The railway workers' strike has encouraged other sections of the working class (and also the students) to mobilise. Refuse collectors, Air France workers, civil servants, lawyers, postal workers, hospital workers and care workers assisting the elderly (among others) are gearing up for action, and every day new layers are joining the fight.
The ‘convergence of struggles’ is no longer just a slogan; it has become a fact.
However, in order to force the government to retreat, this will have to be stepped up, because Macron and his ministers are determined not to make any concessions. They want to inflict a heavy defeat on the railway workers, this ‘vanguard’ of our class, which will make it easier to attack all the other workers, in addition to also the unemployed, pensioners, high school students and university students.
The railway workers are carrying out a militant strike under a barrage of media slander. All day long, journalists and politicians pouring out their sympathy on television for the ‘passengers’ united in their hatred of the strikers.
With every movement of the railway workers, we see the same hypocritical fanfare in the big media. Despite this, many passengers support the struggling railway workers, as most of them are also victims of the reactionary policies of recent governments, including that of Macron.
Movement from below
Support for the railway workers' strike is expressed in various ways, including the success in raising strike funds. This is very important and also significant. But the best way to support this struggle – and in fact, the only one that can guarantee its victory – is with the mobilisation of a growing number of workers in an all-out strike.
The union leadership should throw all their forces in this direction. Instead, they are involved in so-called consultations with the government. From the point of view of the government, the main role of such ‘consultations’ is to weaken the struggle on the ground by claiming that ‘dialogue’ is continuing and that therefore there is no reason to stay out on strike.
That said, the passivity of the trade union leadership is not an absolute obstacle to the extension of the movement. France is the country of June 1936 and May 1968: two powerful, general all-out strikes that did not come from the union leaders, but from the rank-and-file.
There is no shortage of militant workers and trade unionists in the public and private sectors, who see what is going on every day and are asking themselves if it is not time for them to join in as well. Different workers are asking themselves what to do, and are sending each other signals of encouragement.
In this explosive context, a strong strike in one or two sectors could be enough to trigger a rapid expansion of the strike movement.
The rise of student mobilisations is another important element in the situation. In the space of a few days, a large number of universities have mobilised. Massive General Assemblies are being held; pickets and occupations are being organised; links are being forged between students and the labour movement.
The government is reacting with police violence – in addition to attacks by far-right groups. But this violence only has the effect of strengthening the mass movement of students. And it also has the effect of increasing the workers' anger. If the government wants to have a ‘replay’ of May ‘68 to celebrate its 50th anniversary, they are going about it in the right way!
Resist austerity and attacks on working conditions
Different sections of mobilised workers have their own particular demands, of course. But taken as a whole, they converge into one. Hiring and firing, wage levels, working conditions, and casualisation are the key questions. At every turn the workers are mobilising against wage cuts and the deterioration of their working conditions, which have been worsening for many years.
The Macron government wants to go even further in the casualisation of the workers, cutting their real purchasing power and, in general, destroying of the social gains of the labour movement. Even assuming that Macron were to back down this time, it would only be a delaying tactic and he would return to the offensive at a later stage.
Therefore what is needed is for various sectoral struggles to converge into one united political struggle: a general struggle against the Macron government and its entire programme. Political demonstrations can be a powerful lever for the strike, opening up the perspective not only repelling this or that counter-reform, but bringing the government down by dissolving the National Assembly and calling early parliamentary elections.
Of course, this would require a powerful movement of strikes in the factories. The mobilisation of 14th April in Marseille shows the way.
At the national level, the date of 5th May has been set by Mélenchon for a political rally. The principle of calling such a political demonstration is absolutely correct. But can the railway workers, for example, hold on until 5th May? An earlier date would have made it possible to connect the national political demonstration to the strike movement, which alone can push back – or even bring down – the government. On its own, a political demonstration will not be enough, even if it is massive.
Considering all the above, it is impossible to predict the dynamics of the struggle in the days and weeks ahead. The 5th May demonstration could be huge and could be taking place in the context of a rising strike movement, or could even give renewed energy to this movement. But in the coming days, the initiative of 14th April, in Marseille, is an example that should be taken up at the national level – and the sooner the better.
Resistance to Macron’s public-sector cuts revives memory of May ‘68
By Joe Attard
France has entered into a new phase of struggle as President Emmanuel Macron faces a major showdown with public sector workers.
The country has been convulsed by a series of strikes, demonstrations and confrontations between protesters and the state authorities.
With the spectre of May ’68 hovering over events, the French ruling class is determined to crush the workers and youth and impose its reactionary, pro-capitalist agenda at any cost.
Anger and radicalisation
Macron has promised to cut the number of public workers in France by 120,000 over five years. This has provoked a militant response. On 22 March, 500,000 protesters took to the streets of France, led by workers from seven public sector unions. This resulted in hundreds of flight and train cancellations (including Eurostar), as well as the closure of many schools and nurseries.
The official national turnout was smaller than previous demonstrations against Macron's labour reforms in 2017 and the anti-El Khomri protests under former president Hollande. However, the mood was more militant, with many clashes between demonstrators and the police, who used water cannons against crowds near the Bastille.
There were 65,000 protesters in Paris alone, compared to a height of 60,000 last year. However, the police presence was nearly doubled to 49,000 – revealing the anxiety of the ruling class, and their determination to crush the movement.
The heavy-handed tactics failed to dampen the enormous anger and radicalism of the masses. Marine Bruneau, a municipal worker, said: "They seem to consider that in France... the private sector can do everything and that we don't need public servants like me. But France needs us. If we're not here, the country is not ok."
François Rauch, 65, a former-SNCF rail operator, raged: “We’re here against the government, which is only helping the rich.”
The demonstrators booed the new leader of the disgraced Socialist Party, Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, who spoke at the protest in Paris. By contrast, an appearance by Jean-Luc Mélenchon was met with enthusiastic cheering and applause.
As a major step in its massive attack on the public sector, the Macron government plans to privatise SNCF – France’s state-owned railway company – and scrap the job-for-life guarantees enjoyed by workers since the nationalisation of French railways in the 1930s.
In response, rail workers started strike action from 3rd April onwards: a move the press called ‘Black Tuesday’. Energy workers, refuse collectors and staff at Air France also took strike action at the same time.
Taking on the rail workers is a dangerous gambit for Macron. They are one of the strongest sections of the working class, with power at their fingertips to bring France grinding to a standstill. These workers have also tended to lead other sectors of the working class in struggle, such as during the major strike wave of December 1995. However, it is unlikely Macron will back down easily, for fear of emboldening workers in other sectors.
The union leaders have of course been dragged along by their membership at every stage. Only the SUD Rail trade union called for indefinite strike action: specifically, a one-day general strike, renewable every day in the General Assembly.
CGT, CFDT and UNSA instead called for a ‘slowdown’, consisting of two days of strike action, three days of work and so on, from 3 April to 28 June. Rather than supporting their brothers and sisters in the transport sector by coordinating strike action, other public-sector trade union leaders are simply calling for a “day of action” on 19 April – more than a fortnight after the commencement of the rail strike and during the school holidays!
This is a rehash of the terrible strategy applied during the fight against attacks on France’s labour laws in 2016 and 2017.
Students rising up
The youth have also begun to mobilise against Macron’s attempted counter-reforms to the education sector, including tightened entrance requirements to French universities.
At present, every student in France who passes the baccalaureate high-school exam has the right to go to university in their home area. This has led to oversubscription to popular courses like Law and Psychology, meaning a (very unpopular) lottery system is used to determine admissions where demand is highest.
Under Macron’s plans, the most-oversubscribed universities would be allowed to select students on academic performance, which is of course heavily influenced by one's upbringing and social class. The proposal will end France’s tradition of universal university education.
Additionally, a series of local measures have been enacted to privatise and marketise higher education, so cutting costs.
Many students have staged sit-ins in protest at these measures, facing severe repression from the police and university administration as a result.
Students at the University of Toulouse le Mirail have been mobilised for three months, occupying the building and blocking the entrances in protest at Macron’s new admission system and an attempt to fuse the institution with a neighbouring university. Staff are on strike for a renewable, three-month period.
Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer, declared the university “ungovernable”, and intervened by dismissing the local administration and placing Toulouse le Mirail under government control.
The spectre of May 68
The state has also threatened police action if the occupation continues. Nevertheless, students and staff vowed to press on at a massive general assembly on 13 March. They declared their objectives are now for broader, “social” change – citing the legacy of May ’68.
Another incident reveals the appalling tactics employed by university administration to shut down student dissent. A group of students occupying a lecture hall in Montpellier University were attacked by a far-right militia (including other students and staff), armed with bats, sticks and stun-guns, who screamed vile, racist abuse as they beat the occupiers and forced them out of the room. The university’s dean, Philippe Pétel, allowed these thugs into the lecture theatre via a back entrance. Four of the victims ended up in hospital.
The event caused outrage across the country. The bourgeois press fears this incident could turn from a “low-key protest” into “a 1968 student revolt”.
Of course, the French trade union leadership has a long history of calling actions and allowing the class to exhaust themselves without achieving anything. However, the real cause for concern from Macron’s point of view is the strengthening unity between workers and youth. Indeed, students have already mobilised solidarity action for the strikes.
Fifty years ago, it was the solidarity and militant action of students and the organised working class that brought the De Gaulle government to its knees. If Macron and his capitalist cronies continue their assault against students and youth, they could reanimate the memory of that revolutionary chapter in French history.