What has been happening in France since January 2023 comes closest—in terms of its breadth and duration—to a revolutionary situation in an advanced capitalist country in decades.1 In addition to the objective factors, such as the deepening contradictions of capitalism and the political crisis entailed by this, there is a key subjective factor: a mass movement of revolt. Analysing the significance of the movement, and the lessons to be drawn from it, is decisive both for revolutionaries in France and for those fighting against capitalism throughout the world.
8 May: Macron flees the “real country”
On 8 May, as has happened every year for the past 40 years, the president of the French Republic walked down the best known street in the country, the Avenue des Champs-Elysée.2 This year, it was, for the first time, deserted. To prevent a crowd from heckling the current president, Emmanuel Macron, the public were simply barred from access to this huge avenue by the police, a reminder of the quip in The Solution, Marxist writer Bertolt Brecht’s satirical poem about the response of the Stalinist authorities to the East German uprising of 1953:
After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?3
Three weeks earlier, after the enactment of a new law on pensions that sparked unrest, Macron had bragged, in his usual arrogant manner, that the issue was closed.4 He would now go out to meet the “pays réel”—“the real country”—those who, according to him, want to work and aspire for a return to order.5 The “real country” responded immediately. Wherever he visited, energy workers would cut the electricity and hostile crowds would refuse to engage in any discussion. A week later, Macron had to abandon his attempts to “meet the people”. His ministers each met with a similar fate. This became the object of a national game, referred to as “the 100 days of zbeul” (“disorder”), with a website updated daily to rank different regions on the effectiveness of their mobilisations and their ability to harass members of the government.6
This crisis of legitimacy for the government and, alongside it, the traditional parties of government has not just emerged in the past few months. Macron was elected in 2017 following the collapse of the Socialist Party, the country’s main social-democratic party, which had been in power until then. He also benefited from the apparent disintegration of the parties on the conservative right. He was re-elected just a year ago, amid record abstentions and without a parliamentary majority, largely by voters who sought to prevent fascist leader Marine Le Pen coming to power. The current movement has considerably accelerated the disintegration of mainstream parties. In the period preceding the enactment of the law, more than two-thirds of the public expressed opposition to the law in polls. This opposition reached nine out of ten among those identifying as employees.
Hostility to the law was not simply a matter of passive discontent. Led by the trade unions, it rapidly took on a class character. It has involved, at the time of writing in late May, 13 national days of action, with millions marching and mandates for strike action covering the majority those protesting. On two occasions, nearly 3.5 million took to the streets. These protests mobilised all sections of the working class across the country. To give just one example, there were 15,000 demonstrators in Albi, southern France, on 19 January, the first day of action. This grew to some 20,000 on 31 January and 23 March, and then to 55,000 on 16 February. Albi has an official population of just 50,000.
In the face of such huge popular opposition, Macron had to resort to every anti-democratic device in the French constitution to enact his law. On 16 March, uncertain of getting a majority, he imposed the pensions law without recourse to a vote among members of parliament by activitating article 49 of the constitution. This institutional power move was a turning point, deepening the anger of the movement. For several days afterwards, spontaneous demonstrations proliferated, and there was also a significant increase in police repression.
In capitalist society, the stability of the dominant class tends to rest principally on the consent of a large majority of the population. The threat of force is always present, but its use is, in general, limited. However, the balance between consent and force is in the process of being substantially tilted in the direction of the latter in France today. This extends beyond the state’s response to the current workers’ movement. Less than ten days after the imposition of the pensions law, a banned demonstration against a project of “mega-basins”—environmentally destructive water reservoirs used for agricultural irrigation—brought out 30,000 protestors. The police threw 5,000 grenades of various kinds, injuring 200 people. One is still fighting for their life. The government then attempted to ban one of the demonstration’s organisers, Les Soulèvements de la Terre (“The Earth Rising”), though this only succeeded in provoking a wave of solidarity throughout France, adding profound hostility to the police to the general mood of defiance towards the state institutions.
To understand what is at stake in the confrontation between Macron and the movement, we need to understand why the government is attacking pensions and what this offensive represents. Pension reform is a long-term goal of French capitalism and has been attempted by each successive government for nearly 30 years. It is at the heart of a neoliberal offensive through which French capitalism hopes to claw back gains made, and so far retained, by the workers’ movement. These advances includes some redistribution of wealth based on solidarity between generations as well as limits on the working week. For this reason, every time the government of the day has attempted a global reform of the pension scheme, it has faced major mobilisations—and has had to retreat. This dynamic was an important factor in the return of an era of mass movements during the strikes of December 1995.7
The extent to which some union leaderships adapted to neoliberalism allowed preceding governments to partially erode the protections granted to workers by the pension system. However, Macron decided to embark on a general offensive, concentrating on the red line that none of the union leaderships, even the most moderate, could accept: retirement at 64. Even those who had gone along with the government attacks for 30 years had to resist. This included, for instance, leaders of the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT; Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail), the less militant of France two main union federations.
The objective was thus clear. The new law was about provoking and then breaking union resistance and organisation. Despite the law being enacted on 15 April, though, Macron has still lost. The unions are stronger than they were four months ago, reversing a long tendency towards loss of members and weakening of workplace implantation. Membership has now started to grow, and unions are being built in new sectors of the economy. It is principally women and young workers who are joining. Moreover, the movement was unbroken, as symbolised by the ongoing “100 days of zbeul” as well as by the 2.5 million who demonstrated on 1 May.
If this movement must now confront its limitations, a need discussed below, this is because of the extent to which it has itself raised the stakes.
Success for the union leaders, impasse for the movement
On 19 April, four days after the enactment of the law, Laurent Berger, the CFDT’s general secretary and the figure seen as the main leader of the movement, announced he was stepping down. He commented that he could leave knowing he had strengthened his organisation, but he added that a new period was opening up and that he needed to “move on”.
In France, unions are divided between several federations, so the formation of a “united front” of all the unions in January was a real event. This was something not achieved for decades. However, it also allowed the leadership of the movement to be firmly grasped by the “intersyndicale”, a body uniting the leaders of all the unions, from the most combative to the most moderate. It was this body that set the agenda of the movement, week in, week out.
The unity between unions played an undeniable role in broadening the movement. The success of early mobilisations, especially in terms of the number of demonstrators on the first day of action, set in motion the explosive dynamic we have seen. A unified movement, temporarily at least, meant that the union leaders came to be seen, according to the opinion polls, as the principal political opponents of the government. This is of considerable importance, because it shifted the field of representation from the institutional parties onto the terrain of social movements—from the terrain of parliamentary democracy onto the terrain of class struggle.
The unity of the union leaderships has both a material basis and a specific ideological content. The material basis is provided by the specific social position of the union bureaucracies. When they engaged in battle, it was not simply because the working class was attacked. After all, the CFDT, in particular, has supported the logic of questioning the pension system for decades, while other union leaderships have at least adapted to calls for “reform”. This time, however, something else was at stake. The union bureaucracies had not even been invited to the negotiating table with the state and the bosses, and this meant their role as “representatives” of workers was denied. They only regained this role thanks to the level of mobilisation, hence Berger’s expression of satisfaction with the movement.
The ideological content for the unity of the union leaders flowed from this defence of their position within the system. Trade union leaders are, of course, not revolutionaries, but rather reformists. Their strategy was therefore consistently focused on institutional routes towards the resolution of the conflict: until 16 March, pressuring parliamentarians to use their votes within the National Assembly; then, until 14 April, pressuring the Constitutional Council, which was deliberating on the constitutionality of the law; then, briefly, on 15 April, demanding of Macron that he not enact the law; and, finally, demanding a “citizens’ referendum”. After this last demand for an institutional response, came nothing. The union leaders simply called for a demonstration on 1 May and told the movement it needed to “move on”.
This legalistic approach has consequences for how the union leaders built the movement. The Marxist theorist Tony Cliff distinguished between the dominant ideology, which claims society is simply a “collection of individuals”, and the notion of “collective class power”.8 The union leaders placed all their emphasis on the “collection of individuals”, measuring the number of demonstrators in the street and the level of support in the opinion polls. They sought to strengthen their negotiating position by paying attention to these metrics. However, due to their focus on the number of individual supporters of the movement, and in order to avoid alienating social layers opposed to “disorder”, they did little to build collective class power through strikes.
As the final climax approached in the National Assembly, the intersyndicale called for the country to “stop” on 7 March. This was the signal certain sectors were waiting for to try to start indefinite “grèves reconductibles” (“renewable strikes”).9 Yet, when Berger was challenged by the media over what sounded like a call to shut down the whole country, the CFDT leader said that he opposed strikes. Similarly, the intersyndicale concentrated everything on the question of the raising of the pension age to 64, failing to call on each sector and workplace to link this issue to more specific demands about their working conditions, salaries and so on. It also refused to link the movement with fights against sexism and racism, which might have enabled the development of stronger class consciousness and a more powerful, organic solidarity among working-class people.
17 April: “We too are going to force the issue”
On 17 April, two days after the enactment of the penions law, Macron decided to “address the nation” with an appearance on television. As he did so, rallies were held, followed by spontaneous demonstrations in front of numerous town halls, with “concerts” in which people banged pots and pans. The message was clear: “We’re not even listening to you anymore.” A new slogan appeared: “We too are going to force the issue!” This slogan echoed the phrase used by Macron about “forcing the passage” of the law, and it was evidence of the development of a rupture with the strategy of the union leaders within the movement. This reflected the desires of a segment of those mobilised by the struggle to continue fighting despite the conservatism of the union officials.
Unfortunately, the movement does not currently have the capacity to realise the slogan of “forcing the issue” in practice. Nonetheless, the very appearance of this slogan, and the audience that it has among a substantial section of the movement, indicates the potential for a way beyond the impasse produced by the strategy of the union leaders.
This reflects how movement has learnt from events. From the first weeks, efforts were made, particularly in the education sector, with primary schools centrally involved, to organise and spread strike action. The education sector has a tradition of organising area meetings to unite school workers. Moreover, these workers developed demands—such as cancelling class closures and blocking increases in class sizes—alongside their opposition to the pension law. This made it possible to mobilise the support of parents of school students, who were affected by this multitude of issues as both parents and workers. Teachers’ meetings were often the motor for interprofessional and area-wide gatherings of activists.
However, the legitimate fear of any single sector taking industrial action on its own was an obstacle to spreading the strikes. Everyone was aware that one sector was not enough and thus waited for the call for a general strike. That call, of course, failed to come from the union leaders.
On 7 March, and in the days following 16 March, renewable strikes began in several sectors, including among train drivers, refinery workers, refuse workers and energy workers. This was also when university and sixth form students started to join the movement. For several days, spontaneous demonstrations and blockades multiplied at logistics hubs and on motorways and ring roads. Yet, by leaving the initiative to the unions in each sector, the union leaders did nothing to generalise the strikes or even to coordinate between different industries. The renewable strikes were therefore isolated, and ultimately exhausted themselves.
Along with the potential for more extensive strike action, there was also political generalisation. For instance, on 8 March, International Women’s Day, the notion of a women’s strike was taken up by numerous feminist collectives, hoping to use this lever both to encourage renewable strikes and to further the fight against sexism. Similarly, following tireless work by activists, opposition to new racist legislation against migrants began to get an echo in the movement. On 25 March, demonstrations against the new bill and in support of “sans papiers” (migrants “without documents”) took place in around 50 towns and cities, with the numbers bigger than is usual at such protests. Another day of action on this issue took place on 29 April in several cities, including Paris, Toulouse, Rennes, Grenoble and Marseille. As mentioned above, there has also been a degree of political generalisation around water management and its ecological implications.
In spite of these steps forward, it is clear that the politics of the intersyndicale has been an obstacle to the strengthening and generalisation of these positive trends. Nevertheless, the main political currents on the left and far left tend to exonerate the intersyndicale of all responsibility. Instead, they argue that the problem is insufficient pressure from below to overcome the union leaders’ inertia, noting that initiatives for independent organisation only reached a limited audience. One reason advanced to explain this is the objective weakness of trade unionism in workplaces. Sociologists have demonstrated not just a fall in the number of trade unionists in recent years, but also declining participation in strikes over the same period.10 Obviously, we must recognise these factors, but to draw the conclusion, based on these trends, that there is no alternative to the union leaders’ strategy is effectively to surrender the debate. Indeed, this picture of organisational decline is the consequence of the type of strategies adopted by the union leaders. Furthermore, the current movement has proved it is possible to reverse this downward trajectory.
One possible result of the movement and with the impasse over the pensions issue might be a period of social and political guerrilla tactics—the devolving of the general struggle into a proliferation of local economic conflicts and political fights. In this context, a critique of the union leaders and their strategy can encourage militants to build and reinforce forms of rank and file organisation such as combative union sections, local assemblies and campaigning collectives.
May Day in Le Havre: the fascist menace
On 1 May, International Workers’ Day, Rassemblement National (RN; National Rally, previously known as the National Front), Le Pen’s fascist party, held a national meeting in Le Havre in the Normandy region of northern France. The port city of Le Havre is a symbol of workers’ struggle, known for the strength of its dockers and refinery workers. The very fact that RN was able to hold an event in this place, and during this period, might appear like some strange aberration, but it is actually the product of two important structural factors in France’s political situation. The first is the polarisation of French politics, and the second is the political weakness of all the currents within the French left on the questions of racism and fascism.
Le Pen won some 13 million votes in the 2022 presidential election, reflecting the polarising of French politics towards both the right and the left. This polarisation did not magically disappear under the influence of the recent movement on the streets. Today, the general tendency is not towards stabilisation of parliamentary democracy, but rather towards the alternatives of fascism and socialism.
The common theory on the left about RN, and sometimes about fascism in general, is that it is a radical variant of the politics of capital. Yet, Le Pen and her party opposed the new pensions law. Still, after several months of struggle on the streets, all the opinion polls seemed to show people were much more likely to see the union leaders as the primary opponents of Macron rather than viewing Le Pen as playing this role. Le Pen was, however, well ahead of Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the radical left-wing La France Insoumise (“France Unbowed”) party, on this metric. The longer the left’s perspectives remain fixated on the institutional terrain, the greater the risk that Le Pen will expand her audience.
Fascism has to be fought by refusing it all legitimacy and denying it a public presence. On 1 May, Le Havre symbolised the possibilities for this to take place as well as the failure of the left to seize such opportunities. Had the dockers’ section of the General Confederation of Labour (CGT; Confédération Générale du Travail), almost all powerful in Le Havre, or the national CGT leaders decided that the RN event should not take place, it simply would not have happened. Yet, the left failed to implement this type of struggle against RN, instead clinging to the idea that the development of a social movement alone is enough to block the road to fascism. This approach is shared by those who refuse to characterise RN as fascist as well as by those who think Macron’s government is drifting towards fascism.
The Marche des Solidarités (“Solidarity March”), an anti-racist front that notably involves collectives of undocumented migrants, organised a delegation of about 100 to demonstrate in Le Havre on 1 May. They received an enthusiastic welcome from those local organisations that called for mobilisations against RN. This shows the potential for a broad and militant anti-fascist struggle.
A movement of the size we are currently seeing in France raises the stakes of the class struggle and opens up new possibilities. An anecdote can illustrate this. Within Autonomie de Classe, the revolutionary group that I and others have been building for several years, we canvassed opinion on what subjects we should deal with at a weekend school on 14 and 15 May.11 The group is made up of activists from feminist and anti-racist struggles as well as, more recently, from a trade union background. The three subjects chosen point to the impact of the movement: “What is the working class?”, “Workers’ power” and “The role of revolutionaries”. In an already radicalised environment, the movement has put the question of class back at the heart of political issues.
Because they actively and collectively involve hundreds of thousands of young people and workers becoming activists, working-class mass movements tend to fuse theory and practice via a basic strategic question: “What are we going to do?” After 16 March, the strategy put forward by the far left and revolutionary syndicalist currents was based on a theory of strikes as exclusively economic weapons. Concretely, this meant organising and defending strikes in the “strategic” sectors, that is, those capable of hitting capital in the m0st direct and effective manner: the energy sector, transport, incineration centres and oil refineries. These ideas converged with a current, influenced by autonomism, that advocated blockading all movement—whether of the logistics network, the transport system or the workforce—rather than striking. Hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of activists went to blockade a motorway, defend a picket line and so on.
Autonomie de Classe reasoned differently. We argued that a strike is not just an economic weapon but, above all, a weapon of collective emancipation. Strikes overcome the atomisation and the alienation forced on workers within the labour process, allowing them to retake control of their lives through collective organisation. Herein lies the importance of “renewable” strikes and spreading them to all workplaces and sectors as well as the significance of fashioning organisation that enables democratic decisions to be taken in workplaces and local areas. There are are numerous other examples of theoretical debates stimulated by practical questions, including about the analysis of fascism (“should we go to Le Havre or stay and demonstrate in Paris?”) and questions of racism or sexism (“are these struggles a diversion from class struggle or an expression of its highest level?”).
The movement is not just a response to the crisis—it is also an accelerant, speeding up the crisis. This makes the development of a revolutionary alternative more urgent than ever.
Denis Godard is an organiser with the anti-racist organisation Marche des Solidarités and a member of the Autonomie de Classe revolutionary group.
1 Thanks to Sheila McGregor for translating this article from the French-language original into English.