Class struggle breaks out in the streets of France

By G. Dunkel
December 9, 2019

Workers in France are determined to defend one of the best retirement systems in the world, a retirement system based on solidarity and respect. That’s why 1.5 million workers hit the streets Dec. 5 in 250 French cities — all the big cities and most of the midsize and smaller ones. They demanded the government cancel its plans to replace the current retirement system.

The lead banner of the Joint Union, the coalition that initiated the massive Dec. 5 protest of millions in France.

Currently, workers with physically demanding jobs, such as railroad operating staff or sailors who have to work outdoors, off-hours and during holidays and summer vacations, are allowed to retire early, with full pay. This benefit shows respect for their sacrifices on the job.

All workers know what pension they will receive. Only 7 percent of retired workers in France are at risk of poverty, whereas 19 percent are in England and Germany. (Guardian, Dec. 4)

The plan that the Macron government is proposing will base pensions on the number of points a worker garners during their career. The value of the points will be established when a worker retires and can vary from year to year. Their retirement age will be years later than it is now.

President Macron is an arrogant, former investment banker and hedge-fund operator with the Rothschild bank. Some say that’s why he endorsed this scheme. The new policy, however, is not just based on an individual’s arrogance. It is aimed at serving the interests of the imperialist ruling class in France and in Europe.

These changes will fit French retirement rules into the European bourgeoisie’s scheme of depriving workers of gains won in decades of struggle. They are part of the program that Macron has begun to implement to privatize and minimize social services available to French workers.

While these protests were about retirement, which directly impacts older workers, it was clear that young people, out of solidarity and a need to protect their future, also protested in significant numbers.

The U.S. news service, Associated Press, interviewed an older worker and his 23-year-old nephew, both marching in Paris. The nephew said, “The older ones have fought for us. It’s normal we fight for ourselves and for future generations. Yes, it will be difficult, but if we need to do it, we will.” (, Dec. 4)

The Yellow Vest movement also participated in many of the protests and demonstrations. Just a little over a year old, this movement had challenged the French state with weekly militant demonstrations about the needs of housewives, contingent, part-time, self-employed and retired workers. The Yellow Vests criticized French unions for ignoring these sectors of the French working class.

While the weekly demonstrations dwindled during the summer, the Yellow Vests have maintained some organizational cohesion and helped the unions broaden the Dec. 5 protests. Yellow Vests and militant union committees for full employment held marches Dec. 7 in Nantes, Lyons and Toulouse, as well as in Paris.

There were even contingents representing the environmental movement with signs like “What’s the use of retirement if there is no planet” — which rhymes in French.

Workers did not just march, they struck

Transportation workers, whom the government slanders by calling them “privileged” and “over-paid,” with a totally “unfair” special retirement system, decided almost unanimously to go out Dec. 5. They said they were very angry over what they knew of Macron’s plans and were intent on defending what they had won with decades of struggle.

Even the railroad worker section of the French Democratic Labor Confederation (CFDT), the CFDT-Cheminot, endorsed the strike and joined their colleagues on the picket line. This is significant because the CFDT had cooperated with Macron’s counterreforms (reform designed to counter the effects of a previous reform), and many worker militants despise its leadership.

The Dec. 5 railroad strike was so successful that the French railroads could only offer 10 percent to 20 percent of their normal service. Some lines in the Paris metro system are automated so they were able to run, but service on most of the other lines was either suspended or scarce.

School teachers also walked out. According to the government, 51 percent of primary schoolteachers and 42 percent of secondary school teachers went on strike. (Government figures are national.) There were major walkouts of health care workers.

Almost all schools in the region that includes Paris were closed. This allowed Communist mayors of many suburban communities, which in France are overwhelmingly working class and often home to many oppressed nationalities, to use school buses to shuttle protesters to the Paris march. Right-wing media denounced the mayors’ use of the school buses as illegal, but the mayors successfully ignored them.

At “general assemblies” throughout the country, people endorsed the call of the union leadership to extend the transportation strike until at least Monday, Dec. 9.  Railroad management expressed the opinion that their jerry-rigged service could collapse.

(A “general assembly” is an open-air meeting of all union members on strike, which is held at a workplace. In France, it is common for multiple unions to represent workers at the same job site.)

Protesters are also blockading oil refineries and fuel depots. Truckers are combating Macron’s decision to hike taxes on fuel they use. Some gas stations have closed.

Domestic airlines have significantly cut service. Management claims only 30 percent of flights have been suspended.

A drop in holiday shopping and tourism, which is a significant factor in the French economy, is another problem for the Macron regime. It is possible that the strike could be extended, and the unions have called for another massive demonstration on Dec. 10.

What is really missing is support for the French working class from workers in other countries. The struggle in France is confronting not only its own bourgeoisie but the whole European bourgeoisie, which is striving to impose austerity throughout Europe.

Workers in France are also setting an example for workers in the United States, whose retirement pay in general is grossly inadequate.