Tue May 30, 2023
May 30, 2023

Historic mobilization against pension reform in France: what’s next?

With 1,120,000 demonstrators counted by the Ministry of the Interior, and more than 2 million according to the CGT (General Confederation of Labour), the first day of mobilization against the new pension reform was very strong. Called by the eight central trade unions of the country, more than 250 cities participated in the demonstrations. Macron’s new project aims to raise the legal (minimum) retirement age from 62 to 64 and to bring forward the extension of the contribution period to 43 years (already decided during the Hollande government’s reform), starting in 2027 instead of 2035. Many activists had never seen so many people on the street before. We have to go back to the 2006 mobilizations against the “Contrat Première Embauche”, or even those of 1995 against the pension reform of the Juppé government, to find a comparison, according to the city. The unions’ feedback suggested a success, but not on this scale.

By: Lucas Peters

With the stalling of the mobilisation for wage increases after 18 October, in a context marked by inflation, there was some doubt about the capacity of the unions to mobilize on their model of isolated days of action. The – at best observant and generally hostile – attitude of a large majority of trade union structures towards the Yellow Vests movement is also still in the memory of many workers, who do not see in the union framework of mobilization the possibility of raising the political conflict to the point of making a government give in. On the other hand, perhaps it is also, in the end, the failure of the Yellow Vests movement in terms of meeting demands, which leads some to appropriate this structure, in the absence of others, to organize themselves. Even so, this inter-union appeal for an inter-professional strike against the pension reform was a numerical triumph in terms of demonstrators and, to a lesser degree, in terms of strikers.

Even so, the Juppé government had given in after the country’s economy was paralyzed by three weeks of intensive strikes. The political situation has changed since 1995, with a hardening of capitalist impositions and a government prone to social repression. Therefore, it will be necessary to bring the level of mobilizations and forms of action at least to the level of the latter reference if we hope to win.

Strengths and limits of organizational structures in the current situation

Areas of support before January 19

This success did not really sound like a thunderclap in a calm sky. There are currently many mobilizations in companies for wage increases. However, these mobilizations are localized and come from a regeneration of class consciousness. But it is difficult to know whether this class consciousness is limited by a corporatist tendency, often reinforced by union strategies restricted to social dialogue, or by the awareness that in order to envisage an overall conflictuality, practical and political tools are needed that are too embryonic today. It is in this context that we must understand the call of CGT Pétrole [1] on January 12, proposing a progressive plan that does not exclude the closure of installations, with a first day of strike on January 19, then a second phase of 48 hours on January 26 and 27, and finally three days of strike that could lead to an indefinite strike starting on February 6.

This proposal has the dual advantage of a timetable that allows the different sectors to prepare progressively for the strike. The established frameworks also make it possible to take stock and to limit two risks. First, that of seeing “vanguard” sectors exhaust themselves in the strike before others can join them; second, that of returning to having proxy strikes, led by key sectors, which can certainly be effective but which do not lead to a political situation of the same nature as when the whole world of labor stops working to organize and fight. There were some rail workers during the 2019 strike who said that the best way to help them was not to increase strike funds, but to work to bring other sectors into the strike.

The national inter-union “plan”

Disregarding the plan proposed by the CGT Pétrole, and despite the success of January 19, the national interunion leadership decided to call for a new strike day on January 31. Once again, an isolated day not included in a battle plan, with the leaderships assuming to decide successively on the follow-up of each mobilisation according to the success of each of them! Once again, the most militant sectors are made invisible! Once again, it means an invisibilization of other mobilization frameworks – whatever we think of them – like the call to demonstrate on 21 January in Paris, launched by youth organizations more or less linked to France Insoumise! And once again, it’s a framework that isolates workers who would legitimately like to stop working to prepare a massive strike, by forming for example mobilization collectives that could weave links between companies and with establishments not yet mobilized, address the population so that it supports future mobilizations, notably by creating and feeding strike funds… On the evening of the 31st of January, it’s pretty obvious that if self-organisation doesn’t develop, we’ll see a scenario that has unfortunately become classically repeated. It is necessary to avoid that the trade union leaderships keep the control of the struggle and lead it to failure, by scheduling other “leapfrog” single days of strike until the troops are exhausted. Without self-organization, the appeals of those leaders – bogged down in a social dialogue that only leads to setbacks – will once again prove to be powerless. Therefore, an alternative material force will have to be set up against them. This must be based on the strikers themselves taking control of the strike.

As for the timetable, obviously the entire inter-union is responsible for this proposal, but with some nuances. The CFDT imposed the 31st on the inter-union while the CGT, FO, the FSU and Solidaires proposed January 26th.

In the name of unity and in the hope of maintaining large numbers at demonstrations, the inter-union is once again controlled by its right wing and becomes even more incapable of proposing a coherent strategy. One wonders whether we are not facing a game in which union leaders less subject to social dialogue than the CFDT do not finally find their own ways, making the CFDT assume responsibility for the consequences of its own contradictions. In the field of social dialogue for the unions – just as in the field of reformism or centrism for the parties – it is very useful to have someone more right-wing than you to hide behind… So yes, the CFDT parades were more numerous than those of the CGT in certain cities, but to what end? Moreover, we have to consider that the CFDT leadership, following the logic that has traditionally converted them into the best vacuum cleaner of crumbs at the table of the bosses, may already be negotiating with the Macron government. For example, it could be about “advances” in the recognition of hard work, mentioned during previous reforms, and to which the CFDT claims to be very committed. But the practicalities of recognizing hard work are of interest to almost no one, as it is so complicated to fit into the framework finally defined during the previous “negotiations”.

Some questions and perspectives on the pension battle that is beginning in France

An international response to an international attack

Struggles for better living conditions – or at least to put an end to the deterioration of these conditions – in particular through wage increases or the preservation of solidarity systems, are developing in many countries. The question of how to organize to build a relationship of forces in the face of governments committed to capitalism is a question that goes beyond France. The bourgeoisies coordinate to implement their plans, justifying, for example, downward stabilization in the name of equity or simplification. In Spain, several organizations defending the gains of the Spanish pension/retirement system have expressed their support for the mobilization in France [2]. They denounce the internationally coordinated strategy of financial powers and European institutions to dismantle and privatize public pension systems.
In fact, the “recommendations” of the European Commission, issued on June 17, 2022 [3], mention the need to standardize the various retirement systems, noting that the associated costs represent a very large part of GDP, particularly since the legal retirement age of 62 is considered very low. When we realize that in some European countries the legal retirement age is 67, as in Belgium, we understand that the concern for “harmonization” will be translated into other reforms to come if this one is approved.

Overall, therefore, the report is mainly oriented towards the concern of paying the “debt”. The question of the viability of the current retirement/pension system does not appear, or appears contradictory to the need to reform it, since the recommendations recognize that pension expenditures will decrease after 2030. For several years now, “command through debt” has been the mode of governance by which capitalists direct public policies to privatize the social components of states.
In 2020, the newspaper Bastamag [4] produced a dossier highlighting the coordination between capitalists and public authorities on a European scale. It featured the Blackrock investment fund, which was lobbying the European Commission to market a financial product that could supplement uncertain or inadequate pensions. So we can understand the interest of these capitalists in reforming the systems in order to make the conditions for an adequate retirement/pension inaccessible.

In the face of this systemic breakdown, international declarations of support are valuable elements that energize local struggles. In terms of internationalism, their development could precede the development of material aid and, ideally, also the development of a movement on an international scale. In 2020, this concretization of aid took the form of an international strike fund on a European scale, which has remained symbolic but could take on another dimension in future struggles.

The identification of recurring processes and the development of an argument and proposals for a revolutionary plan

This process of breaking down public systems to create supplements subject to the rules of the market and the valorization of capital is not new. This “mechanism” is the one that was recently created in France with the Complementary Social Protection system, which uses private funds with the aim of extending into areas currently covered by Social Welfare. Here, again, all union leaders supported the transformation by signing the implementation protocols.

The reforms are not “ideological” or even irrational, but reflect the interests of the bourgeoisie, which are contradictory to ours.

To limit oneself to the argument that these welfare systems are viable, even in the present system, is to place oneself on the terrain of the bourgeoisie. Of course, this viability increases the scandalous character of capitalist depredations, but an argument based on this is fallacious. On the one hand, it is fragile: would we have to make concessions in our living and working conditions if these welfare systems were not viable in the capitalist mode of production? On the other hand, it is sterile in terms of raising awareness of the fact that, in order to end capitalist predation, it is necessary to end the capitalist mode of production itself and its institutions.

Thus, it is a pity to see organizations of the “left of the left” relying on the statements of the president of the COR (Pension Oversight Council), who affirms that “retirement/pension expenses are not sliding, they are relatively controlled, in most hypotheses,” and that these expenses should decrease in the long term, without any other perspectives. It would be healthier, for example, to highlight the need to resocialize the welfare systems that have been privatized in recent years. It would also be necessary to promote, in a transitional way, the need to re-establish social security based on institutions managed by the workers, whose financing would be ensured by contributions in the form of a deduction of the wealth created, directly at the source and not by taxes that force the workers to contribute so that they can eventually see the benefits of the wealth created by their work! However, it is not with a left that pretends to be the advisor of this bourgeoisie, which apparently needs to be persuaded to be reasonable (!), that we will create the tools to get out of capitalism!

On strategy

The youth also mobilized strongly on January 19, with blockades of high schools and general student assemblies that decided to expand the mobilization. This small beginning of self-organization among the youth is critical for shaping the movement. The removal of a general assembly of students at the University of Strasbourg by the CRS (riot police) is a sign of the government’s fear of the youth, which should make us aware of the force that they represent.

In the world of labor, the strategy of the refineries must continue to be a point of reference for mobilization initiatives starting next week. There are a few prolongations of the strike in public establishments and companies, but they will need support next week to make the connection with January 31, and to establish a momentum that goes beyond the calendar and the modes of action of the inter-union.

Some of the most militant trade union structures are not mistaken. Despite the postponement of the continuation of the fight by the inter-union to January 31, the CGT Pétrole maintained its 48-hour strike call for January 26 and 27, joined by the CGT Energie [5] ; and the CGT des Ports et Docks [6] of Paris called for a strike on January 26.

The salvation lies again in self-organization, with the taking of initiatives in different forms: mobilization collectives, strike committees coordinated by sectors and geographical zones. These structures of self-organization would do well to call on the union leaders in our respective sectors to demand a rolling strike. This was decided by Sud Education, taking advantage of the January 31 date decided by the inter-union.

Such structures could also be an opportunity to present the other social concerns of the current period. For example, women will be even more affected by the reform if it is implemented. The women’s movement, whose structure has been growing stronger for several years, could play an important role in the mobilization and benefit from it in return. Naturally, these cadres could also make the connection with the question of wages: it is not the duration of the contribution that should be increased, it is the wage!


[1] The CGT of the oilworkers, in particular the refineries organization.
[2] https://www.tercerainformacion.es/opinion/19/01/2023/pensionistas-estado-espanol-apoyan-huelga-contra-reforma-macron/
[3] Note 20 of the document on France available for download at the following address: https://www.consilium.europa.eu/fr/press/press-releases/2022/06/17/european-semester-2022-country-specific-recommendations-agreed/
[4] https://basta.media/BlackRock-reforme-retraite-age-pivot-capitalisation-epargne-lobbying
[5] The CGT in the energy sector as a whole.
[6] The CGT in the ports and docks, which organizes longshoremen.

Translated by: John Joseph

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