To: Detroit/Seattle Workers' Voice mailing list
December 24, 2019
RE:  Weeks of nation-wide strikes and demonstrations against austerity

French workers say no to pension cuts

by Pete Brown, Detroit Workers' Voice

On Tuesday, December 17th, the protest of French workers against President Emmanuel Macron’s new pension scheme was reinvigorated by another giant nationwide protest. This time the workers in the CGT trade union were joined by workers in CFDT unions who have been angered by Macron’s absolute refusal to compromise. The unions have been trying to negotiate with Macron and his administration led by Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, but Philippe recently announced that he and Macron would not back down at all. Union leaders had been hoping they could negotiate some compromise before Christmas, but now they’re forced to recognize that Macron is determined to enforce his austerity drive. Following the huge strike on the 17th, negotiations resumed, but strikes are likely to continue through the holidays, with massive disruptions to the French economy.

December 17th marked the 13th day of protest, which began with a nationwide strike on December 5th. Since then there have been ups and downs to the strike, but the 17th saw an even larger demonstration than the 5th.  Hundreds of thousands of workers marched and chanted in cities all over France. This included teachers, garbage collectors, lawyers, hospital workers, airline employees, firemen, truck drivers, train and tram drivers and conductors. Trains connecting Paris to the rest of France and other countries were shut down. Hundreds of flights were cancelled. In Paris most of the train and tram lines were not running. Staffers at the Eiffel Tower walked off the job, and the tourist site was shut down. Workers turned out in massive crowds which confronted lines of police around the presidential palace. Policemen fired tear gas at them and charged into the crowds. Targeted blackouts occurred around Lyon and Bordeaux by striking electrical workers. Access to oil refineries was shut down by blockades. Demonstrations in Paris went on into the night, when workers carried burning flares to light up their picket lines.

French workers have relatively good pension benefits compared to American workers and even compared to some other European workers. The rate of poverty for retired workers is less than in most other European countries. French workers can usually afford to retire at age 62. Workers at a number of different jobs are also able to retire early due to particularly stressful working conditions. Now President Macron is proposing to “consolidate” and “rationalize” this system by introducing a points system that will give workers a certain number of points each year depending on how many days and hours they worked. Macron argues this will make eligibility for retirement more rational and systematic, but striking workers point to the bottom line: overall, workers will have to work until age 64 instead of the present 62. This shows what Macron’s plan is really all about – jamming austerity down the throats of workers. Prime Minister Philippe argues that this is inevitable, that this rollback of benefits is the trend throughout Europe; but French workers are determined to put a stop to it. They know that it’s possible: in 1995 a three-week strike forced the government to back down on proposed pension “reforms”, and workers are determined to force Macron to back down also.

Other struggles

Throughout the last year France has been roiled by protests. The Yellow Vest movement began last year protesting Macron’s rise in diesel fuel taxes. Eventually Macron was forced to back down, but in the meantime Yellow Vests broadened the issues they dealt with, and their protests continued. On Saturday, December 14th, Yellow Vests demonstrated in many cities celebrating their one-year anniversary. Scores were arrested in Paris. Thousands marched in the southern city of Montpelier, where protesters threw firebombs at police who were tear-gassing them. There were also clashes in Rouen and other cities. Yellow Vests continued their call for Macron to resign, saying nothing radical can change as long as this ex-investment banker is in office.

Environmentalists have also been active. A huge, peaceful climate march took place in September at the same time as the Yellow Vests were demonstrating; police moved in, arrested scores and dispersed the march. On Black Friday (the end of November) various shipping centers for Amazon Inc. were blocked by protesters who denounced working conditions inside the plants and said Amazon was responsible for environmental damage. That same week farmers protested their declining incomes by rolling into Paris with 1,000 tractors and driving around the center of the city demanding that Macron meet with them.

The struggle continues

Macron issued a final desperate plea the beginning of Christmas week, calling on workers to allow transportation to run more freely during the holidays. Macron also declared he would voluntarily give up his own generous government pension. But the workers, especially those operating the rail systems, refused. Despite Macron’s “socialist” background (Macron had been in the Socialist Party and broke with it in 2016 and founded his own party, En Marche), workers recognize him as a multimillionaire former investment banker for Rothschild & Co. And they see through his “reforms” as attacks on the living standards of ordinary workers. Polls show popular support for the strike has actually increased even though people are having difficulty traveling for the holidays.

Workers need to defeat Macron’s challenge by maintaining class unity. They need to be vigilant with respect to the traditional unions, who have been leading this struggle, but have a history of caving after a period of time. The European bourgeoisie is blissfully continuing their policy of insisting on higher profits all the time at the expense of their workers. Macron is following the capitalist playbook of forcing workers to accept working harder, longer, at lower pay. But French workers are drawing a line in the sand and saying No! Not here! By struggling against capitalist austerity, French workers are a model for workers in other countries. []

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Posted December 27, 2019