After nearly two months of strikes and protests, French train drivers have suspended their industrial action as the government shows signs of vacillation.
Unable any longer to deal with the scale of the disruption on the Paris metro and intercity trains, alarmed by the increasing readiness of other public-sector workers to join forces in the common fight, and frightened that, even with the brutal battlefield approach to policing adopted by the state, the working class still refuses to buckle under the imposed ‘reform’ agenda, the French government is starting to backpedal.
Perhaps mindful of the approach of local elections in the spring, President Emmanuel Macron has ungratefully turned against his own police thugs, suddenly eager to distance himself from what he described as the “unacceptable behaviour” of some officers, which he said was compromising the “credibility and dignity” of the force.
Another straw in the wind was the announcement by interior minister Christophe Castaner that the riot squad would graciously desist in future from using one particular brand of exploding teargas grenade. (Critics were quick to point out that the manufacturer had in any case ceased production, and that the CRS thugs would have a whole arsenal of no less vicious grenades to choose from.) (French police clash with firefighters during Paris protests by Angelique Chrisafis, The Guardian, 28 January 2020)
And in the strongest indication yet that the government is wavering, prime minister Edouard Philippe offered to drop a key aspect of the proposed pension ‘reform’ – that of driving the pensionable age up from 62 to 64.
Needless to say, this concession, made only after two months of concerted action from organised labour, came with a sting in its tail. The prime minister explained his seeming Damascene conversion thus:
“I’ve always said that it doesn’t seem possible to balance the pension system without touching the age. But if our social partners can agree on a cocktail of measures, including something different than the pivot age, I’ll take it.” (French unions and government attempt to find pension compromise in three months, The Local, 31 January 2020)
Philippe’s ruse is to con workers into believing that it is somehow up to them to think up smart ways to help the capitalist state to balance its books. He has already made it plain that he won’t make the bosses contribute more to the system, pleading that to do so would discourage them from employing people.
Canny French workers will keep their eyes on the prize, demanding the retention in full of existing retirement rights and leaving it up to Philippe to shake his own cocktails.
Struggle deepens and spreads
Meanwhile, the class struggle in France is flaring up elsewhere. Footage of CRS (France’s riot police) thugs in full riot gear doing battle with helmeted firemen have gone viral on social media. The firefighters have long been demanding improved pay and conditions. In particular, they are demanding a rise in their hazard bonus, which has been static for the last thirty years.
And in Paris, rubbish is piling up on the streets as the three giant incinerator plants in the suburbs that burn all city’s the rubbish are being hit with strike action.
The militant union federation CGT reports that 60 percent of staff there are on strike. The blockade of the plants is causing a growing backlog of rubbish, with pavements choked with wheelie bins and rats coming out to play.
A similar situation obtains in Marseille, with 3,000 tonnes of garbage abandoned on the street. The incinerator workers, striking in defence of their retirement rights, work with toxic materials in dangerous and dirty environments. They are determined to defend their relatively early retirement arrangements, pointing out that their life expectancy is seven years below the French average. (Rubbish piles up on Paris streets as pension strikes hit waste collection, The Local, 4 February 2020)
Emmanuel Macron and his La République En Marche party popped up in 2016 like an overnight mushroom, flourishing for a while on a soil created from the rot of French social democracy. If workers keep up the pressure, the EU-backed Macron project could collapse with equal rapidity, opening a new chapter in the class struggle in France.
Victory to the strikers!