Beyond Pension Reforms: Interview on the General Strike in France

As French workers launched a general strike shutting down major cities with massive demonstrations we present this interview on the current situation with a member of the Unión Comuniste Libertaire (UCL) or Libertarian Communist Union in France. The group was founded in mid-2019 through the merger of platformist groups Alternative Libertaire and Coordination des Groupes Anarchistes. This interview has been edited for clarity.

BRRN: When did this general strike begin and what caused it?

UCL: In mid-September, the metro workers in Paris launched a powerful 24 hour strike. It gave courage to a big part of the working class and as they decided to start an unlimited strike from the 5th of December with other sectors, such as rail workers, started to call for a strike on that date. In the end, all the unions except the reformist central union of CFDT, who is in favor of the government, were calling for a strike on the 5th of December and it was already explicit that some sectors wouldn’t come back to work after that.

The main issue the unions are opposing is the pension reform. From the end of WWII, the pension system is based on trans-generational solidarity and specific systems from some sectors. This solidarity system is not perfect but it is the consequence of major worker struggles and sacrifices during and after the war. Similar proposals have already been attacked harshly by diverse governments, like in 2003 or 2010. And there was big struggles during these times too. But now French President Emmanuel Macron and the bosses behind him are willing to implement a complete system change. The aim is to erase all the gains won by diverse sectors of the working class and to lower pensions across the board. But of course the distrust goes beyond the pension reform: it is now clear that Macron is ruling for the bosses and the rich, particularly after one year of the Yellow Vests uprising and some other reforms implemented such as the unemployment reform.

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BRRN: How are these proposed changes to the pension system related to other reforms which have been initiated or proposed by Macron’s government?

UCL: Macron is a newbie in politics. Although he was formed the same way as other politicians – in “Grandes Ecoles” such as E.N.A (Administration “Normal” College) – he claims not to bother with old recipes. By that, he does not mean he is some kind of new-way socialist. What he means by this is actually that no matter what is the status quo, or what are the historical compromises that were reached between workers/bosses and workers/the State, he will implement his vision of an idealistic neoliberalism where start-up entrepreneurs are the new leaders and solidarity is only an empty word.

In that way, he found strategic allies in the union of bosses and in the upper management class. In general, he has given back tips to the rich since the very moment he entered into power, by suppressing taxes on wealth, by liberalizing key sectors (he liberalized the human transportation system as he was Ministry of Economics), by suppressing rights for the exiled and the unemployed and so on. But a coin has two sides and this cannot work without the increase of repression for the poor when they stand up. In one year of the Yellow Vests, there has been about 11 000 people in custody due to their participation in this social movement, thousands were injured and/or condemned. A journalist who has a clear focus on police work during the last year says that the police made as many wounded (one-eye blind and maimed people) as it did in the last 20 years of social movements – including huge social movements and unrests such as the banlieues uprising in 2005 [uprising of largely North African youth in the suburbs of Paris around unemployment and racism] and the CPE reform in 2006 [attempt to introduce a youth employment bill that would create lower wages and less protections].

But one must be clear that Macron is not the problem itself. He is the new face that allows free-marketeers to speed up the implementation of their politics and this is only one step further in the same direction of previous governments, from both right and left wings.

BRRN: What sectors are most engaged in the strike activity?

UCL: Clearly, the metro workers in Paris and the rail workers are the most engaged in the strike. The rail sector has been a very strong bastion of the working class in France for decades now and it is directly concerned by the reform as they have a specific pension regime to defend.

The electricity sector is quite active as well for the same reasons by cutting power to the police stations and official institutions.

But there are also other sectors that were engaged in the struggle before. The health sector has been struggling for the last six months, especially in the emergency services in State hospitals. Fire fighter as well had a big national strike in November and they were repressed in Paris by riot police as they were demonstrating, which was a big scandal because they are very popular and cannot be accused of being looters and thugs. The workers of state radio group started a strike in the end of November for local employment and management issues. It was very strong on the first days, then decreased, and now it has been reinforced from the 5th of December.

There are also significant strikes in the urban transportation of different cities and in the education sector.

BRRN: Have social movements, such as gilets jaunes [yellow vest movement], been engaged in supporting strike actions?

UCL: There was a lot of different blocks and collectives in the demos of the 5th of December. We’ve seen antiracist and migrant blocks (with or without union affiliation), feminist blocks, climate blocks, a block in support of an “international uprising” in Paris with comrades from all over the world. I think we can say that on the 5th of December, everyone who is involved in a social movement was in the streets.

The Yellow Vests movement in itself is not strong as it was last year. One year of repression, political clarification and interpersonal conflicts happened since then. But those who remain active certainly are very engaged in the struggle, by blocking the roads, the depots of urban transportation and the entrance of big factories, by animating yellow blocks in the demos and so on. The situation is very different from one city to another but in general people know each other better so a relative dialogue can occur between traditional structures of the working class and the Yellow Vests movement, although criticisms against the apathy of the unions is still an important theme in the Yellow Vests discourses. 

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BRRN: In what ways have UCL militants been engaged in strike activity?

UCL: An important part of UCL militants are workers and union activists in the top sectors of the struggle, such as the rail and the education sector. So the first action we have is to inform our colleagues, to animate the strike and to ensure as much as possible the self-organization of the strike by the workers. We argue that the only way we can win the struggle is with self-organization as it allows creativity and appropriation of their own strike by the workers. And that we must not go back to work before they withdraw.

Some of us are also active in Yellow Vests’ collectives and assemblies and try to create bridges with other parts of the working class. We also try to appear as libertarian socialists in demonstrations, distributing leaflets and stickers, selling our newspaper and sharing and defending our revolutionary analysis.We also take parts in different actions to expand the strike and to make it more efficient, such as with blockades, support parties and so on.

BRRN: Please describe the local situation in your region and what you have witnessed.

UCL: My city is middle-size for the French context – i.e. about 200 000 people – and with quite a popular and working-class environment. However, it is generally not one of the most famous towns for demos and political activity and some leftists can even joke about how my city is boring.

On Thursday, 5th of December though, we had a historical number of people in the demo. The unions announced about 18,000 people. At one point, I was waiting for the Solidaires block [an alternative union, in which many UCL militants are involved] as I thought it was the end of the demo. It happened to be only the middle of it. And they were not like a dozen as usual but several hundred!

First things first, we woke up very early to go with another comrade to support a Yellow Vests action in front of the depot of the urban transportation company. Then we moved with about 60 people to block the entrance of the Renault factory (one of the main factory of the city) with pallets, wood and trash containers. The CGT [the dominant and largest union in France] of the site joined us there. On the way, we met with a group of workers who were on strike for local issues and we initiated the contact with the union as they depend on the same sector. They were feeding the fire of their picket line with Renault bumpers they had in their company’s storage!

Then I had to walk to the general assembly of the education sector. They were having a small gathering before so they arrived with about 300 people as a demo, it was very powerful. We took the sports hall as it was the only place near the starting point of the demo that could gather so many people. Over 110 primary schools are completely closed for the day, which was never seen before as far as I know. We discussed quite seriously the possibility of renewing the strike and many people we did not know from before actually engaged in the struggle for the days after at that moment. In my city, unlike others, the majority of the education sector did not choose to renew the strike the day after but people stay in the movement. Again Tuesday, we were 250 strong in general assembly and this time we were more people willing to engage in a renewable [ongoing] strike.

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In the rail sector, the strike was and is still very strong and they did not even question going on strike for the days after. They voted as one.

Then I went to a local meeting point we proposed as local CGT militants for the first time in the industrial zone where I work. I remember we were afraid that no-one would come but in the end, we were three times more than what we expected at first when we left and we arrived even more as people were joining us on the way.

The days after, we had demos on both Friday and Saturday, what usually never happen in my city. They were small demos, mostly activists, yellow vests and workers of the rail (and the education) sector(s) but still it was a good sign. At that time, they arrested And we had another big strike day that wasn’t prepared on Tuesday. No-one knew what we should expect as we had prepared the 5th of December for a month and a half and Tuesday was not in minds so we were not sure that a lot of people would show up. At the end, we had about 8,000 people which is very good and still unusual for the size of my city. Next demo is tomorrow and the biggest one is planned on the 17th so we could have time to prepare it. The stake now for us is to bring the education sector to a real renewable strike that could last until Christmas’ holidays, which could be a very good sign for the rest of the society. In the meanwhile, rail workers are holding on although December is the worst month to go on strike with festivities and all. But a significant part of the population is willing to fight.

Macron’s Prime Minister Edouard Phillipe had a speech today [December 11] and he managed to get on the wrong side of the only pseudo-union that was supporting the reform and they will probably call for a strike as well in the coming days. We do not trust them at all but they represent the liberal-friendly upper working-class and it can polarize even more the whole society against the reform and the government. 

BRRN: Do you have any message for militants inside of the U.S. who are watching what is happening in France?

UCL: Even though we don’t have much time to focus on international work these days, I can easily guess that Trump is happy about his rival Macron being given a prod. But let’s be clear: we would do way worse with him in power because he is even more arrogant than Macron – and that’s some feat!

More seriously, France has many economic interests in the US. It represented $32.6 billion Euros [about $40 billion US dollars] that France exported in 2016 to the US.

The best piece of advice I could give you is to win your own struggles first, reinforce your organizations and counter-powers so one day we can overthrow this capitalist system and the State. I know the situation these days isn’t the best to be optimistic in the US but as a great ancestor of us said one day in your part of the globe : Don’t mourn! Organize!

Follow the Unión Comuniste Libertaire on their website, Facebook, Instagram, or on Twitter at @UnionCoLib.

For more reading on France’s revolutionary history we recommend, Oral History From the Barricades: Review of May Made Me on 1968 France and for analysis of contemporary popular rebellions we recommend, Statement: One Month Since the Popular Revolt in Chile.