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French battle over pensions becomes struggle for democracy

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General strike is the solution!

Down with Macron and the antidemocratic Fifth Republic!

For two months, France has been convulsed by strikes and protests against an attempt to raise the retirement age. But now the crisis has entered a new stage.

After months of negotiations, trying to buy the votes of MPs from the right-wing Republicans, the government still could not obtain a majority, a sign of the pressure exerted on all MPs by the masses.

President Emmanuel Macron then triggered article 49.3 of the Constitution, which allows him to overrule parliament and pass laws, without a majority among MPs, let alone a popular mandate.

This outrageous trampling of democracy provoked a fresh series of nightly protests for more than a week. Increasingly, young people are to the forefront in these battles with the security forces: they will not be robbed of their democratic rights!

In the workplaces, the tempo of the struggle is uneven. Some sectors like the railways, energy, docks and refuse, have been on strike for weeks. The streets of Paris are piled up with 10,000 tons of rubbish. The ports at Marseille and Rouen are blockaded, along with several refineries. Petrol shortages are severe in the south and creeping inexorably across the country.

The day of action on 23 March brought millions onto the streets in more than 300 demonstrations. However, the experience of the last weeks shows that even this scale of mobilisation is not sufficient to force the government to retreat, let alone to remove it completely, which is the necessary condition for the repeal of the law and appropriate punishment for its contempt for democracy.

All the trade union federations declared they would bring the country to a standstill in March. The reality is different. While some well organised sectors are conducting "renewable strikes" (voted at workplace assemblies every morning), there is no generalised stoppage. Millions are brought onto the streets for the days of action, there have been nine since January, but the number of strikers outside those days is rather low.

What is going on? The trade union leaders have staked their credibility on this battle – they cannot concede defeat today. Since the pension reform is widely and correctly seen as depriving workers of two years’ retirement, defeat would mean admitting they lack the power to defend workers’ existing conditions of life and work, never mind fight for improvements.

Despite the stakes, the unions refuse to call for a general strike. They insist on blockades, on generalisation, but have not called – ‘all out, stay out’. The reason is simple. The number of unionised workers in France is low, less than 10 percent. The leaders therefore prefer to combine well controlled strikes in some strategic sectors with ‘days of action’ for everybody else.

For them, such actions are preferable to a general strike, which necessarily poses the organisation of alternative local, regional and national leaderships to coordinate it. Faced with a political struggle, which would require political action on an equivalent scale, the trade union leaders equivocate. This is a strategy for defeat.

Many workers still view the union leaders as the legitimate leadership, in part because the trade union front (the intersyndicale) remains united and the leaders’ speeches have a radical tone. However, even before Macon narrowly survived a no confidence vote, there were signs that the number of strikers, if not demonstrators, was declining. Without a serious change of pace and direction, resignation could settle in.

Certainly, the battle is not over yet: the next days and weeks will be decisive. The determination of the strikers, combined with the yet-to-be unleashed combativity of the masses are immeasurably more powerful than the government and their police. The youth are entering the struggle: universities in Paris and Toulouse are occupied. Rank and file activists are trying everywhere to link the workplaces, build strike committees, and campaign for a general strike.

Macron’s recent interview, full of unbridled contempt for workers, has inflamed the situation. The violence of the police, the demands for a crackdown on protesters by ministers, are only deepening popular hatred of the government. Millions feel that democracy and justice are on their side.

The general strike is the only step possible. In every workplace, militants should take the lead in persuading their co-workers to extend the strikes, stop the profits, close the public services. General assemblies and strike committees in the workplaces should assume the leadership and develop councils of action linked up regionally and nationally to organise the generalisation of strike action.

This struggle has gone beyond pensions. Macron’s bypassing of parliament can be met with only one response: general strike to stop the pension reform, to bring down Macron, and above all to end the 5th Republic.

Macron will not be the first tyrant defeated in the streets by French workers. But he could be the last if the French working class prepares for a final settling of accounts with capitalism.