Workers’ Liberty supporters and friends recently spent a number of days in France to learn from, and take part in, the movement in opposition to President Macron’s reforms.
We spoke to French socialists, trade unionists and student activists. During our stay we visited occupied universities, attended workplace and student general assemblies, and took part in a number of smaller and large demonstrations.
The background to the current unrest is the push by President Macron to reform the university application system; open the way to privatising the SNCF, French state railway company; and make massive cuts to the French welfare state. At the same time, Macron sent armed police to violently crush the occupiers of a proposed site for an airport (the “Zadistes”).
Workers’ Liberty supporters also visited France during the last wave of struggles against the El-Khomri labour law, which was pushed through by the Hollande government. That movement was defeated and the trade union leaderships haven’t learned the lessons of that dispute. But this time, many of the activists we spoke to observed that the movement is growing and reckoned that Macron can be beaten.
A vital question is the political alternative to Macron, and the division of the left.
The trade union movement has been in slow retreat in France since the 1995 wave of strikes which defeated the Juppé plan, a series of neoliberal reforms which tore up pensions, particularly on the railways. In the 1990s there was a rightward turn in the CFDT union, which now has a “social partnership” policy. The CFDT has not been involved in the latest round strikes.
The largest union federation, the CGT, and others like SUD, FO and smaller federations have been the main drivers.
On the political terrain, the hard left is influential within sections of the strike and student movement. The two largest organisations, the NPA and Lutte Ouvrière, are prominent but only number a few thousand each. The Front de Gauche – a lash up of ex-Socialist Party minister Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the Communist Party, and others – has broken down. The Socialist Party is in total disarray, with its Presidential candidate Benoit Hamon (the incumbent Socialist President, Hollande, did not even seek his party’s nomination) breaking away with most of the party’s youth to form Génération.s.
Within the trade unions the PCF still holds a number of positions in the CGT bureaucracy, while the NPA and LO mostly have people active at a workplace level as the equivalent of shop stewards.
France Insoumise, the party founded and led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, is a populist electoral campaign, divorced from and in competition with the labour movement. It has a nationalist policy about putting France first. It talks about the people rather than the workers and at its rallies the Tricolour is flown and the Marseillaise is sung, as a conscious move to dispense with the red flag and the Internationale. Mélenchon has spoken in support of Putin and he is recycling the Gaullist tradition of setting up France as a pole of opposition to the USA.
France Insoumise doesn’t function like a normal political party: there are no branch structures, none of the norms of labour movement democracy. Its strategy is to subordinate the labour movement to its electoral project, and the way it has related to this strike movement illustrates that.
One of Mélenchon’s lieutenants, film-maker and journalist François Ruffin, has put out a call for a big demonstration on 5 May. It is billed as a family fun day, specifically called on a Saturday so as to divorce it from the strikes.
Unlike in Britain where strikes are normally accompanied by pickets and maybe a small rally, French workers combine strike days with large demonstrations like the one called on 19 April in Paris. This huge demonstration, coordinated by the CGT the largest union federation brought together workers and activists in cities across France from many sectors of the economy.
There is a need to develop a governmental alternative to Macron. In the absence of a strong political wing of the labour movement, perspectives for getting rid of the Macron government are weaker. The ability to pose a political alternative is as urgent a condition for toppling a government as a powerful industrial movement. But that political alternative must be on the basis of socialist, democratic, working-class politics.
Our delegation visited mass meetings in the railway stations of Austerlitz, Paris Est, and Paris Nord, where about a hundred workers at each, from all grades and all unions, were debating how to carry forward the fight against Macron.
The debates were interesting and wide-ranging, from windy speeches about austerity to detailed discussions of how to maximise engagement in the strike, and the strike’s impact, to serious political arguments about how to confront the government and what to demand.
A big controversy was the question of when to strike. The CGT’s strategy for the dispute is to strike two days in every five for a period of several weeks. The more radical but smaller union confederation SUD is arguing for “reconducting” the strike – going for an all-out strike, renewed by show of hands voting every morning. Supporters of this position say that the whole movement needs a shot in the arm from an escalation on the part of the transport workers, and they enjoyed widespread support from many supporters of both SUD and CGT at the stations we visited. Supporters of sticking to the CGT calendar argue that all-out strikes threaten to exhaust workers too soon.
These general assemblies form a model for how the trade union movement in the UK ought to conduct itself: all-grade, all-union workplace meetings, instead of dictats from on high. Of course, anti-trade union laws in the UK prevent a show of hands at a democratic mass meeting from being accepted as a legal strike vote. But the practice of General Assemblies in France is a backbone of the strike, allowing workers to build their political confidence by sharing ideas, discussing the mood of their colleagues, and planning a variety of actions, from brief workplace occupations to mass workplace tours, or visits to other local workplaces.
The General Assemblies help build solidarity in the local community. At Gare d’Austerlitz, the railworkers were also addressed briefly by students from the occupied Tolbiac campus down the road, and a CGT officer who gave a report on solidarity work with staff at a local hospital.
On 23 April, a strike day, around a hundred railway workers from different trade unions occupied the offices of the SNCF freight organisation in the rue de Villeneuve in Clichy, in the Parisian region.
The workers were protesting against the proposal to break up the SNCF railway company and place freight (as well as other rail services and networks) into separate subsidiary companies – a move which workers believe will open the way to a UK-style shattering of the service into many different companies, with different terms and conditions for their workers. The workers made clear that their unity in action today will defend the unity of their terms, conditions and collective agreements tomorrow.
The striking workers entered the building and draped it in their union banners. 200 members of management had to leave the building and break off work for most of the day.
One of the biggest sectors of the movement is university students. Currently, anyone who holds a Baccalaureat qualification in France can go to the university of their choice, places permitting.
Macron is proposing a reform which would introduce a selection system to university applications based on grades. But students point out that this is the road to a UK-style model of elite institutions for the rich and bargain-basement colleges for working-class students. Initially the fight against the reforms was slower to build then previous, struggles, but, following an attack by a fascist gang on the occupation at Montpellier law school, probably arranged by the right-wing dean of the school, there were huge general assemblies were called in Marseille, Toulouse, Rennes and then in various universities across Paris.
Over half of French universities are now involved in the fight.
These assemblies, like those in the workplaces, allow anyone to speak, to put forward a proposal and have it voted on. National student co-ordinations are held on a weekly basis with delegates coming from the various campuses to discus how to build a more effective and stronger movement.
Since 1968 universities in Paris have remained almost entirely free of the police. After the demonstrations against the labour law and the huge police repression, police have managed to make their way back onto the campuses. One of the features of this movement has been the brutality by which the CRS and BAC (riot police) have broken up demonstrations (using water cannon and “flashball” bean-bag guns) and violently broken up the occupation of Tolbiac campus of Paris-1 University.
Tolbiac, which had been occupied since 26 March, and which was a centre of activity, organising and socialising during the movement, was violently cleared out by riot police on 20 April.
Over 100 people were in the occupation when the police forced their way in and forced all of the occupiers out, chasing some occupiers over a ledge. Word spread that one of the occupiers had been hospitalised and was in a coma. A demonstration the next day culminated in another General Assembly at Censier, Paris-3, which called for a protest on 21 April at a local hospital demanding to know if any student or occupier had been seriously injured and ended up at the hospital. Samya Mokhtar, General Secretary of UNEF (one of the French student unions) in Paris-1 told Le Monde that, “one person was directly present at the scene, which happened when the CRS intervened. A young man wanted to jump from a low wall to outside auditoriums and, according to the direct witness, he was destabilised by a policeman. He fell head first on the floor. There was a lot of blood”.
Paris police denied that anyone required hospital treatment. A demonstration of around 100 people on Saturday 21st demanded the truth from the hospital and the police.
Railworkers speak out - a speech from the Gare du Nord General Assembly 19 April
“The railworkers won’t give up! We have a duty to get active, to go and bring out other rail workers, because they’re destroying our terms and conditions, destroying the SNCF, they’re beating up on us, and so we all need to come out together.
“I hope that tomorrow, we will break this reform. No-one will ever break up the unity of the railworkers. We can’t accept that tomorrow, there will be employees of the freight, employees of [this rail network, of that rail network]. We can never, will never, accept this social regression and this destruction of a public service, or the destruction of the Gare du Nord, because they’ll come [to privatise] this station, and all the railworkers who work here [loud booing and whistling, cries of “Awoo!”].
“We’ve come to a bone-breaking moment in this mobilisation. And that’s normal, because we want to win! Because no matter what union badge you wear, no matter if you’re union or non-union, we’ve all got just one thing on our mind and that’s the win! It’s winning – it’s stopping Macron, it’s stopping the rail reform – and no matter whatever else you might be, what we all want is that: wiping the smile off Macron’s face, because he’s taking the piss out of all of us. We have to give battle now. We can’t roll over. And he wants a battle too, because he wants people to call him the French Thatcher!
“He wants a place in history as the man who terrorised the railworkers. But are the railworkers scared of Macron? [crowd roars: no! Applause, whistles, cries of “Awoo!”]