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France: Is Macron driving through his pension reform?

Martin Suchanek

Regardless of reverses and record unpopularity, President Macron is pushing through the raising of the retirement age from 62 to 64 years – against the resistance of wage earners, trade unions and youth.

Since 19 January, millions have taken to the streets on 12 days of action, participating in strikes and temporarily paralysing the country. Unlike many such working class struggles in recent years, the government and big business did not succeed in breaking the unity of the unions. Not only more radical federations like the CGT and SUD, but also the notorious deserters of a common struggle like the CFDT have so far not agreed to any horse-trading with Macron and have stuck to their „non“ on pension reform.

In doing so, they could, and can, rely on an overwhelming majority of the population. Around two thirds reject Macron’s robbery of two years‘ retirement as an affront – to such an extent that the president and his government could not find a majority in parliament willing to pass the reform.

Class war

But all this did not stop him. Unlike his opponents, Macron does not lack one thing: determination to use all the powers he has as President of the Fifth Republic, to force through a key attack on the working class and the oppressed in the interest of French capital. To this end, he is also prepared to break the traditional rules of the game and to throw even the pretence of bourgeois democracy as the rule of the majority, overboard.

Macron is waging undisguised class war. He is not only determined to create a political monument for himself – just like Margaret Thatcher in the British Miners‘ strike in the 1980s or Gerhard Schröder with the Agenda 2010. These politicians’ names are not just associated with historic defeats for the working class. What matters is that they were prepared to take a higher risk in the class struggle. They are admired by ruling classes worldwide for their willingness to seek a confrontation that could have cost them their own heads if their opponents had acted with equal determination.

But, in the first case, the other TUC unions and Labour refused to come to the aid of the miners with a general strike. And in Schroder’s case not only was he prepared to sacrifice the SPD’s support among large sections of the working class for decades, but the DGB unions opened the road for him by, at best, only attacking Agenda 2010 symbolically and otherwise providing him „critical“ support and fighting against the Monday demonstrations.

Macron is behaving in a similar way. He uses the existing Bonapartist elements of the French constitution, inherited from the autocratic President Charles De Gaulle and his Fifth Republic, to impose the overall interests of capital during a crisis. In doing so, the so-called pension reform is a centrepiece of his plan to make French imperialism more economically competitive as well. For this, he is going further than previous governments and presidents.

Attack on democracy

Once it became clear he would not find a majority in parliament for the proposed legislation, he simply bypassed it by invoking Article 49.3 of the 1958 Constitution. This allows him to override parliament and pass laws without the votes of a majority of MPs, let alone any mandate from the people, either by a general election or a referendum.

He consciously accepted not only the discrediting of his own party among millions of voters, but also the increase in the size of the protests. In short, he set out to prove himself the bourgeoise’s strong man, by raising the stakes in the class struggle, combining the attacks on pensions with a brazen flouting of what people believed were the principles of democracy.

On 16 March, Macron invoked Article 49.3 and a subsequent motion of no confidence and censure failed by 278 to 287 because not only Macron’s „Ensemble pour la majorité présidentielle“, with 245 seats, but a majority of conservative MPs from the neoliberal Gaullist Les Républicains, voted for the president.

The law also passed the subsequent examination by the Constitutional Council. The nine-member body, of which three representatives apiece are appointed by the president, the National Assembly and the Senate, is supposed to be the guardian of the constitution. In fact, however, it safeguards the interests of French capitalism. It is composed of “responsible”, representatives of the ruling class, including two former prime ministers; Laurent Fabius, a right-wing socialist, and the conservative Alain Juppé. Juppé had every reason to seek revenge on French workers because they humiliated him by forcing him to drop his retirement cutting plan in 1995 with months of general strikes and mass street mobilisations.

Unsurprisingly, the Constitutional Council declared the reform legal, but also criticised the deletion of 6 points which had softened it in favour of wage earners. In addition, it rejected a call for a referendum initiated by the left-wing populist NUPES.

This should not come as a surprise. It was clear from the beginning that Macron could invoke paragraph 49.3, that the reform would not be stopped by parliamentary manoeuvres, such as the attempted filibustering by MPs from Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s left populist La France Insoumise. (Unsubmissive France)

Since the first attempts at reform in 2020 and at the latest by the end of 2022, Macron left no doubt that he had tied his political fate to the pension reforms, so that they could only be stopped in the streets and in the workplaces.

Highpoint of the mobilisation?

However, Macron’s overriding of parliament on 16 March also heralded the peak of the strikes and wave of protests. From 19 January to mid-March, one to one and a half million people participated in the respective days of action. Hundreds of thousands temporarily stopped work.

With Article 49.3, Macron and the government of premier Élisabeth Borne, made the struggle over pensions also one over democracy. This spread and intensified the struggle enormously. On 23 March, 3.5 million people took part in demonstrations across the country. Small and medium-sized towns were also drawn into the movement. In the centres of the country, demonstrators virtually flooded the streets. For about a week, there were daily clashes, especially between young demonstrators and the police.

At the same time, the wave of strikes spread – on the railways, in ports and at airports, in the refineries and in the energy industry, at schools and universities and municipal rubbish collection. However, in essence, the strikes only drew in sectors of the vanguard, the more conscious and unionised workers, not the broader masses, especially the unorganised. This would have required a unified call from the leaders of the Intersyndicale. This was absent throughout the entire period.

A general strike in the air

Already in January and February, the slogan of a general strike was increasingly popular among the movement’s activists. After 23 March, it was really in the air. With his anti-democratic measures, Macron himself had further politicised the dispute, directly linking it to the question of his regime. He posed the question of who held the power, him or the strikers.

The parliamentary left, NUPES, proved incapable of taking up the gauntlet by calling for mass direct action. Instead, having been by-passed in parliament, they turned to the Constitutional Council by launching a months-long campaign for a referendum, while millions were not only angry but also ready to fight.

Thus, the key political role fell to the leadership of the trade unions, the Intersyndicale, a federation of all the major federations – and here especially the more left-wing, class-struggle ones like the CGT and the SUD.

After numerous days of action and in view of the massive growth of the actions in the week around 23 March, the hour of decision had come. Either the movement would be massively expanded, and the unions and the working class would themselves pose the question of power – or Macron would be allowed sit out any further protests, relying on the fatigue and financial exhaustion of the strikers, meanwhile using ever more brutal police operations against the more militant demonstrators. No one could seriously doubt his determination anymore.

Role of the bureaucrats

Macron also speculated on the trade union leaders. He was aware that they did not want a general strike let alone a political confrontation for power. From the end of March, workers on the streets and at meetings which voted the strikes, (Assemblées générales or AGs) were calling for one but the leaders of the Intersyndicale did not want to know about it – precisely because they were aware that a general strike against pensions would become, however involuntarily, one to overthrow the Borne government, and Macron, too.

The right wing of the trade union bureaucracy, like Laurent Berger, the leader of the CFDT, have always been ready to negotiate away workers’ demands providing this was covered by the necessary „respect“ for them, i.e. if they took place on the hamster wheel of social partnership. But Macron has broken with these customs because he wants to be hailed as the man who achieved what president and prime ministers Republican or Socialist have failed to do for nearly thirty years.

The leaders of the more radical unions, such as the CGT, were betting that, as in 1995, and in 2006, the first work contract (CPE) proposing to slash employment rights for young people, a series of mass days of strike action would force the government or parliament to give in. They assumed that such a method of struggle would shift the balance of forces in disputes in favour of the trade union negotiators. Even if they would not stop every “reform” they hoped they could present significant concessions to their members. Macron’s intransigence has thrown a spanner in the works for them, too.

The Intersyndicale as a whole had no answer to the intensification of the class struggle by the president. It was not prepared for this escalation – and therefore it was not able to confront Macron with full force. Here, the “unity” of the Intersyndicale provides a pretext for the left CGT and SUD. If they went for more all out and militant action they would give the CFDT the excuse for another of their frequent betrayals

What should have been done?

For this it would have been necessary to call openly for a general strike immediately after the anti-democratic constitutional coup – a general strike that would also have had an immediate political character in the consciousness of the entire population.

But this would have required that the tops of the CGT and other federations consciously faced up to their duty of leadership, to stop acting as pure and simple trade unions, non-political, economic interest groups. They should have acted as the political leadership of the working class.

In the face of 3.5 million demonstrators, hundreds of thousands of strikers and mass outrage throughout the country, a general strike could have drawn in the unorganised workers, only 10 per cent of French workers are union members. It would have drawn in the unemployed, the youth and pensioners, creating a gigantic movement with the formation of strike and action committees. This could not only have overturned the pension reform, but also overthrown the government and raised the question of power – not in a merely parliamentary sense, but in the sense of a workers‘ government based on the organs of the general strike and self-defence organs of the working class. In short, such a struggle could have developed a revolutionary dynamic.

But the trade union leaderships – right and left – preferred to avoid the escalation of the struggle. At the end of March, in the days after the bypassing of parliament, it would have been possible to raise the movement to a whole new level, to also draw into the struggle the petty bourgeoisie and the middle classes, which normally cannot be mobilised under the leadership of the trade unions, and the more conscious sections of the working class.

Such a step could also have ensured that the movement would become broader and stronger and been able to win a historic victory. It could also have been a major blow to the far right around Marine Le Pen, who is demagogically trying to profit from the current political crisis and is ahead in the polls.

But this opportunity was missed. On the last day of action so far, on 13 April, around 1.5 million people took part, according to union figures. Of course, this still represents an enormously high level of activity. But, at the same time, those actually striking significantly declined, warning that the struggle against the pension reform had passed its peak for the time being.

The next day of action will not take place until 1 May – more than two weeks after 13 April. This would be the biggest gap between days of action since the beginning of the movement. May Day is, of course, a traditional day of struggle, and participation will likely be enormous but, at the same time, there will hardly be any strikes on what is a public holiday.

Of course, the union leaders are talking militancy, even intransigence. Even Laurent Berger says he will not talk to a government that does not respect him. CGT leader Sophie Binet dismisses Macron’s invitation to the unions for talks as ridiculous, where nothing substantive will be discussed.

But all this should not blind us to the fact that the trade union leaderships do not have an effective strategy of struggle after the institutional path has been completed and the pension reform has been put into force.

In the face of this strategic crisis, the left-populist electoral alliance NUPES, consisting of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, the PS, the Greens and the PCF, is coming up with a new proposal. A new project for a referendum is to be made and submitted to the Constitutional Council, which would decide on its admission at the beginning of May. If the Council decides that it is legal, 5 million signatures would have to be collected within nine months. The National Assembly could then examine the project for six months (!) and would then vote on it – a procedure that is in fact doomed to failure in view of the majority of votes that Macron’s Ensemble pour la majorité présidentielle and Les Républicains have.

In reality, the referendum is a wretched distraction from the question of how the struggle against pension reform and the government’s other attacks can be relaunched and distracts from learning the lessons of the movement so far.

They are certainly not those drawn by Fabien Roussel, the national secretary of the Communist Party, the PCF. Thus he declared: „Through such a referendum, the country could emerge from the present crisis with its head held high by democratic means.“ This illustrates how low these so-called communists have sunk, how little their whole policy is able to reach beyond the democratic horizon of „their“ bourgeois republic.

The current decline of the movement does not mean that the struggle against pension reform is already lost. But it does mean that the conditions are changing under which a new upswing, a new situation can arise, where the general strike is back on the agenda.

Finally, we must not forget that all of Macron’s policies are taking place against a background of persistently high inflation and geopolitical confrontation, a profound social, political and ecological crisis. Therefore, his pension reform, like all government policies, can be quickly shaken by other cuts in the living conditions of the masses. Even if Macron has driven his pension reform through the undemocratic institutions of the Fifth Republic, he has by no means made French capitalism fit for competition with its rivals again. The soiling of bourgeois democracy, the disillusionment of millions and millions, which he accepts as the price of social deterioration, could then prove to be a political boomerang. And it is one that can benefit the far right at the 2027 Presidential and parliamentary elections. Meanwhile, if Macron survives, he can press on with a series of anti-working class measures.

Therefore, it is not only necessary to maintain the movement, but above all to prepare it for the inevitable next confrontations.

This means, firstly, clearly recognising and stating that neither the parliamentary left nor the leaderships of the trade unions are formulating a political and strategic response to the major attacks of the government of capital.

In the trade unions, however, it is not only the struggle for grassroots assemblies and democratic action committees that is needed, there is also a need for organised, cross-union, class-struggle opposition to the union bureaucracy .

But a workplace and trade union alternative is not enough. A class-struggle opposition must also establish a close link with the social movements against war, imperialism, racism, sexism and environmental destruction. The political monopoly of the NUPES parliamentary “heroes” needs to be broken. This requires creating a new revolutionary workers‘ party based on a programme of action that links the struggle against the attacks on democratic rights, on the working class, with that for the overthrow of capitalism.


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