Nelson Mandela used to say: “I never lose, I either win or I learn.” That is our motto.
A striking RATP worker addresses an interprofessional assembly.1
While announcing the closure of schools and nurseries in a speech on the evening of 12 March, French president Emmanuel Macron spoke of a “sacred unity” in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. By donning the paternalistic costume of the caring head of state, he hoped to exorcise the divisions in France that had been laid bare by an explosive workers’ movement for months before. The result was surreal. Macron paid homage to the welfare state and denounced the folly of “abandoning everything to the laws of the market.” He vowed to “interrogate the model that the world has adopted during the past few decades, and which is revealing its weaknesses and failures.” It was not lost on many that Macron himself has been central to driving this “model” ever deeper into French society.
Nevertheless, this proved enough to flatter the so-called “left wing” of Macron’s majority in parliament, vexed as it had been by the government’s lack of tact towards it during the pension reform debates.2 More worryingly, Macron’s pirouette prompted the heads of the major unions to get together and issue a naive public statement that proposed a programme to “push the authorities towards a democratic, social and environmental response to the crisis.” The statement tried to obscure the nature of neoliberalism as a reorganisation of society for the benefit of the rich. Instead, it interpreted it as a series of unfortunate choices by successive governments. Moreover, it did not even mention the largest, most sustained and most radical strike movement that France had seen in decades, which had been halted by the lockdown just two weeks before.
Nevertheless, the lockdown itself has revealed once again that the state’s response to crises is always guided by ruling class interests. France is one of the richest countries on earth, and yet not a single significant state or private economic resource was mobilised to protect the mass of the population from the epidemic or the catastrophic social consequences of the lockdown itself. The government allowed manufacturers such as Airbus and Michelin to hoard masks while nurses and doctors in hospitals and care homes complained of severe shortages.3 As schools closed and those in precarious employment were sacked, hunger threatened entire neighbourhoods from Marseille to the Paris suburbs.4 Rather than distribute food, the state chose to harass activists and volunteers who stepped forward to help.5 The only coherent element of the state’s response has been the use of its authoritarian measures. Unprecedented powers have been granted to the police, who exercise them enthusiastically against working-class and black people.
The current period of crisis and “national unity” shows that the left and the working class cannot hope to gain anything without snatching it by force from the jaws of our rulers. Even a public health response worthy of a rich 21st century nation has to be fought for. Thus the question of how our side fights and organises is of enormous importance.
Last winter’s movement against Macron’s pension reform has confirmed the widespread rejection of neoliberalism and propelled a new layer of workers to the forefront of struggle. Behind the spectacular actions of firefighters, energy workers, ballet dancers and musicians lay a rising sense of class pride and an urgently felt need to fight for the common good. The movement began in early December 2019, around one year after the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) burst onto the streets of France. The context for the emergence of the pensions strike was a rising tide of mass, radical mobilisations against sexism, climate change and racism.
Macron’s pension reform was intended to flatten the different pension schemes won by workers and replace them with a universal scheme in which workers win “points” rather than knowing what their pension is worth. These points are then to be turned into cash through a pensions formula that the government has the power to determine.6 The system would mean worse pensions for workers and would hit part-time, precarious and women workers hardest, as we shall go on to see. It would reduce the wages received by the working class as a whole, and lead to a further increase in inequality inside the working class. Since pensions are ultimately deferred wages, the result would be an decreased proportion of total national income going to the working class and a lower labour bill for French capitalism.
This article does not pretend to offer a comprehensive review of the multifaceted strike and protest movement against this reform. Instead, I begin from the simple but important observation that our side proved too weak to win, and yet was too strong to be swept away. I will look at some of the strategic issues that prevented this historic movement from realising its potential and turning into a mass strike. In particular, I will argue against the “strike by proxy” strategy that arose in the course of the struggle, which pins all hopes on the immediate economic and symbolic impact of action by relatively small groups of workers.
How it all began
Workers in Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens (RATP), the Paris public transport system, played a central role in the strike movement. Some 43,000 RATP bus drivers, train conductors, maintenance staff and other workers are responsible for the dense Parisian transport network, which a large portion of the city’s economic activity depends upon. It was these workers who conducted a successful one-day stoppage in September and put out the first call for an open-ended strike starting on 5 December. Because of their centrality to the economy of Paris, the RATP workers’ eight-week long stoppage became a focus for the wider movement. Their bus and maintenance depots acted as the natural points of convergence for workers, activists and the police alike. Simultaneously, their so-called early retirement privileges and their supposed “communitarianism”—a dog-whistle euphemism in France for the North African heritage of many of these workers—made them a natural target of attack for furious media pundits.
That the RATP workers would become the beating heart of a big strike movement was slightly unexpected. By French standards, the RATP workforce had been regarded as a “champion of social peace in the past ten years” according to the journalist Eric Béziat.7 In the late 2018 the RATP workers had elected a majority of their reps from the UNSA union, which is usually seen as docile.8 How did these workers suddenly find themselves in the vanguard of the most politically significant national strike movement in a generation?
The RATP “social contract” used to compensate transport workers’ low pay and early-morning and late-night shifts with secure employment and the promise of early retirement. However, as one worker explained:
Ever since I joined some twelve years ago, conditions have been getting harsher. Management is constantly on our backs. We cannot stop to catch our breath. It’s drive, drive, drive! To make a decent living, I must work overtime. I’m a mother of two and I have barely seen my children grow up.9
Successive “reforms” have eroded the benefits of RATP workers. On top of this, Macron’s attack on pensions threatened to put an end to early retirement. Furthermore, the government had announced in 2018 that it planned to open up Paris’s regional transport system—hitherto an RATP monopoly—to private competition. This would involve compulsory transfer of RATP workers to any company granted a share of the market. As one bus maintenance worker and trade unionist summed the situation up:
With privatisation and opening to competition, my depot, for instance, would become an independent entity. It would become a “business unit”, as management likes to call it. It would have to take part in tenders and make a profit like any other private company. Colleagues across RATP were very upset about this, because it signalled a race to the bottom for workers. Then came the pensions reform—that was the last straw.10
There had been signs of increasing workers’ self-activity in the past few years. These include the emergence of two small new unions: Rassemblement Syndical and La Base. These claimed closer links with rank and file workers than traditional unions.11 Yet irrespective of whether workers were in new or old unions, it was at shop floor level that the one-day RATP strike on 13 September 2019 was prepared and organised:
We spent months arguing with our colleagues, convincing them one by one of the need to strike. At the beginning of summer, it had become clear that what was coming [the government attack on pensions] was big, so the idea of a one-day strike gained a lot of traction. Its great success got the ball rolling and we announced an all-out, indefinite strike for December.12
The RATP call for a 5 December strike was picked up by trade unions and national union federations such as Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), Force Ouvrière (FO), Fédération Syndicale Unitaire (FSU) and Solidaires. Notably, the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT) did not endorse the strike, although some of its branches did.13
In the aftermath of the 5 December strike, two parallel but intertwined dynamics developed. First, national unions called for one-day national strikes and huge demonstrations on 9, 12 and 17 December. Second, teachers and workers in RATP and national rail company SNCF led some groups of workers into an open-ended strike.
This all-out stoppage was renewed daily in dozens of democratic general assemblies held in schools, maintenance depots, metro and railway stations. As a popular slogan insisted, the strike belonged to the strikers, regardless of trade union membership. This was most tangible among RATP workers, who organised according to their metro line or bus depot rather than their union affiliations. The metro stations were seldom picketed because the solidity of the strike had totally paralysed the underground system, and this freed up RATP workers to picket bus depots. Strike rates among bus drivers were lower and management could have kept the bus lines running at little under half capacity if this had not been prevented by picketing. Striking teachers, students and activists joined these early morning pickets in their hundreds and confronted the riot police to restrict the flow of buses leaving the depots.
The open-ended strike also spread to bin collectors and sewage workers in Paris, Brest, Marseille, Lyon and other cities. Rubbish piled up in the streets all the way into February. However, the strike in the sanitation sector, like many others, highlighted the impact of privatisation and the fragmentation of workers between different employers. Waste collection in Paris went almost undisturbed in the districts where it had been outsourced to the private sector. This reflected a lack of both confidence and organisation in the private sector. For instance, there is almost a complete absence of union activists in the giant Derichebourg services company. Big private firms operate much of the subcontracting in important sectors such as council services, logistics, healthcare and manufacturing.
Energy workers made headlines around the world when they repeatedly cut power to police stations and logistics hubs and restored electricity to the poor who had not paid their bills.14 Nevertheless, these spectacular actions were the act of a small minority. Although energy is a stronghold of the CGT, it has been progressively privatised and fragmented over the past decade. The sector has seen the widespread introduction of subcontracting and temporary work. These factors made it more difficult for the strike to spread beyond the organised hardcore, even as they took aim at major symbols of state and economic power.15
Faced with a nationwide paralysis of transport, the government and the media tried their hand at divide and rule. Their aim was to pit transport users against the strikers, but it was too little, too late. The government’s proposed reform was and remains widely unpopular. This has not been helped by their strategy of, as one writer pointedly put it, “keeping things vague on a law that concerns over 45 million people”.16 François Hommeril, the head of the white collar and middle management union CFE-CGC, told Le Monde in January 2020: “for two years now we have asked the government for a serious impact assessment to no avail… This is intolerable, and we are fed up with it. Who will pay, what and how much? Which categories [of workers] will be concerned and how?”17 Even the Council of State, the highest administrative authority in France, slammed the government’s bill and its impact study as “unclear”, “based on incomplete economic projections” and “not corresponding to general requirements of objectivity and sincerity”.18 It was clear that the government’s reluctance to show its hand and its reliance on the incoherent blabber of its spin doctors-turned-ministers was an attempt to hide the real implications of the reform.
Under the current system, working a given number of years guarantees public sector workers the right to pension payments that are calculated as a percentage of the average salary they earned during the last 6 months of their career. The same system operates for private sector workers, but is calculated using the highest-paid 25 years of their career. In some sectors, “special regimes” lower the total required working years and thus allow workers to retire with a full pension at an earlier age. Under the new system, most special regimes are wiped out (with the notable but predictable exception of the police) and each individual worker earns “points” continuously during their career based on their salary, which they can convert into a monthly pension when they retire. This penalises those workers who found themselves in unstable employment early in their careers, as well as women who go on maternity leave or work part-time. Furthermore, the government introduced a so-called “pivot age” before which workers cannot use their points without a severe penalty. This effectively means increasing the pension age for younger workers regardless of the number of points they may have accumulated. Finally, the rate of conversion of points into cash is left open to change by each successive government, which means a simple government decree can suddenly reduce the pensions of millions of workers.19
Having failed to win public support for these reforms, the government also suffered a major setback when Jean-Paul Delevoye, the architect of the reform, was forced to resign only two weeks into the movement. In an explosive revelation of his conflicts of interest, Delevoye’s links with private pension funds expected to gain enormously from the reform were exposed.
After two rounds of negotiations with union officials in the week before Christmas, prime minister Édouard Philippe asked for a truce. According to one writer, Philippe’s plea was, “he didn’t think that the French would accept that some people could deprive them of their Christmas holidays”, referring to the transport workers. The trade union coalition that had organised hugely successful demonstrations from 5 until 17 December did not explicitly accept the offer of a truce. Instead, it washed its hands of the matter by calling for a national day of action for 9 January 2020, some weeks later. This left the rank and file to keep the flame burning over the holidays. The position of the militants was further weakened because the education sector, one of the pillars of the open-ended strike, was out of the game due to the Christmas holidays. Worse, the UNSA leadership ended up echoing Philippe’s call after obtaining some tokenistic but carefully choreographed concessions from the government.
The movement from below
Under pressure from the mainstream media and the government, and now undermined by the heads of the UNSA, the movement was all but abandoned by the other trade union leaderships. In addition, strikers faced the looming prospect of dire December pay. Nevertheless, the movement fought on and proved that the strike did in fact belong to the strikers. “A truce now means defeat,” the rank and file declared, as local UNSA branches disavowed their leaders. General assemblies of workers voted to renew the RATP and SNCF strikes.20 The national railway and greater Paris transport networks largely stood still over the holidays.
With the trade union leaders taking a leave of absence, other forms of organisation came to the fore. The general assemblies of strikers continued to play an important role as the bedrock of the renewable strike, but an “RATP-SNCF Coordination” also emerged and played a significant organisational role in Paris during the holidays. This was founded a few weeks before the beginning of the strike by workers and activists in the Courant Communiste Révolutionnaire (CCR) faction of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA).21 They organised numerous actions including a demonstration of 2,000 RATP and SNCF strikers and an occupation of the headquarters of the right-wing CFDT union federation, which they considered an auxiliary of the government.22 The Coordination was particularly popular with some RATP strike leaders, as workers who had long considered themselves to be “apolitical” quickly became politicised by the struggle and the questions it raised.
As the movement went on, the Coordination became increasingly vocal about the need for an alternative strategy to that of the trade union leadership. Interprofessional assemblies were formed in some neighbourhoods of Paris and provincial cities. These brought together striking workers from different sectors such as transport, education, energy and local councils. They also drew in left-wing activists and isolated workers who were looking to strike. The assemblies aimed to bridge the gap between the huge popularity of the strike movement and the relatively small number of workers who were actually striking. The “interpros”, as these bodies became known, were mainly focused on local agitation and organisation around the national days of action. They also established links between local workplaces where there had previously been none.23
The RATP-SNCF Coordination and the interpros based their work on the belief that the strike was too serious a matter to be left to the union leaders. Both built on the self-activity of the most determined strikers and grassroots union and political activists. Often the two forms of organisation overlapped, particularly through RATP workers, who often took part in both. For instance, they organised joint local actions to harass Macron’s ministers whenever they were scheduled to appear in public and marched together as part of the lead contingents during demonstrations. Nevertheless, the Coordination and the interpros expressed an important difference in approach to the question of how the strike could win. The former sought to coordinate it, and the latter sought to spread it.
High stakes for the ruling class
In late December, the CGT engaged in a series of 72-hour strikes and picketing in ports and oil refineries. These are sectors in which the CGT retains a significant weight. The economic impact was felt immediately across the commercial chain. Logistics bosses complained of “catastrophic short-term losses, amounting to tens of millions of euros per port”.24 In refineries, strikes and blockades spread more quickly and decisively than an earlier strike wave in 2016. The head of the CGT chemicals sector branch boasted about impending fuel shortages. When NPA figurehead Olivier Besancenot visited the refinery pickets, he remarked, “the government will understand once petrol stations are dry”.25
In reality, the promised fuel shortages never came. This was partly because the government tapped into its three-month “strategic reserve”, but also because the French fuel logistics chain is complex and diversified. Indeed, only half of the fuel consumed in France comes from its own refineries. Many in the trade unions had hoped that they could corner the Macron government with hard-hitting action in a key strategic sector, but French capital remained determined and their approach failed.
In 1995, faced with its own December strike against pensions reform, Alain Juppé’s government was forced to back down. Chris Harman wrote at the time:
There seems little doubt that the December 1995 strikes have dented the French government’s confidence in its ability to proceed with its offensive against workers’ conditions… That, however, is not the end of the story. The international competitive pressures on French capitalism that produced the Juppé plan will not go away… We can expect a desperate ruling class to return to the offensive.26
French ruling class confidence had indeed been dented, and capitalism granted it a temporary respite in which to lick its wounds. The second half of the 1990s saw sustained growth rates, which offered the French working class a relative protection from Thatcher-style frontal assaults.27 However, the competitive pressures of capitalism finally caught up with France’s rulers, especially after the dot-com crash in the early 2000s and the Great Recession in late 2000s. Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010 and François Hollande in 2016 were compelled to impose reforms. These were all the more severe and violent because they came very late by international capitalism’s standards. As I wrote last year:
Macron’s election came at a period when a radicalised ruling class was in dire need of further neoliberal reforms due to the decline of French capitalism compared to its international rivals. That is Macron’s historic task. At the same time, the reforms of the past few decades and the resistance put up by the working class have gradually discredited the traditional parties of the ruling class, leading to their catastrophic collapse in 2017… The French rulers were preparing for a full-scale assault on workers and the poor, but without the traditional hegemonic political tools that they had been forced to sacrifice in previous battles.28
Last winter’s strike movement was comparable to that of 1995 in its length, the intensity of its rank and file activity, the size of its demonstrations, its popularity and probably in its direct economic impact. The reform bill itself was botched and its parliamentary proceedings were a long, blunder-ridden and very public agony. However, the government still did not back down. For the ruling class, the stakes were simply too high.
Instead, the government ultimately halted legislative proceedings and used the infamous Article 49.3 of the constitution to pass the reforms without a vote. Implementing the law through these methods was a major bullet for Macron and the bosses to bite, but the price of defeat was too high for them to contemplate. The French ruling class is in a race for neoliberal reform, and yet their social bases of support are shrinking. The result is an increased reliance on the executive power and repressive apparatus of the state and the gradual reduction of bourgeois democracy to mere ceremonial proceedings. Capital and the state were already firmly engaged on this trajectory when the Yellow Vests movement erupted a year before the strike, and their runaway train is still accelerating.
The strategy of the mass strike
We need a general strike—not a single person on the left will deny this. But what kind of a general strike? Will it be the “rigid and hollow scheme of an arid political action carried out by the decision of the highest committees and furnished with a plan and panorama”, as Rosa Luxemburg described bureaucratic mass strikes called from the top by union leaders? Or will it be something very different indeed?29
We have seen that the strike at the RATP was built through a patient, relentless effort of debate, persuasion and organisation with workers who grew increasingly bitter at their bosses. This work from below found traction because it a fell on soil fertilised by the turmoil of the recent years. As Alimaj Tacsam has asked, how many of today’s RATP strikers took part as teenagers in pitched battles against the police during the banlieue riots of 2005?30
For most on the left, the SNCF workers were a spent force after their long and bitter but ultimately defeated strike in the spring of 2018. In autumn came the Yellow Vests: a protracted explosion of anger against austerity, authoritarianism and the arrogance of the powerful. This was a movement that inspired many trade unionists. In October 2019, when a derailment left a severely wounded conductor on his own to ensure the safety of his guard-less train and its passengers, workplace tensions detonated. A massive, unprecedented national walkout of train conductors took place under the legal cover of the “right to withdrawal”, which allows workers to walk off the job if they sense a “grave and imminent danger”. However, the government denounced it as an illegal strike, and in truth that is precisely what it was. Less than a month later, a strike over pay and holidays unexpectedly hit an SNCF maintenance workshop in Châtillon near Paris. It spread like wildfire to other workshops over the following days, greatly reducing traffic on high speed trains. Finally, on 5 December, the SNCF workers embarked on what would become the longest open-ended strike in the company’s history.
There are countless similar stories in education, healthcare, universities and the private sector. They point to an important lesson: the mass strike cannot simply be an answer to an external call. It has to be both a result of a process of grassroots organisation and persuasion and an accelerator of that process. Moreover, it is a symptom of wider social turmoil and the increasing confidence of workers. In periods of rising struggle, issues both internal and external to the workplace, both economic and political, intertwine in an upwards spiral. The mass strike, as Luxemburg put it, is “a bit of pulsating life and blood that is connected with all parts of the revolution by a thousand veins”.31
When it became clear that Macron would not back down and that the strike was not spreading, the RATP strikers, like the SNCF workers before them, democratically decided to wind down their movement in early February 2020. They had engaged in a heroic eight-week stoppage. In this ebbtide of the strike, there were numerous calls by both the RATP-SNCF Coordination and a self-proclaimed “assembly of interpros” for national meetings to coordinate the general strike. The essential analytical point at the heart of these initiatives was that the absence of a general strike was purely a result of the lack of audacity among the leaders of the trade unions. The conclusion that flowed from this was that it would be enough for the strike to have had an alternative centre in order to press the imaginary red button marked “general strike” that will grind the country to a halt. As one declaration calling for a national coordinating meeting argued:
We need to come together to learn the lessons of going into battle in dispersed ranks. We need to build a battle plan and hit the nail on the head together and at the same time in order to win. This national meeting should discuss when it is that we shall all go for it together, and what slogans and demands can mobilise a maximum of sectors, including the private sector.32
It is very tempting to forget, during a lull in the fighting, why we went “into battle in dispersed ranks”. This was not the result of a defective battle plan, because in an important sense there was no battle plan. The dispersed ranks were actually an expression of the inner dynamic of a strike wave. Such strike movements are a process in which action in one sector gives confidence to workers in another and puts pressure on sections of the union leadership. Sympathy and support from the wider working class not only feeds the combativity of the advanced guard of the strike, but also pulls fresh reinforcements into the battle. This dynamic will operate for as long as most strikers believe they can win. In the pensions movement, the problem was not that workers entered the battle in “dispersed ranks”, but that not enough was done during the battle to accelerate this dynamic and turn it into the sort of generalised strike that would have sparked panic and retreat in the ruling class.
Appeals for “general strike coordinations” initially gained traction with some of the most advanced workers, such as the local RATP strike leaders and the energy workers who had stuck their necks out with illegal, high-profile power cuts. But the resulting meetings had an air of preaching to the converted. Workers from sectors where strikers were still a minority of the total workforce were rushing ahead and engaging in debates to decide the right day for calling a general strike, but crucially they failed to win broader support. For example, the RATP-SNCF Coordination called for a “black day” of strikes in the transport sector and a national demonstration on 17 February 2020, but this went largely unnoticed. The mass of workers who had just struck for eight weeks were unconvinced.
Those heading the Coordination ended up blaming the union bureaucracies for sabotaging their initiatives, and repeated their call for “building a real battle plan to win”.33 Besancenot argued for a similar approach. He repeatedly claimed that a three-day general strike and a huge national demonstration in Paris could force the government’s hand.34 There is a similarity here with the almost weekly calls by different Yellow Vest groups during the ebbtide of their movement for a decisive mass action—although these were largely calls for a programmed, one-day riot in Paris rather than a general strike.
All these actors seemed to see things in a similar fashion to those who Luxemburg said envisioned the general strike as:
A purely technical means of struggle which can be “decided” at their pleasure…a kind of pocket knife which can be kept in the pocket clasped “ready for any emergencies”, and according to the decision, can be unclasped and used.35
This type of thinking is closely linked to the “strategic sectors” approach displayed by many within the trade unions during the movement. This logic had informed those who argued that action in oil refineries and ports could corner the government and break their resolve. Indeed, these are among the best organised sections of the working class and therefore seem to be the most susceptible to answer a coordinated call from above. However, as Thomas P writes, the belief that strategic sectors will win for the rest of the working class has:
A perverse and disarming effect at the very moment that the movement is posing its burning question: how do we spread the strike? It tells the great majority of the members of our class that it would be useless for them to go on strike. It demoralises us when a “strategic sector” goes back to work. It makes us passive spectators of the whole business. It results in good opinion polls but not the generalisation of the strike.36
How then do we generalise the strike? This task needs missionaries, not a Vatican conclave of cardinals. It is a task that involves resolving a certain imbalance in the political situation. On the one hand, there is the widespread rejection of Macron and the economic system and the unmistakable popular support for workers fighting back on a mass scale. On the other hand, there is the relatively narrow participation of workers in the strike movement.
Unfortunately, private sector workers (except those in the refineries and ports) seldom mobilised in the strike wave. This does not mean that private sector workers approved of the pensions reform—many participated in the national demonstrations and even more donated money to the strike funds.37 But strike action was absent in most cases. Of course, the objective changes to capitalist production and the social organisation of work in the past few decades provide some of the context for this. However, the absence of private sector workers from the strike movement is largely down to the subjective issues of organisation, confidence and political persuasion. For instance, well over 50 percent of workers in car factories are temporary workers employed by subcontractors from the services sector, as are most workers in the new, increasingly large logistics hubs.38 Trade unions have largely failed to develop solidarity between their own members and the subcontracting workers in the same workplace.39 Calls for a general strike, whether they are issued by the highest echelons of the trade unions’ bureaucracies or by strikers’ rank and file coordinations, are likely to fall on deaf ears if local organisation from below is absent. The Yellow Vests movement has not spontaneously translated into a wave of workplace organisation, although many of the participants were themselves private sector blue collar workers. In most industries, subcontracted workers occupy the toughest and lowest paid jobs.40 To believe that these sections are objectively too weak to organise means effectively to abandon a huge section of the working class in factories, hospitals, logistics hubs, call centres, warehouses, construction yards, hotels and services. Some groups of workers have successfully organised and struck in these sectors, but there is no sustained drive by national unions and no significant political agitation on the issues that effect these workers. The reality of the trade union movement’s weaknesses in these huge areas of the economy dovetails with a propagandist national focus on coordinating a minority of strategic sectors.
As an RATP striker said in March 2020, “we went into the strike expecting Macron to back down after two weeks. In retrospect, I think the problem is that we did not sufficiently try to export our strike”.41 There is a need to encourage the rapid spread of the strike during the movement. This involves striking workers sending delegations into other workplaces and sectors, actively picketing and creating local networks of political and trade union activists to mobilise further. The whole international history of working-class self-activity testifies to these basic methods. We did witness hints of this sort of dynamic during the movement, including in local interprofessional assemblies in which revolutionary socialist activists from the Autonomie de Classe (A2C) organisation were involved. However, there is a need for longer-term construction of organisation at company and neighbourhood level in order to translate the political rejection of Macron into workplace activity and strikes.
When we measure the real impact of a mass strike against a state-led reform of urgent and strategic importance for the bourgeoisie, we do not primarily look at its direct economic impact. When the long-term stakes are high for the ruling class as a whole, the state can afford to soak up the damage caused by a hard-hitting strike movement, as long as that movement remains limited in breadth. However, strike waves become real threats if their internal dynamic accelerates. If links between workplaces build up, if stoppages spread and if street demonstrations become truly mass and militant affairs, then the strike movement will have “gone viral” and could well spin out of the control of the ruling class.
The gap in French society between generalised popular anger and the actual level of organisation and mobilisation among working people narrowed during last winter’s strike movement. This built on a similar narrowing during the Yellow Vests movement. Yet an enormous amount of work has yet to be done by trade unionists, workers and left-wing activists in order to help even more widespread sections of workers to organise and struggle.
The ruling class’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been the extension of unprecedented powers to the police and the executive arm of the state. This accelerates previous authoritarian tendencies and opens the door to further racism and nationalism. However, new sections of our class are organising in response and this provides hope. We are seeing organising efforts in the private retail sector, car and plane factories, logistics hubs and so on. In some particularly encouraging cases, these are bringing together “secure” and precarious workers in common struggles for the first time.
The crisis both increases the threat from the far right and opens up new opportunities for the working class. The last standoff has left our side stronger, better organised and determined than ever before, even though this dynamic was cut short by the pandemic. It is vital nevertheless to learn its theoretical and strategic lessons and to continue to build revolutionary socialist organisation and politics both in the movement and for the movement. In this way, we can ensure that our side is larger and better prepared for the next upsurge.
Paradoxically, the crisis of French ruling class hegemony and the discrediting of its centre-right and centre-left parties means that Macron is in with a chance of being re-elected in 2022. His hope lies in posing as the only alternative to the fascist Marine Le Pen. However, this means that Macron needs Le Pen to go forward to the second round of the presidential election if he is to win.42 This implies propping up Le Pen by fanning racism and the clamour for police powers. As A2C’s Denis Godard explains:
There is a unity between austerity and the authoritarian, nationalist and racist offensives. Racism is not a mere diversion and it does not only concern those who it directly humiliates and brutalises. Racism is the other face of nationalism. It is the construction of the “other” as the only basis for a union between the ruling class and its state in their competition with other capitals and states.43
Even if Macron primarily sees racism as a stepladder for his electoral ambitions, there is a deeper, objective process that drives the most authoritarian and racist tendencies in the state to resurface. This process is rooted in the struggle between the classes, and its reflection at the level of electoral politics is a symptom of this deeper dynamic.
As far as our camp is concerned, electoral politics reduces the self-activity of the working class to the elaboration of “social demands to be satisfied” from outside the movement. It involves, therefore, an adaptation to ruling class ideology and politics.44 Communism, on the other hand, is “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things”, in Karl Marx’s words.45 The self-activity of the working class reinforces our side and makes it a pole of attraction for middling layers in society. From just one means among others to an end, the politically conscious self-activity of ever wider layers of the working class must become an end in itself. Only in this way can we emerge victorious from our current travails.
Jad Bouharoun is a Middle Eastern revolutionary socialist living in France.
1 RATP stands for Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens—the state-owned company that operates Paris’s metro and buses. As I discuss below, local interprofessional assemblies brought striking workers in different sectors together with trade unionists and political activists in order to debate and organise joint actions.
2 Petralunga and Lemarié, 2020.
3 Philippin, Rouget and Turchi, 2020.
4 Poingt, 2020.
5 Testa and d’Ancona, 2020.
6 Socialist Worker, 2019.
7 Béziat, 2019.
8 Dicharry, 2018. One year before the start of the strike, the financial newspaper Les Echos commented that the UNSA victory represented a “small revolution that will shift the balance of power away from the dispute-prone CGT union federation.”
9 Interview conducted by the author on 6 December 2019 with a striker on the Lagny picket line in Paris.
10 Interview conducted by the author on 9 March 2020 with D Faouzi, a CGT rep and RATP maintenance worker.
11 Auffret and Béziat, 2020.
12 Interview conducted by the author on 9 March 2020 with D Faouzi.
13 The CGT remains the most combative and one of the largest trade union federations in France. It has historic but fading links to the Communist Party and retains significant branches in industry and the public sector. FO was created by a right-wing, post-war split from the CGT and is concentrated among public sector workers. FSU is the country’s largest teachers’ union. The CFDT is mostly a white collar, private sector union and has tended to support neoliberal reforms. Finally, Solidaires is a small but combative union born out of a rank and file rebellion by CFDT members during the movement against pension reform in 1996. The CFDT is known as a “reformist union” in the right-wing media, while the others are described as “protest unions”.
14 Kimber, 2019.
15 Discussion with trade unionist from the CGT’s Paris energy branch.
16 Israel, 2020a.
17 Pietralunga, Bissuel and Desmoulières, 2020.
18 Alemagna, 2020.
19 Israel, 2020b.
20 L’Obs, 2019.
21 The CCR is part of the Trotskyist Fraction–Fourth International grouping of socialist organisations and edits the very successful news website Révolution Permanente.
22 Cobet, 2020.
23 Thomas and Jad, 2020.
24 Fainsilber, 2020.
25 Orsini, 2020.
26 Harman, 1996.
27 INSEE, 2020.
28 Bouharoun, 2019.
29 Luxemburg, 1925, chapter 4.
30 Tacsam, 2020.
31 Luxemburg, 1925, chapter 4.
32 Coordination RATP-SNCF IDF, CGT Raffinerie Grandpuits, CGT Energie Paris, 2020.
33 Bernard, 2020.
34 Jean Marc B, 2020.
35 Luxemburg, 1925, chapter 2.
36 Thomas and Jad, 2020.
37 Goanec, 2020.
38 Maillard, 2016.
39 Béroud, 2015.
40 Interim worker, 2020.
41 Interview conducted by the author on 9 March 2020 with D Faouzi.
42 The two candidates who receive the highest number of votes in the first round of the presidential election move onto the second round. In 2017, Macron received a very large section of the vote in the second round as the choice was between himself and Marine Le Pen. This is probably the only scenario under which he could be reelected in 2022.
43 Godard, 2020.
44 Garo, 2019, p280.
45 Marx, 1845, chapter 1.