Interview: Struggle Against Pension Reform in France

Black Rose / Rosa Negra (BRRN) Introduction

This interview was conducted between our sibling organizations Die Plattform (Germany) and Union Communiste Libertaire (France). It focuses on the recent large-scale strikes of French workers starting in January 2023 which were organized in opposition to a proposed ‘reform’ of the country’s pension system—effectively raising the age of retirement from 62 to 64. The situation became especially contentious as the government of Emmanuel Macron invoked article 49.3 of the French constitution, allowing it to bypass a parliamentary vote and force through the reform with little oversight.

The original version of this interview can be heard (in English) on the YouTube page of Die Plafttform.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. – BRRN

Die Plattform Introduction

Since the beginning of this year, a strong mass social movement has developed in France against the pension reform plans of the neoliberal President Macron. Millions of people took part in street mobilizations, strikes paralyzed various industries — in some cases for weeks — and there were militant clashes with police forces. 

Many leftists in Germany and beyond looked enthusiastically and enviously to France. But for some weeks now, hardly anything has been heard of the struggle against the pension reform, which was forced through parliament without a vote in mid-April. Is the movement dead? And if not, where does it stand today? To answer these questions, we conducted a lengthy interview with comrade Guillaume from France in mid-May. He is active in the CGT union and a member of our French sister organization Union Communiste Libertaire (UCL). Guillaume offers an exciting perspective from inside the movement, highlighting its strengths and weaknesses and also providing valuable insights for the class struggle in Germany and beyond.

Die Plattform (DP): Who are you and where are you politically active?

Guillaume (G): I am Guillaume and have been a member of Union Communiste Libertaire (UCL) since its creation in 2019. Before that I was a member of one of the two organizations that merged to found UCL. We are a libertarian communist organization. We come from the social anarchism current but we also would like to integrate other traditions of social movements and the workers movement. But our core ideological system is social anarchism. 

As a revolutionary militant I am also a union organizer, like most of our comrades in UCL, because we believe that the first duty of a revolutionary activist is to organize the working class and the oppressed classes generally. And also I think it’s more honest if I say precisely that being a union organizer has been my job now for the past year and a half in the sports industry.

So I’m a member and an organizer of CGT, which is the main class struggle union. For those who don’t know what the CGT is, it used to be the union affiliated with the Communist Party for decades but since the fall of the Communist Party and the so-called communist bloc, it is slightly more open and we can do activism from a libertarian perspective within CGT.

DP: Which developments of the last few years are important in understanding the current situation in France?

G: As you know, Macron was re-elected last year. He was facing the far right party Rassemblement National against him. Usually it’s much easier when a classic politician faces the far right. They usually win with a huge margin, but he actually did not. After that, we had the legislative elections and he couldn’t win a proper majority in parliament. So he is now in quite a difficult situation because he doesn’t really have the majority to rule the country. It’s politically important in France to have such a thing, we’re not used to building coalitions as it can be done in parliamentary democracies like Germany.

This led to Macron being elected with the support of the left against the far right but also being deeply unpopular for his second term. During his first five-year term he led a very pro-business government, completely destroying the labor court, passing laws against unemployed people, against immigrants, against the public welfare system and pushing neoliberal policies benefiting the rich, claiming it will trickle down to everyone. Obviously it didn’t work. So he fought really hard against social movements like the Yellow Vest movement and the environmental movement.

This created a kind of new polarization of the political scene. Before we used to know two blocs: the left wing and the right wing. I grew up in a country where we could not imagine there would be political options other than the right and left. The Communist Party was already down and we were used to either the left or the right ruling the country. When Macron arrived in power it completely transformed the situation. We now have three blocs: the nationalist bloc on the far right, the liberalist center but mainly right wing bloc, and a left that is getting closer to our ideas. I mean not really our ideas, it’s obviously a reformist left, but it’s becoming a bit more left than it used to be. So we have this new situation right now.

In 2019, the prime minister at the time, Eduard Philippe, tried to impose a new reform of the pension system and he had to face a really massive strike, especially in public transportation — in the nationwide railway company and in the Paris transportation network. But when the COVID lockdowns started, he withdrew it. He obviously pretended not to, but he withdrew it because the moment was no longer about the pension reform but about the worldwide pandemic. So when Macron got reelected he had to prove that he had the capacity to conduct economic reform. So attacking the pension system anew was a strong symbol and it really is something that everyone cares about in France. Having the age of retirement set at 60 [in the 1980s], it was really considered the main victory of social movements, of the class struggle unions. Also the pension system is part of what we call Sécurité Social (social security), which was implemented after World War II in the context of a very strong Communist influence in government, thanks to their participation in the French resistance against the Nazis.

So it also has a kind of emotional and political background for many of us. That also explains why they cannot clearly state that they are destroying this system, that they are aiming to dismantle it, so they pretend to be saving it.

DP: What was the situation like immediately before the start of the struggle against the pension reform?

G: More generally, the broader social context is rather tense. We’ve seen strong inflation and there’s been no general salary increase from the government. So there has been quite a lot of local fights in companies around the wage question. Last autumn, for instance, there were fights in the refineries to increase wages and these conflicts were partially successful and enjoyed public support. The struggles were mostly concentrated locally with the support of the union and the social organizations, but they never generalized across society.

So basically at that moment, everyone was waiting for a general social movement around this question of pension reform. Actually, the government postponed the official announcement of the reform. It was supposed to be in mid-December, but they wanted to avoid it being one of the topics of family gatherings over the winter holidays. They made the official announcement in January so we wouldn’t speak together about it.

DP: What was the extent of the movement in the first few months?

G: We had like four months of very intense social movement activity. It was mostly led by the unions. So from the first day of demonstrations, which was mid-January, to May 1st, we had 1 million to 3 million people in the streets like once a week. It’s the longest social movement we’ve had with that intensity. I think it’s also interesting that we had demonstrations and actions in small- and middle-sized towns, which is not that usual. Like for instance in my region, which is quite a small and rural region in France. Usually people of the big cities make fun of us because we are from the countryside and so on. And in my département [similar to a county in the U.S.] we had up to six demonstrations on the same day, in different cities. And the smallest city which had demonstrations was not even 10,000 people. They had quite big demos for the size of the city. So this was one of the most important points of the movement.

Aside from these demonstrations, on March 7th we had some sectors of industry begin massive, unlimited strikes. We had these strikes in the railway sector, in energy companies, in oil refineries, and also in waste collection companies — both state owned and private firms. There have been mobilizations, strikes, actions against this reform in every part of the working class. This is something we have to point out too. 

Many private companies in sectors that usually do not show any sign of mobilization when social movements happen have had strikes and actions, although it often happened only on the biggest days in the biggest demos. In that case, many people were not actually on strike but they were using their day off to come to the demos or they were working from home and using two hours to come to the demo. Some union members would attend by using their “union time,” which we as union organizers would instead advocate to use to help the comrades, workers, colleagues, rather than using it to go on demos.

But there were at least some workers in every company and every workplace who went on strike to go to the demos, even in places where we have no union presence. In some places, they really don’t know what a union is and still there were people on strike. It really has been a very long time since we’ve seen such a massive movement. For instance, many old comrades would compare it to the strikes of 1995, and some older comrades would say that it looks like May 1968. So it was and is clearly a very important movement.

DP: What position did the unions take?

G: It was quite interesting because all the unions of France are opposed to this reform. It’s been a long time since we had such unity in our camp. Even the most reformist unions, like the CFDT, were against this reform. This front of opposition was important and it’s still united. It was quite an important point because this unity is not only based on a minimal agreement between all of them, but they also managed to express support for more radical strategies like the unlimited strikes, although some unions that are part of this unity clearly have not adopted this strategy. So overall it was quite a political victory for our camp.

DP: But why has this movement not been able to prevent this pension reform?

G: We did not succeed in generalizing the strike for real. It stuck to being led by the most advanced sectors of our class. The railway, waste sectors, the energy sector, the oil industry. Some sectors that have a strong unionist tradition, for example the education sector, did not manage to start a massive unlimited strike. I think the education sector is interesting because it’s one of the most politicized sectors in France. But even though many left political activists were pushing for the generalization of the strike and to overcome the rhythm of one demo each week, they did not manage to do it.

That’s related to my next point, which is that we noticed a worrying lack of participation in general assemblies. We have several possible explanations in mind, though we cannot be completely sure, but we did not manage to bring our colleagues to the general assemblies. I believe that I’ve never seen such a strong movement in terms of the numbers of people in demos, of the support from the general population, but the fact that we did not manage to bring our coworkers into the assemblies meant that we couldn’t decide the rhythm of the mobilizations, the intensity of our movement, and we couldn’t properly self-organize the movement. So this situation gave the national union organization, what we call Intersyndicale, the power to dictate the rhythm.

DP: What role did the general assemblies play in the struggle?

G: The general assembly is what we call the gathering of our colleagues, where we decide whether to go on strike or not. We usually organize strikes in this way. Usually the unions initiate the strikes, and then when we manage to create a successful strike movement, in every workplace where there is a real strike happening, we have a council of workers who decide what time they go on strike, what action they will do in the next days, if they initiate a rotation in the strike, and things like that. So these are not formal structures, they are more spontaneous gatherings of co-workers.

These are really important also because we have a fragmented union landscape. We have like eight unions. So in the general assembly we gather workers from all of the unions so that everyone discusses things together. When we don’t have this kind of gathering, the workers cannot decide for themselves how they want to build the movement.

In France there is a leftist trend right now to complain to the leadership of the unions that the movement is not strong enough, that the leadership doesn’t escalate it. In UCL we believe that such a discourse isn’t fair. We believe that it’s a collective responsibility as a class to make the movement stronger, and that at least for this movement, the problem was not how radical the union leadership was or wasn’t, but more the lack of capacity in the working class. We have not been able to bring our colleagues into more radical methods of struggles. For example, this united coalition of unions called for stopping France on March 7th. At that moment we believed that it would be a good moment to grow into a stronger, more radical movement. But we did not manage to make the economy stop for real. We clearly managed to make a massive crack in the economy, but not enough to stop it for real.

DP: Why were you not able to expand the movement to broader parts of the class?

G: I would say the main reason is the weakness of the unions, because we’re all facing the same harsh economic conditions and yet there are parts of the class, like the garbage collectors, who make minimum wage and still manage to organize long term strikes. Beyond this first issue of the weakness of union organization and structures, the other main issue is the context of inflation and the cost of living becoming more and more expensive. This clearly made it more difficult for us to bring people out on strike to fight for a long time without getting their daily wage. But in my sector, in my industry, very often people don’t even know that they can go on strike. They believe there has to be a union in the company and they have to give a one week notice to their boss or something like that. But in France, in the private sector, it’s actually quite easy to go on strike. If you’re two people and you have a common claim, like you want to increase the wage, you can go on strike and you just give a notice to your boss when you stop working and that’s it. So it should be quite easy. But people don’t know about it.

DP: Why was it possible to expand the movement in other struggles before?

G: I would say many people now are afraid of the repression that could happen after being on strike. It was a very different cultural context before, I believe. It was easier for the left to spread ideas. Even in the intellectual and cultural spheres it was much easier, though I clearly was not there. And at that time there was a very strong Communist Party and far left tendencies were built in opposition to that. If I can make it a bit schematic, the Communist Party was quite strong in the industrial sectors and far left tendencies were strong in the youth and in the student movement. So there were these two legs of the social movement that would make it quite strong.

And back in 1995, the worker movement was already quite weak, weaker than it used to be. But still it had some places where it was strong. But the student movement was really much stronger than it is now in France. I think now the situation of the student movement is really catastrophic. And yes, there was this tradition, I think many people in 1995 knew how it was to be on strike. They would not fear it, at least in the places where the union was strong. They knew that if they wanted to win this fight, they would need to be on strike for at least one week, probably two or three weeks. And this was not such an obstacle as it is now.

Now it is really difficult to bring people to that stage of consciousness. But I would say there is too much resignation, too much fatalism and people don’t believe they can actually win.

DP: March 8th, International Women’s Day, fell right into the middle of the mobilisations. Were you able to link the strikes against the pension reform to the feminist strike?

G: We had a general strike on March 7th and as the class struggle unions, we tried to make a link to March 8th, saying general strike on the 7th, feminist strike on the 8th. It worked, but not as much as we had hoped. And unfortunately that’s the consequence of a very masculine image of the working class that has been around for decades and that was especially brought forward by the Communist Party, by Stalinism.

So the sectors where the unions are strong are mostly male-dominated sectors. And these are the sectors that started the unlimited strike. We did not manage to have a massive strike that started in feminized sectors. But March 8th was still not a failure because it was bigger than it usually is. It was the first time that the unions — at least the class struggle unions — clearly called for a feminist strike. And it happened in some regions, and in some sectors where we have influence and where the unions are quite advanced.

On these issues, we had some local successes, but it was not a complete success, to be honest. 

DP: What role did UCL as a political organization play in this movement?

G: Basically, as UCL we were mostly trying to coordinate the info we had. Like sharing the experience, trying to feel the movement the best way we can. We have people in every big city and also in very small rural areas so we could feel the differences and so on. As I said, I think it’s a very important topic of the movement. So that we could share the experience, we built collective analysis and tried to spread it as much as we could with our leaflets, with our newspapers and social networks and so on. But the main point, the main task we have as revolutionary activists, is to support the grassroots movement. So being involved in the unions and being self-organizers of the unions, trying to bring more creativity into it.

I think one of our duties, specifically as UCL, is that we can have different circles meet and communicate. For instance, we have connections in the autonomous scene and there has been strong conflict between the autonomous scene and the unions. So we had this in-between position for them to communicate. And also we tried to bring more holistic views on the pension reform analysis, like including feminist, environmentalist, decolonial, and LGBTI inclusive views, which is unfortunately not very common in the unions.

DP: How did the movement develop after the first months of mobilizations?

G: When we realized that we would not be able to bring more sectors into continuous struggle, many of us chose to reorient our efforts toward direct action, such as blocking the roads, blocking the industrial zones, and occupying official buildings and headquarters of financial companies.

The energy sector initiated electrical blackouts in some strategic places and after March 23rd when Macron used constitutional trick 49.3 to bypass the vote of the parliament, the youth entered the movement for real. Many wild demos happened day and night, especially in Paris and in the big cities. But also the repression grew much stronger. We saw it in the past years, but not as much in the first and second phase of this movement.

So anyway, this movement still has very good points. We’re seeing a strong re-politicization around the question of work and the distribution of wealth. There are many more rural places of the country that have been mobilized and that were not before.

But on the other side of the movement, the level of organization — of self-organization of the movement — was rather poor and it was quite worrying from our point of view. Seeing this weakness, a part of the movement was trying to put pressure on the politicians and parliament not to vote in the law and so on. It was in some way doing a proxy struggle by trying to influence the politicians to make them vote in our views.

DP: Where is the movement right now?

G: Now the reform has been passed. It has finished its institutional way so it should be applied in September. Though now we had a very massive May 1st which is very good according to us. But now this coalition of unions, I think, are burying the movement and they are advocating for a further day of mobilization in June. But still the anger of the people is very high and the government is completely discredited. So although we did not manage to grow strong enough to win, we still managed to take some steps forward in the level of conflict and organization of our class.

We had many, many people joining the unions during this movement. Now it’s also one of our tasks to keep them in the unions and bring them more tools and more energy to build greater power against their bosses and against the state. Now we’re in the fourth phase of the movement, I would say. The government cannot properly rule. Each time a minister or the president moves somewhere they have crowds waiting for them making a lot of noise and shouting slogans and so on. We have many small actions everywhere, like every day, it is a kind of harassment strategy.

Macron was advocating 100 days to move forward, to go to another phase, a political phase, and the movement responded with 100 days of disorder. So we will not let the phase pass peacefully. We will see what happens. I cannot pretend to know the future but for sure the anger is still very high so maybe something will happen in the coming months.

For example, in the leftist scene many were pointing at the Olympic Games as a target. The Olympic Games are going to happen in Paris next year and they had to gentrify many poor neighborhoods in Paris for it. They also implemented facial recognition with cameras. So there are many subjects around the Olympic Games that could be the base for an outburst as happened in Brazil for the World Cup in 2014. We’ll see, but that could be one of the options we have.

DP: What lessons can be learned from this movement?

G: I think one of the interesting points is that, as I said, we managed to bring more activity to the small cities, the very small cities. I hope it will renew the social movement in these cities because I think this is one of the keys for the left in general and the social movement in particular to regain our strength.

We were mostly concentrated in the big cities for too long and we were getting concentrated in the high cultural classes and so on, and this movement can be one of the strategic turns that we need to take in order to regain influence in the countryside. I believe this is a lesson not only from this movement but from what we saw in the United States with Trump’s election, and his support by the white working class of the countryside.

I would say the other point would be to try to understand better the reasons why we could not bring people into structures of self-organization such as the general assemblies of workers. I believe this is really a worrying point for us. We need such structures and, at least for now, we cannot imagine victorious struggles without such structures. So we need to understand better what happened and why we missed the mark. We believe some things were broken during the pandemic, like social relationships. That’s one of the reasons that has been used to try to explain the situation.

And I believe that the other main issue of this movement was the weakness of the unions in many sectors. So we have this long and hard work to rebuild the influence of the unions in every sector and not only focus on the male-dominated historical sectors of the working class.

DP: What is your perspective for the coming years?

G: I would say this is one of the biggest movements we’ve known. Clearly, it’s been interesting in many ways.

We do believe this movement brings to the forefront the social question. This is an important development in France, as the public debate has been dominated for years with racist polemics and stupid shit like that. So this is really good for us. But also we believe this movement brings to the forefront the weaknesses of our unions. We are facing a radicalized bourgeoisie and we cannot say that our current level of class organization and structure is sufficient for the coming tasks. When I say the coming tasks, I can say obviously there is the continuation of the class war as it has happened for the past two centuries against the bosses and against the state, but also the climate crisis, in which capitalism now is building the conditions of our extinction. 

Now that the movement is declining, I believe the real hard work for revolutionaries is beginning. We know what we need. We need stronger mass movements, stronger unions and for that we need to not fall into resignation and fatalism. We need political organizations to give balance to the movement and to move forward and keep reinforcing them, to keep building the social organizations that we need.

DP: Thank you very much for taking the time, comrade.