|Volume 50 Number 3, January 25, 2020||ARCHIVE||HOME||JBCENTRE||SUBSCRIBE|
Pension strikes and demonstrations in France
Working people of France have been on the move for well over a year since the Gilets Jaunes movement kicked off towards the end of 2018. Organised workers have joined the poor, the unorganised workers and low-skilled, the unemployed and the rural poor despite the police brutality on the one hand and attempts at concessions from the Macron government which have not satisfied the workers' demands on the other.
Mass strikes began some two months ago as the Yellow Vest movement itself underwent a resurgence. The transport strikes on the railways and metros became the longest for over 50 years as workers took action to oppose and say No! to President Macron's so-called "pension reforms".
On January 18, the Gilets Jaunes once more took to the streets in their thousands. And once more they were subjected to police brutality. Earlier in the month, millions had held demonstrations, while nearly 50 consecutive days of strike action had blocked ports and disrupted power production.
President Emmanuel Macron's proposed neo-liberal reform to France's pension schemes is central to his ambition to make France competitive in the global market. But working people have rightly not accepted that "making France competitive" serves the general interests of society or the interests of the workers, but only business while the workers bear the brunt of the austerity offensive.
The government's proposals are for the retirement age for a full pension to be progressively raised to reach 64 "for the 1965 generation who will retire from 2027". Under the proposal, the legal retirement age will remain 62 but workers who leave at that point will not receive their maximum pension.
There has been practically a media blackout in Britain on these very determined actions by the working people of France, demonstrating the way the monopoly-controlled media have their own vantage point which is not that of the working class, while they emphasise actions inspired or organised by imperialism, such as those against the progressive forces in Latin America.
Indeed the actions have given the lie to suggestions that the discontent is against the foundations of a modern state, but that the working people are acting not out of narrow interests but out of social responsibility. It is the pension "reforms" that strike against the responsibility of a modern state to care for its members and treat with dignity the seniors and others who have contributed to the social wealth.
Those in action have covered all walks of life, from lawyers to transport workers to the young and the unemployed. Under the guise of equalising pensions for all, the government is in fact hitting at the pensions which working people have fought for and are determined to defend. As one lawyer put it: "We don't have a choice - we have to fight now or die later. If we don't make it to the end, what's the point of all this?"
Although it is reported that the Paris Metro was returning to normal after the suspension of 46 days of strikes, following temporary concessions by Prime Minister Edouard Philippe to the strikers, it was seen as a brief respite following Philippe's presentation of the new plan instituting a "universal system" of point-based pensions to the cabinet on Friday, before it is sent to the National Assembly, France's lower house, where debates are scheduled to begin on February 17. This prompted the workers' unions to call for further nation-wide protests. "Our determination remains intact," Yves Veyrier, head of the Force Ouvrière union, told reporters ahead of a street march in Paris. "We have weeks, months, of protest ahead of us." It was reported that on Thursday evening, demonstrators held torch-lit protests in Paris ahead of a "Black Friday" of strikes and shutdowns.
The government's pretext that its only aim is to simplify 42 pension regimes into a single universal system will not wash. Workers are showing that they will fight to defend their rights and interests. As in Britain, where the system of "Universal Credit", far from simplifying the system has had the vindictive aim of penalising the vulnerable and forcing them to shoulder the burden of the all-round crisis, the universal system proposed by the French government is also meant to force working people to shoulder the burden of the chaos and crisis of the anti-social offensive. Meanwhile, the oligarchs and financial elites enrich themselves at the workers' expense. President Macron and his government have been ruling by exception to give the police powers in France free rein to keep the people in check. It has been made clear over the past 15 months or more that this has not been able to stem the tide of protest against the anti-social offensive, which has in fact escalated and broadened.
Macron himself gave the game away in saying that the present system of pensions and benefits deters job mobility and that changes are necessary to create a "more flexible labour market". In other words, it is the working people who are going to be forced to suffer the consequences of the crisis, which is a manifestation of a direction for the economy and society which has had its day and only serves the interests of the oligarchs who would trample the rights of the people underfoot. The old order is to engage in cut-throat competition in the global marketplace, competition between competing sets of oligarchs, while the workers share a common interest of safeguarding the future of society through becoming the decision-makers.
The mobilisation of the working people of France is objectively against the old order and demands something different which does not make the working people the targets of attack. The actions have also underlined the enormous power of the working people organised in defence of their collective interests and the interests of society as a whole, and that they are the power to be reckoned with in how society functions and whom it should serve. As the third decade of the 21st century dawns, the French people can be seen to be taking their stand as part of the world-wide movement for empowerment and taking responsibility for the fate of society.