Yesterday’s mass demonstration in France brought the struggle against Macron to new heights. For the past two months, the movement (triggered by a new attack on pensions) has been intensifying. Government officials were hoping that everything would be back to normal by the weekend, counting on the movement to fade away after Thursday’s demonstration. They were wrong. Yesterday, 3.5 million workers and youth flooded the streets of most cities in France, as the strikes and protests took on a decidedly more militant mood.
Some, including Jean-Luc Mélenchon of France Insoumise, described 23 March as the largest social mobilisation since May ‘68. In Paris, 800,000 people demonstrated. Record numbers, again, came to the streets of Marseille (280,000), Toulouse (150,000), Bordeaux (110,000), Nantes (80,000), Lyon (55,000), and Grenoble (55,000). In small towns and cities, the movement has continued to gain momentum, with 5,000 people coming out in Draguignan, 6,000 in Moulins and Arles, 8,000 in Castres, 9,000 in Montluçon,15,000 in Périgueux, and 17,000 in Brive. In Guéret (Creuse), 6,700 people marched, a record for a town of barely 13,000 inhabitants.
In fact, the country is in such ferment that a scheduled visit by King Charles III of Britain had to be postponed, with officials citing security concerns about the level of “violence” on the streets. Perhaps Charles has learned from history that the enraged French masses do not take kindly to the presence of monarchs!
Despite limited media coverage beyond France’s borders about the struggle, the battle against Macron is having some effect internationally. The British Conservative government has allegedly scrapped a planned pension reform. According to the Financial Times: “They were gung-ho to raise the pension age. But they got cold feet.” This morning “Fight like the French” was trending on twitter in the UK, showing that the British working class is looking to the defiance of the French workers and youth as an example for struggles to come.
Last week, Macron’s government resorted to the infamous article 49.3 of the French Constitution, allowing him to bypass parliament to enact his pension reform, which is opposed by the vast majority of the population. This triggered an unprecedented level of anger across the country, leading to spontaneous nighttime protests every evening since. A recent poll found that 82 percent of French people held a negative view regarding the use of the 49.3 article, and 65 percent wished for the demonstrations to persist, even if the law was passed.
France is on the March after Macron’s scandalous imposition of pension ‘reforms’, which have been rejected by 80%+ of French society. Below is from Marseilles. #greve23mars #manif23mars 🧵pic.twitter.com/dg0jqlPQga— Joseph Attard (@josephattard02) March 23, 2023
In an attempt to intimidate the protestors, police violence on the streets has brutally escalated, and street demonstrations have been outlawed in key cities. More than 800 people were arrested in the past week, most of whom were detained in a totally arbitrary fashion – even tourists in Paris ended up in police custody. Instead of demoralising the protestors, this provoked even more anger.
Yesterday’s nationwide demonstration was not just impressive in its numbers, but also saw a qualitative advance in radicalisation. “Water boils at 100 degrees, the people [boil] at 49.3”, read one placard. The play on words: “You put us to 64, we [put] you in May 68”, was carried as a slogan by many workers and youth. The masses are more determined than ever to fight against this rotten regime – to the finish. “We‘ll keep going until the government gives in,” said a metal worker from Dunkirk. The streets were chanting: “Fuck Macron!”, whose approval rating has declined to 28 percent, as low as during the height of the gilets jaunes movement.
Aside from the street demonstrations, the strikes also intensified on Thursday. Access to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris was restricted by picketing workers. Only 50 percent of the country's high-speed trains were running. Dockers closed down the port of Le Havre. 11 percent of health workers, a record number, came out on strike. 27 percent of workers in the energy sector were striking. Famous monuments, such as the Eiffel Tower and the Versailles palace were closed. Air traffic controllers, haulage drivers, and many more were also on strike yesterday.
Bin collectors have been on an unlimited strike since 7 March. Nationally, about 12 percent of stations in France have run out of petrol or diesel, and 6 percent have run dry. This is due to the rolling strikes also occurring in refineries and oil depots since the beginning of the month. In an attempt to break the strikes, the government is resorting to requisitions (a back-to-work order from the state, where workers can be fined €10,000 or face six months in prison for non compliance). But the workers have pushed back.
1/ "Ça va péter" - "Macron’s not listening, if it takes all hell to break lose, it will have to break lose" that's the mood in France. A few observations on the huge strike in France yesterday https://t.co/PWKfeKXeBi pic.twitter.com/16h0Zup5Ru— Jorge Martin ☭ (@marxistJorge) March 24, 2023
Garbage has been piling in the streets of the capital for weeks, and the government demanded the local authorities force refuse collectors back to work. But attempts at requisitioning have been resisted through class struggle methods: with mass picketing, and solidarity action by other sections of the workforce.
On Tuesday, officials sent the CRS, the riot police, to requisition workers in the oil depot of Fos-sur-Mer. Despite the use of tear gas and physical intimidation, they were met with resistance from the union workers, who managed to push back the police temporarily. They were assisted by striking electricity and gas workers, who parked their vans outside the depot to create a blockade. Olivier Mateu, CGT union leader of the Bouches-du-Rhone department (and a key figure on the left of the union confederation), intervened on-site declaring:
“We will not let them break this strike, we will not let them impose this reform on us by force and violence. They will get the response of the workers of this country who are determined to go to the very end to take back what is ours.”
The Normandy refinery in Gonfreville, near Le Havre, has become the site of a back and forth struggle between workers and the police. This is a critical site that provides fuel to the main airports in the capital, making it a priority target for the government. Despite state forces temporarily managing to break the strike, using brutal repression, the CGT workers announced today that they have resumed their picket. Their statement defiantly concludes:
“Let’s intensify the mobilisation!... Let’s start renewable strikes to bring the economy to its knees and impose [the workers’] model of society, free of exploitation of man by man. Bullying ain’t working no more… the people are here, and we will give up nothing!”
This morning, Mateu tweeted: “We'll win, we'll stop when the workers decide, and for now they want to win. So there is only one solution, strike action.” This radical, class-conscious language and fighting spirit is finding an echo in larger layers of the working class. Within the unions, this can be seen through the left-wing Unité CGT faction, which is becoming more vocal and prominent.
Repression and resistance
In general, the mood and methods on the demonstrations and pickets are becoming more defiant and radicalised than the ‘days of action’ in the past, which have often felt more like rallies than national strikes. People are using their ingenuity to resist attempts to crush the movement. For instance, in Le Havre, workers were using forklifts to pile up burning vehicles to create barricades against the police.
There have also been increasing instances of coordinated action. For instance, in Lorient, CGT-organised dockers coordinated with energy workers, cutting power to the dock, and preventing a tanker from Rave delivering 30,000 tons of fuel, intended to break strikes in the oil, petrochemical and transport sectors.
Much has been made in the bourgeois press about the “violent” methods of the strikers, with wall-to-wall coverage of burning cars and buildings (including the town hall in Bordeaux); smashed shop windows; and crowds hurling projectiles at the police. Macron has also condemned “mob violence”, while Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin spoke of “thugs, often from the far-left, who want to bring down the state and kill police officers."
We can only scoff at such cynical hypocrisy from these ladies and gentlemen, who continually send the police and gendarmes to brutalise striking workers and protesting youths. How many gilets jaunes protesters lost fingers and eyeballs to ‘riot control’ weapons? And today, social media abounds with images of armoured policemen viciously beating demonstrators, including teenagers. One viral video shows a journalist having a gun pointed in his face by an armed policeman, and forced to retreat despite continually shouting “Press! Press!”
In the eyes of millions of French people, the brutal repression of the French state, coupled with Macron’s disregard for even the pretence of democracy, makes more militant methods against the pension attack entirely justified. Not to mention the fact that the gilets jaunes were able to win some concessions precisely with such methods, beating back the fuel tax hike that served to spark that movement. In other words, more and more people are prepared to defy the ‘rule of law’, posing a direct challenge to the very legitimacy of the state. The police are also struggling to contain the growing movement with repression alone, and have even been overwhelmed in some instances.
Moreover, the masses are clearly targeting, not only the pension reform, but Macron’s hated government of the rich as a whole. One demonstrator was interviewed saying: “We’ve been going to protests since January and originally it was against the pensions reform. Now it’s transformed into anger about our democracy.” This is an extremely dangerous situation for the regime. Even if they back down, it is not guaranteed that this will stop the protests. The people want Macron out.
The growing radicalisation on the streets sharply contrasts with the national leadership of the unions. Instead of building on this rising discontent of the youth and workers, the “intersyndicale” is confining the struggle to opposing the pension reform. While refusing to push the movement forward by calling for unlimited strikes, they announced, yet again, a tenth “day of action” on the 28 March.
However, the union leaders are less confident that they will be able to prevent the movement from bursting its banks. Laurent Berger, head of the more-conservative CFDT union confederation, warned that the government risked provoking a movement like the gilets jaunes. Fabrice Coudour from the CGT said that "there may be tougher action ahead, more serious and further-reaching [that could] escape our collective decision making.”
The union leaders, who had grown accustomed to keeping the anger of the working class within safe channels, using controlled ‘days of action’ as leverage for backroom discussions with the government, are warning Macron that his intransigence will put an end to this ‘social partnership’.
Panic at the top
The government, desperately hoping to see the movement ebb, is starting to panic. Signs of profound divisions are beginning to surface within the ruling class.
The right-wing Republican party, on which Macron relies, is starting to implode. Within the party, discussions emerged on whether to exclude the 19 party members who voted for the motion of no-confidence on Monday, which was rejected by parliament on Monday by a slim nine-vote margin. Even MPs from Macron’s own group in the Assembly (Renaissance) voiced disquiet, with one anonymously telling Le Parisien: "We were sitting on a powder keg and we've just lit the fuse.”
Many bourgeois representatives in the press and TV are starting to turn against the government, calling for negotiations with the unions, and for solutions to appease the movement. Geoffroy Roux de Bezieux, president of MEDEF, the French bosses’ organisation, has called on Macron to open dialogue, and said that future reforms must be “based on a different method.”
But far from any hint of reconciliation, Macron’s public statements have only added fuel to the fire. He has repeatedly insisted on pushing through his attack on pensions, no matter the cost, and that he “regret[s] nothing”. On Wednesday, during his first interview on national TV since the beginning of the movement, he compared the movement against his pension ‘reforms’ to the storming of the Capitol in 2021 by reactionary Trump supporters in the USA.
This disdain for the French masses has only intensified the struggle. In reality, Macron is in an extremely weak position, and his government faces an impasse. On the one hand, he has led for two months an uncompromising struggle against the unions, refusing to negotiate and concede. To back down now would be a victory for the movement, and would increase the masses' confidence in fighting against further attacks, which are necessitated by crisis-ridden French capitalism. “The financial and economic risks [of surrender] are too great,” he told ministers last Thursday.
On the other hand, Macron’s scornful attitude and handling of the government is exposing the undemocratic nature of the regime, stirring anger against the system as a whole. On top of that, he is risking a full-blown constitutional crisis, having narrowly avoided a no-confidence vote. He will find it difficult to continue passing policy. In reality, the government has limited cards to play, and every move will be wrong. It cannot afford to retreat, nor can it afford to advance.
As the Financial Times puts it, “Much will depend on factors outside of Macron’s control, such as whether protests and strikes that have been bubbling since January intensify.” This is the key point. Macron can survive any street protest: no matter how large and radical. The unions hold a colossal power, because on their command they could bring the economy and French society grinding to a halt. Macron would not be able to endure such a weapon for long once deployed. The question is: will the unions use it?
The youth joins in
Until now, the student and youth movement was kept on the sidelines. This is logical: the question of pensions is a very distant prospect for the youth. At the beginning, there were fewer and smaller general assemblies at universities and colleges than in past movements. But this has now begun to change, as the movement develops a more general character of opposition to Macron.
As long as the union leadership was sticking to the old bankrupt methods, focusing on the pension reform in isolation, and the youth were not in the fray, the establishment was relatively safe. On Monday, a bourgeois commentator declared on TV that “when the youth are in the streets, the regime can no longer prevail”.
Far from being disinterested, the French youth have been observing the latest events with great interest. Indeed, before the no-confidence vote, tens of thousands of youngsters were following the Twitch live stream of the parliament channel, which topped the platforms charts nationally. The by-passing of parliament, the failure of the motion of no-confidence, Macron’s provocations, and the rising police violence on the streets finally spurred the youth into action.
Young people were out in force on Thursday, and huge general assemblies have sprung up in many places. School students mobilised in more than 400 high-schools. University occupations started in 80 universities across the country, including in the traditionally right-wing Paris-Panthéon Assas university, which was blocked for the first time in its history. According to the student unions, 500,000 young students and workers demonstrated nationally yesterday. A large banner emblazoned with “Sorbonne University in Struggle” was carried prominently at the main demonstration in Paris.
Even prior, we were beginning to see attempts at joint action between students and workers. In Paris, for example, a student general assembly called for a march linking a striking oil refinery to a striking garbage disposal plant. This is an important feature of the situation. The last victorious strike movement, in 2006 against the Chirac government’s attempted attack on labour rights with the reactionary ‘first employment contract’ (CPE), was decided by exactly this sort of joint action between students and workers. If embryonic attempts by students to consciously link themselves with the strikes develop further, the tide could rapidly turn against the regime.
However, one thing is clear: the days of action cannot last forever. At some point, they will have a demobilising effect, leading the movement to fade. There is a crucial need to extend the rolling strikes to all sectors already in struggle, and to reach new layers by advancing broader, and more radical demands.
The left-wing leaders of Unité CGT have correctly understood this and are showing the way forward through unlimited strike action in key sectors of the economy. However, these sectors are still in a minority, and are at risk of isolation. As the Financial Times correctly observes: “only the street can stop [the president] — by stopping the country through protests and strikes. Street and president rarely seek compromise. One wins, one loses.”
In other words, the movement can only prevail by leading a determined struggle against the regime as a whole. It is evident from the most recent statement by Unité CGT (published in full below) that the most advanced layers of the working class are starting to draw the right conclusions. They must be the spearhead of a struggle to finally deliver the coup de grâce to Macron!
23 MARCH: THE PEOPLE RESPOND TO MACRON: ANGER GOES UP SEVERAL NOTCHES
Less than 24 hours after Macron's "go home, go to work", the people have responded, with strikes and in the streets. They have said: "his reform, he's going to eat it", and we'll take it all back!
The demonstrations are starting again in the whole country, from the "small towns" to the big cities, from Ancenis to Toulouse, passing by Paris, Calais, Le Havre, Rouen, Valence, Lyon, Marseille, Arles, Saint-Etienne, Rennes, Valence, Nantes, Saint Nazaire, Narbonne, Montauban...
Several million French people responded by striking and taking to the streets against the contempt of the Republic.
Lyon 🧵pic.twitter.com/FSmrG5WkId— Joseph Attard (@josephattard02) March 23, 2023
The ‘dead cities’ operations are multiplying. Significantly, everywhere, a form of enthusiastic spontaneity emerged. Here they invaded a certain area, there they occupied the ring road.
There is no turning back and creativity is developing. And here, we are not talking about rubbish fires in Paris but about a wave of anger that is released in the face of injustice. In short, "we're taking it all back" in action.
Moreover, the police forces are in fact themselves over-stretched: facing them, the demonstrators are everywhere in France, from the smallest village to the Paris region. How long will they last? They are already starting to crack. Is Macron waiting for a death among the demonstrators? Our actions are legitimate, and we are reclaiming our country.
The confrontations at Fos-sur-Mer, and the remote confrontations for the last two days on the site of the oil depot, testify to what a militant CGT can and must do: shift the balance of power to the necessary level, in particular to prevent the breaking of the right to strike, and to prevent the requisitions.
A new rally was organised with hundreds of CGT trade unionists in front of an Orwellian police force, while on the other side of France, the workers of the Normandy refinery, together with the CGT, called for daily rallies in front of the refinery last night, today and tomorrow.
The day of 23 March marks a rise in the balance of power and a hardening of the actions. In Le Havre, Calais, Rennes, Paris, Brest, Rouen, Saint Nazaire etc... everywhere the people want the end of the regime.
This new day of national strike shows the extent of the determination. Let's go beyond the strategy of the intersyndicale: it is now necessary to engage everywhere in renewable strikes in all sectors, even with different modalities, in order to achieve victory.
LET'S CONTINUE THE STRUGGLE
LET'S BRING THE COUNTRY TO A STANDSTILL UNTIL WE WIN!
WE WILL WIN!