May Day in France: Workers resist state repression

By G. Dunkel
May 9, 2023

If French President Emmanuel Macron was hoping workers would lose morale and militancy, once he had maneuvered to get his new anti-worker pension system declared official law, he lost out. Millions of workers continued to protest and strike and defy France’s cops, who grow more vicious and aggressive with each confrontation.

Nantes, France, May 1. In a city of 280,000 people, 80,000 joined the workers’ protest.

On International Workers Day –– May Day –– a legal holiday in France, over 300 separate demonstrations drew some 2.3 million protesters into the streets.

The unions have maintained their unity since the struggle opened in January. In past countrywide struggles, the different coalitions of unions, which in France represent different political ideologies, had split along lines of which ones were determined to intensify the fight and which ones would concede earlier.

In this battle, a member of the French Confederation of Christian Workers (CFTC), not generally considered oriented toward struggle, told the newspaper Le Monde that he saw no sense in offering concessions to Macron when the government wasn’t inclined to reciprocate. This was a sign the unions are sticking together.

The coalition of the five major labor confederations and four unions representing students has been directing the resistance and has called for another day of mass protests and strikes on June 6. A law repealing the new pension system is scheduled to be debated in the National Assembly June 8, though Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne is maneuvering to prevent the Assembly from voting, as the new law could then be struck down.

The cops have been brutal; they sweep up protesters caught within police lines, along with passersby who may be in the wrong place, and without specific charges hold people for a night in jail. The cops make mass charges, howling and beating their shields with their batons to break up marches. They unleash deluges by water cannons and shoot huge amounts of tear gas, bean bags and tasers to put physical pressure on protesters. Hundreds of legal challenges to these mass detentions have been filed.

These tactics, the harshest crowd-control tactics of any country in Western Europe, are designed to reduce the number of protesters. In this they have failed. Masses turn out, not only in Paris, Marseilles and Lyon, but in hundreds of medium-sized and small cities — even in towns, hundreds come out.

Macron and his cabinet have been making quick trips to remote and rural areas, hoping to chip away at the vast support the unions have drawn to their struggle. The French state is even using anti-terrorism laws to prohibit demonstrations by the unions to protest appearances of governmental figures. Electrical workers in the CGT turn off the power to these venues. The government must bring its own team of electricians to work the sound system.

The unions have been making it clear that prohibiting demonstrations is undemocratic and counterproductive.