precisely such a battle that would probably lead to an extension of the strike into a political mass strike, and ultimately into an unlimited general strike.

Of course, it is also possible the government itself could temporarily withdraw its proposals. But, given the strategic importance of the reform, this cannot be counted on.

A general strike would rapidly raise the question of its defence against police repression or the use of the military as strikebreakers, as was the case with the occupation of the refineries a few years ago, thereby taking in not only the ‘economic’ pension reform, but addressing the question of political power.

Since the fundamental purpose of the trade union bureaucracy as a social caste is to mediate between the rival classes, it organises its whole strategy around avoiding such an open struggle for power. That leads it to play unwillingly but inexorably into the hands of the government.

And as soon as the government realises that the working class is weak because its leadership is hesitant and weak, it will go in for the kill.

The weakness of the movement
The conservative policy of the trade union leaderships is also facilitated by political weaknesses amongst the rank and file membership. Although it is far more militant, it regards even the struggle even over such a far-reaching issue as a trade union dispute, not as a political class struggle. This can be seen not least in the fact that it has so far left the political leadership to the Intersyndical.

Although the AGs voted every day on whether to continue the strike, only a small number elected a workplace strike committee, and there was only sporadic individual coordination beyond the factories and departments. In many cases, the meetings were limited to hearing the report of union representatives, clapping and voting on their proposal to continue the strike.

In other words, the actual leadership of the strike was determined by the trade union leaderships and not accountable to the AGs. Without the election and coordination of strike committees, the AGs could not become the leaders of the strike, especially not at the inter-company level. At the national level, there is no alternative political leadership to the Intersyndical, whose policy is largely determined by the CGT.

Even the widespread and justified distrust of workers towards the union leaders did not change this. Instead, the latter were able to shift the political responsibility for the continuation and extension of the strike to the grassroots level through a clever manoeuvre.

Since, formally, only the AGs decide on the implementation and continuation of the strike in a company or department, the national union leaderships justified their failure to actively draw other sectors into the struggle, or to systematically agitate in other companies and sectors, by saying that they did not want to “patronise” the workers. Only the workers in the companies should decide on their strike and its continuation. This, according to the bureaucracy, would be generously respected. They would therefore refrain from “patronising” calls for general strikes, which must come “from below”.

In doing so, however, the trade union leadership was merely shifting its political responsibility to extend and intensify the struggle to the grassroots, that is, to individual workforces or departments that were largely isolated from one another.

In the phase of the rise and expansion of the strike movement, the problems of such a structure are not immediately apparent. Supported by the message of great strike participation, large demonstrations and the solidarity of the public, AGs vote for the strike much more easily. However, as soon as the movement declines, as soon as signs of fatigue appear, the dynamics easily change into their opposite - more and more AGs are blown to retreat by the changing wind.

As with any movement, the idea that there is no leadership is a myth. The apparent self-sufficiency and independence of any strike assembly only means that the real leadership, the CGT-controlled trade union apparatus, seems to generously hand over difficult decisions to the grassroots. Thus the CGT headquarters can deny any responsibility for suspending the strike by reference to “respecting” the independent decisions of the grassroots.

There is no doubt that the trade union bureaucracy benefits from grassroots illusions in this. In the face of justified fears of paternalism and coercion by the apparatus, the democracy of the general assembly appears to be an effective structure. But it is a politically inadequate, even ineffective, structure. It counters the centralisation of the struggle by the bureaucracy with decentralisation. The leadership by a reformist trade unionist apparatus creates the illusion of renouncing political leadership in general.

The tragic irony of these illusions is that the power of the bureaucracy over the movement is not eliminated, but just becomes less visible, less open, it operates indirectly. This makes it more incomprehensible and ultimately more difficult to fight.

Above all, it is not possible to build an alternative leadership to that of the bureaucracy, without simultaneously solving the problem of centralising the strike, coordinating, expanding, and concentrating workers’ power in the struggle against the government and capital.
Therefore it is necessary to raise two demands in the movement against the pension reform:

· To demand from the union leaderships a consistent extension of the struggle, up to a political general strike, to defeat the attacks.
· To demand the election, and accountability through immediate recall, of strike committees from the AGs and their coordination through local, regional and national action committees that are truly responsible to the grassroots. It is particularly important to elect these now that many AGs have suspended the strike, in order to create an organised link between those who remain on strike, and to develop a plan to expand and restart the action. The trade union leaderships should be called upon to fully support the decisions of such co-ordinations.

In the current situation, these demands must be combined with concrete steps to stop the lull turning into a rout, and to prepare for and initiate action to regain the initiative.

Even if the reform can probably only be stopped with a general strike, such a strike cannot simply be proclaimed in the face of a movement struggling with declining strike numbers. The abstract call for an “expansion” of the strike movement, company by company, will certainly not achieve this goal.

The decision of the Intersyndical to regularly mobilise workers in the railway, metro, education and other sectors to days of action reflects the continuing will to fight of the workers. However, it carries with it the great danger that the strike movement will gradually be exhausted in days of action ‘with no tomorrow’.

In this situation, therefore, the demand for a nationwide day of action, combined with a general strike in as many sectors as possible, can play an important role. Even though one-day work stoppages can often and easily be misused as a means of letting off steam because of their ultimately symbolic character, in the case of a declining strike movement, such a one-day strike can also be a means of regaining strength in order to show the working class that it has the means and fighting power to repulse the government's attack. In other words, such a one-day strike should not be understood as the climax of a dispute, but as a step towards mobilisation, towards the preparation of an indefinite general strike.

Such a strike could ring the death knell not only of the pension reform but also of the Macron government - in any case it would be a beacon of resistance for the working class throughout Europe after years of retreat, compromises and the unchecked ascendancy of the far right.