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France in Revolt

“In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business - kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new régime.”

Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution.

In a mass outpouring of resistance unprecedented this century, millions of workers, youth and women have taken to the streets of France to oppose the Macron government’s attack on workers’ pension rights.

In addition to raising the pension age from 62 to 64, Macron’s reform would also increase to 43 the minimum number of yearly contributions required to qualify for retirement. In repeated opinion polls, around 75 percent of the French people have voiced opposition to the measures.

As numerous commentators have observed, the resistance is also fueled by years of austerity and a spiraling cost of living which was the focus of the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) movement that spread like wildfire before the pandemic. Since taking office in 2017, Macron also slashed unemployment benefits and made it easier for companies to fire workers.

Macron has responded to the current phase of this resistance in two ways. Firstly, having failed to win a parliamentary majority, he has ridden roughshod over the French national assembly and imposed his reforms by presidential decree. This is allowed by article 49.3 of the constitution.

Secondly, unable to stem the mass opposition on the streets, he has used the riot police to attack demonstrations with indiscriminate use of baton charges, water cannon, tear gas, pepper spray and sting ball grenades.

Like any standard war grenade, this is launched by hand using a timer mechanism that releases approximately 180 rubber .32 caliber pellets. The pellets travel up to 50 feet from the point of detonation, so their impact is quite indiscriminate. For those close to the site of detonation penetration of the pellets beneath the skin is common.

A recent victim of this was a trade unionist named Sebastién, a railway worker in a hardware workshop for more than 25 years and father of three children. He was on last Thursday´s (March 22) demonstration in Paris and lost an eye after being struck by a grenade pellet. In a similar incident in Rouen, a woman had a finger ripped off by this same weapon.

Hundreds of peaceful protesters, members of the press, and even passers-by have been victims of riot police violence. Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said more than 450 people were arrested on Thursday alone, bringing the tally to well over 1,000 arbitrary detentions.

The scale of police brutality was registered by France's Human Rights League whose president Patrick Baudouin declared:

"The authoritarian shift of the French state, the brutalisation of social relations through its police, violence of all kinds and impunity are a major scandal.

This has served only to deepen the popular anger and draw in wider layers of people behind the strikes and demonstrations, including the country’s teachers, 60 percent of whom also walked out of their jobs at the start of the protests.

Youth radicalisation

Amongst the youth in particular, there is a growing level of participation and identification with the struggle. A young student, Rosie who participated in the first phase of the protests, expressed it this way:

“We live in a productivity-obsessed society that is preoccupied with economic growth and which has been destroying our planet for decades. Now we’re being asked to work for two more years so we can produce even more. This system is wrecking our planet – it’s normal to rebel against it. Among my generation, we’re overwhelmingly concerned about the environment; we have no choice. But we know that small steps alone won’t change things. I’m vegetarian, I recycle as much as I can … but if we don’t resist more, it won’t be enough.

“I’m not very optimistic for the future,” she continued, “unless we profoundly change the way our society functions. That’s why I protest – and why I’ll still be out protesting in 20 years time.”

The violent police repression is being met with even more popular resistance. As the cops run riot, workers and students are becoming more organised , finding ways to defend themselves and step up their protests by blockading major roads, railway lines, refineries, universities and high schools.

The scale of this revolt invites comparison with the revolutionary upheaval of May-June 1968, except in reverse. This time it is the workers' movement which has detonated the revolt, with the youth and students now joining in ever greater numbers.

The student organisation L'Alternative has counted some 80 schools and universities mobilized, including around sixty blocked or occupied. The strengyh of this was explained by Éléonore Schmitt, spokesperson for the student union, in an interview with the French Communist Party newspaper L’Humanité:

"The mobilization is very strong among students despite police repression. In the universities or in the street, every evening the Brav-M police officers attack the demonstrators,"

Brav-M, the Motorized Brigades for the Repression of Violent Action, is like the cop equivalent of the SAS and functions as an elite hard core element within the CRS.

The CRS itself was raised in December 1944 in response to scaremongering about a possible Communist insurrection. Its true function was revealed three years later when it was called upon to quell the growing unrest throughout the country caused by food rationing, a poor harvest and coal shortages.

In the autumn of 1948 the CRS, acting on the orders of Jules Moch, the Minister of the Interior, was ordered to bring thousands of striking miners to heel. It did so with bullets, killing several and wounding hundreds.

The CRS today is not able to act with complete impunity. Outside the Duperré art school in Paris, for instance, students piled up a barricade of bins. Signs said raising the pension age to 64 would be met with a new May 1968, a reference to the pre-revolutionary crisis of that year sparked by a student revolt and general strike that lasted for several weeks before the government backed down.

Don’t underestimate people’s power to mobilise,” said Amina, 19, a textiles student from the Paris banlieue. “I’m afraid of police violence and terrified to demonstrate at night, but I’ll join in during the day.”

The youth mobilisation is providing extra yeast to the rising, a fact recorded by The Guardian newspaper on Tues March 23:

Everyone’s joining in, the government is afraid of more and more young people taking part,” said Céline, 53, a trade unionist for the leftwing CGT union who has been on the barricades at the trash plant since 5am most mornings.

This was confirmed on March 23 when some 3.5 million people took to the streets across the length and breadth of France. In addition to the 800,000 strong protest in Paris, the unions claimed that there were 250,000 demonstrators in Marseille, 110,000 in Bordeaux, 55,000 in Lyon, 50,000 in Clermont-Ferrand, 24,000 in Tarbes, 24,000 in Bayonne, 15,000 in Puy-en-Velay.

Beginning of the movement

Although the strike movement started in January, the current phase began in March, when the major unions called a general strike accompanied by mass demonstrations, road and port blockades, as well as some university and high school boycotts.

The strikes and mobilisations were called jointly by the main union federations, most notably the CGT (General Confederation of Labour) and the CFDT (French Democratic Confederation of Labour), linked respectively with the Communist Party and the Socialist Party. It was the first time that the two union federations had acted in concert.

In addition, the mass protests have been supported by La France Insoumise (France Unbowed), the main leftwing oppostion in the French national assembly. Its Presidential candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, was at the 200,000 Marseille demonstration and described it as, "A social mobilization like we haven't seen for at least 30 or 40 years."

Both union blocs called for a two-day general strike, and declared they would stage ’grèves reconductibles’, or rolling strikes, meaning workers would vote at the end of each strike period on whether to continue industrial action. In theory, this meant the strikes could go on for days, or even weeks. However, this has only applied to certain sectors, most notably the Parisian bin workers, who have been on continuous strike for more than two weeks since the protests began. Some train and metro workers, as well as workers at four of the seven major oil refineries, have continued striking.

Power struggle

It is not just the strike at the oil refineries which shows the power of the labour movement to bring things to a halt. In addition to blockades of key ports and roadways, the unions have also blocked deliveries to and from the refineries as well as three out of France's four liquefied natural gas terminals.

The conservative daily newspaper, Le Figaro, reported that by 9 March, fuel shipments had not left French refineries for several days and that the Total Energy refineries were still blocked. In the case of the Esso refinery in Fos-sur-mer, the workers there voted to continue striking.

In response, the French government has taken steps to order workers to resume operations. At the Fos depot operated by Gas Depots of Fos, this resulted in an open battle with pickets being able to temporarily fend off the CRS riot police.

As recently as 22 March, a similar situation occurred at Total’s largest refinery in Normandy, where the government “requisitioned” some of the strikers – giving the oil giant the legal power to order them back to work or face fines and jail.

The CGT union branch there countered by calling upon trade unionists in the port city of Le Havre to rally in front of the refinery. Over 300 strikers from all the industrial sectors of the region - dockers, ports, rail workers, and others - as well as students turned out. They stood outside the site all night to stop any return to work and to prevent police assaults on the pickets.

Women join the battle

The protests in early March were the first time in the history of France that the trade unions called for a two-day general strike that exended to March 8, International Working Women’s Day and in support of a demonstration calling for equal pay, an end to sexual violence, defence of abortion rights and against pension reform.

In preparation for this, a joint press release by eight French trade union confederations and the five students’ associations called for action to tackle the inequalities that women are still experiencing in the workplace:

Even in 2023, women’s salaries remain on average 25% lower than men’s,” they declared.

The income gap between women and men persists after retirement as well:

Twice as many women work until 67 years of age, the maximum retirement age, but they receive pensions which are 40% lower than men. Also, 40% of women are forced to retire early and thus receive only partial pension,”

In France, women represent 80% of part-time workers, 60% of contract workers, 80% of single-parent families and are often the first victims of capitalist poverty. Camille, a 54-year-old publisher who said she turned out to protest in solidarity with the low-income workers, said:

Women are structurally underpaid and their pensions are lower as a result. And yet they have some of the most exhausting jobs, working absurd hours on top of caring for the young and the elderly,” she said,

One example of the consequences of this was the case of 64-year-old Florentine Delangue, whose record of unpaid apprenticeships and career interruptions meant that she was yet to qualify for a full pension, despite getting her first job at a hair salon aged 16.

I started working two years before my husband, but I will have to keep going after he’s retired,” she said. “That’s why I’m angry.”

Le Roi c’est moi

When the French parliament convened in Paris in 1655 to contest some royal edicts, Louis XVI responded with the phrase “L’etat c’est moi”, I am the state. The French revolution put paid to the monarchy over a century later, but the state even today endows its Presidency with executive powers which many now see as reminiscent of royalist absolutism.

At the same time as Macron sidestepped the French assembly, he was preparing a royal welcome for King Charles at the Palace of Versailles, the former home of Louis XV1. The opulent Versailles, once the dazzling center of royal Europe and a focal point of the French Revolution, is an enduring symbol of social inequalities and excess.

The association has not been lost amongst many of the French youth and workers, who see Macron as the president of a rich elite willing to trample on their rights while at the same time giving a state banquet to the monarch of British imperialism.

One 19-year-old student, Bahia from Lyon, put it this way:

“This is about the whole democratic system,” she said, “How many more laws could be passed using executive powers and without a parliament vote? It feels to us like the system is broken.”

“Unbelievable! We are going to have Emmanuel Macron, the Republican monarch, welcoming King Charles III in Versailles… while the people in the street are demonstrating,” said Sandrine Rousseau, a lawmaker from France’s Green Party.

However, it is Macron’s own behaviour which is drawing parallels with royalty. In addition to using 49.3 to trample over the national assembly, his recent diatribe comparing the protests to the Trump supporters attack on Congress echoes that of Louis XV1 reaction to “the Paris mob” of 1789. His aloofness and unwillingness to listen to popular protest as well as his lavish lifestyle, has seen him labelled increasingly as “President of the Rich”.

Enter Robin Hood

In tandem with the strikes at the oil refineries, other workers in the energy sector have struck power plants including at three nuclear reactors. Amongst all these actions, workers have displayed ever increasing signs of class consciousness. Workers who are keen to avoid targeting other workers. As one trades unionist recently explained:

We can decide how the electricity is routed. We’re not just putting everyone in darkness which hits people like us and might take out a hospital. The guys from the hydroelectric dams tell us they could put the whole network down, they know how to do it. But that’s not what we want”.

This is not an isolated or one-off stance. Commenting on the first wave of strikes that began in January, the online news network France24 reported:

“Amid national strikes in the energy sector, some workers in France have found a novel way to protest. On Thursday, "Robin Hood" operations – unauthorised by the government – provided free gas and electricity to schools, universities, and low-income households throughout the country.”

Known as Robin des Bois strikes, the workers not only targeted big business operations but also ensured free energy supplies to public sports facilities, daycare centers, public libraries, some small businesses and homes that had been cut off from power.

The General Secretary of the CGT, Phillippe Martinez said that this was about “returning energy to those who don’t have it at all because they can’t afford to, and making it free for hospitals and schools.”

The next national days of protest were set for Saturday and Monday, 11 and 13 of March. By this time it was clear that the movement was losing some of its initial impetus. The numbers participating in strikes and demonstrations suffered a downturn, particularly on the Saturday which recorded the lowest figure since the beginning of the struggle in January.

Origins of welfare capitalism in France

The foundations of France’s current welfare system, known as la Sécurité sociale, were put in place following the Second World War. This was a time when the working class throughout Europe, and especially in France in the aftermath of the Nazi occupation, pressed for a better quality of life.

The enormous sacrifices made during the war had followed closely on the heels of the capitalist depression of the 1930s. It was then that France witnessed a wave of factory occupations, sit down protests and nationwide strikes that resulted in the formation of a Popular Front government involving the Communist, Socialist and so-called liberal capitalist parties. In addition to fighting for a 40-hour week and paid vacation leave, retirement pensions had also featured as part of the workers’ demands.

Following World War II, only one-third of people lived to see retirement. Those who did, got access to just 20 percent of their former salary for a handful of years before dying. After the retirement age was reduced to 60 by the Socialist Party government in 1982, French workers could look forward to a lengthy period of retirement ranging from 22 years for men and 26 for women.

On paper at least, retirement was no longer considered as a short reprieve before death but, as one sociologist put it, “the afternoon of life” blessed by freedom to travel, enjoy your grandchildren, pursue hobbies and so forth.

However, this is and was completely contingent on the state pension. In France there are no supplementary private pension schemes like those that exist in the UK. By raising both the minimum age and annual contributions required to qualify for receipt of the state pension, Macron’s reforms are a major attack on important working class gains.

In addition to their adverse effects on women, the reforms will unfairly affect blue-collar workers, who mostly start their working lives earlier and who have a shorter life expectancy.

Sixty-four isn’t possible,” said CGT leader Philippe Martinez, “Let them visit a textile factory floor, or a slaughterhouse, or the food-processing industry, and they will see what working conditions are like.”

Crisis of the Fifth Republic

The last two general elections in France have revealed a profound crisis of capitalist rule in France. Other instances of this instability are also evident in Spain and Italy with new political forces emerging to the far right and left of the bourgeois political spectrum following the 2008 financial crisis. However, none are as far reaching as those in France.

France’s post-war economic reconstruction and relative political stability was accompanied by a large measure of bipartisanship between the Socialist and Gaullist forces. This has now been severely fractured by a combination of economic crisis and increased class polarisation.

Macron’s decision to invoke article 49.3 has underscored the fragility of bourgeois parliamentary democracy faced with a profound social crisis. The struggle within the French assembly has acquired a new character. The traditional parties of labour and capital have floundered and been replaced by entirely new formations represented by La France Insoumisse , Macron’s Renaissance party, and the far right National Rally.

The French assembly now, is almost completely unrecognisable from its predecessors.

In the case of the PCF, its electoral support has waned from a post war high of 159 deputies in 1945 to just 12 in the 2022 legislative elections. The Socialist Party, on the other hand, was only able to win 27 seats, down from a post war high of 279 in 2012 elections. Whereas the Gaullist Republican bloc has been reduced to 41 deputies, Le Pen’s National Rally party now has 88 deputies. With La France Insoumise gaining 69 seats, the opposition forces are divided into 7 different groupings facing a minority government propped up by the Gaulists.

Whilst Macron may act like a King, his Presidential powers are in full accord with the defense of the class interests of French capitalism. The Fifth Republic, as it was first constituted by Charles De Gaulle in 1958,, was designed with this single purpose in mind. - how to govern over an unstable parliamentary system fraught by class tensions both at home and abroad.

With no party or coalition able to sustain a parliamentary majority, governments had been forming and falling in quick succession since 1946. This was a reflection of the strength of the French working class which had formed the backbone of the resistance movement and contributed decisively to the liberation of Paris through the August 1944 general strike and uprising.

Fascism and capitalism were completely discredited and, in the elections that followed, all the right-wing parties were overwhelmingly defeated. For the first time in history the Communist Party (CP) emerged as the strongest party, and socialists and communists together had a majority (51 per cent) of the votes: a higher proportion than the Labour Party obtained in Britain at about the same time (48 per cent).

Not only did the PCF command majority support within the working class (winning some 5 million votes in the election) but by 1944-45 the majority of the working class was itself organised in trades unions.

CGT Congress

Historically, the CGT has been France’s strongest union federation. By the 1970s it’s membership peaked at around 2 million but that number declined to its current total of 660,000 compared with 875,000 for the CFDT.

On March 27, in the midst of the mass mobilisations, the CGT held its national congress. Its proceedings were dominated in part by the election of a new General Secretary to replace the outgoing Phillipe Martinez who will now move into a management post at Renault.

Following the March 23 protests, Martinez had called on Macron to suspend the pension reform for six months to allow for a process of mediation. This became a big issue at the congress:

Comrade Philippe Martinez, who gave you a mandate to talk about mediation while workers are in the street?" asked Murielle Morand, of the chemical workers federation.

The mediation proposal became the focus of a substantial opposition from railway, energy and chemical worker unions resulting in a majority of the congress delegates rejecting the activity report of the outgoing leadership. This should have come as no great surprise given that recent polls showed that 63% of the entire French population ‘want the mobilisation to continue’ and 40% want it ‘to get more radical

When Martinez first announced his withdrawal, he nominated his successor to be Marie Buisson. It was she who presented the defeated outgoing report. Standing against her was Céline Verzeletti, the co-general secretary of the Federal Union of Civil Servants and a member of the PCF. Commenting on the pensions struggle prior to the congress, Verzeletti wrote:

“No pause or mediation - strikes and demonstrations until the withdrawal. The balance of power is in our favour, withdrawal is within reach. Let's not give up,"

Neither of these candidates proved acceptable to the opposing currents within the leadership and, in the end, a compromise candidate, Sophie Binet (General Secretary of the Union of Engineers, Managers and Technicians), was selected.

However, even Binet is a regular columnist for L’Humanité and was keen to identify with the more fighting elements within the union In her acceptance speech she declared:

There will never be a truce, there will never be a suspension. There will never be mediation. We are winning the fight to stop the pension reform.”

Seize the time

The student revolt and indefinite general strike of May-June 1968 were a living reminder of the revolutionary potential of the working class. These events, unseen since the 1930s in both France and Spain, confirmed that the objective conditions were once again ripe for socialist revolution in an advanced capitalist country in western Europe. The flip side, of course, was the tremendously heavy cost of not seeing it through to the end.

In the last 40 years, it has been easy to be blinded by the downturn in the class struggle and to see in this decline an inherent passivity - driven by a supposedly successful consumerist model - amongst those who are most oppressed and exploited by the capitalist system. If nothing else, the current revolt in France reveals that, beneath this surface calm, there lies a seething resentment of the social inequalities and bottomless hypocrisy of bourgeois society.

The Yellow Vests movement, which seemed to appear from nowhere in 2018 , was already a powerful reminder of this underlying powder keg. Now, barely a year after the pandemic, the French masses have yet again erupted onto the centre stage of politics.

Whilst still a minority in society, the trades union movement has demonstrated its potential to galvanise a vast popular movement. In the sovereign workers’ assemblies, established to oversea the renewable strikes, we can see at least the embryo of an authentic people's democracy. Likewise, the Robin des Bois element of the strikes are a practical illustration of class solidarity, embracing both the aspirations of youth and of women whose needs and rights continue to be so woefully neglected under capitalism.

Inevitably, if and when the struggle continues, these type of assemblies can assume a broader function, provided that they extend beyond the workplace and become a means by which all the different forces active in the streets can combine to discuss and organise the next stage of the resistance. As it stands, the movement is still far too dependent on the union leaderships.

As this article goes to press, it is clear that the French ruling class is in no mood for compromise. The unions are due to meet with Macron’s prime minister and are also awaiting the outcome of a constitutional court hearing on the use of 49.3.

From all accounts, the mass pressure is for the struggle continue, but to advance beyond the existing stalemate, has an inevitable dynamic towards extending the strike action, intensifying the mobilisations, challenging police violence and broadening the democratic control at a rank and file level.

Were that to occur, it would result in an extremely unstable equilibrium. At the end of the day, it poses the question of power and who wants it most. The bosses and the thugs who defend their profit lust? Or working people who have a natural instinct for social solidarity and justice?


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