After nearly two months of strikes and protests, the French train drivers suspended their industrial action believing the government to be showing 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 refused to buckle under the imposed ‘reform’ agenda, the French government turned to Gallic guile. First of all concessions were dangled in front of the proletariat with regard to the retirement age: in order to try to defuse militant action on the part of the French unions, prime minister Edouard Philippe offered to drop a key aspect of the pension ‘reforms’, that involve driving the pensionable age up from 62 to 64. Needless to say, this mooted concession, made only after two months of concerted action from organised labour, came with a sting in its tail. The prime minister explained this 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.
Nevertheless the hopes of the French people were diverted to Parliament and the prospect of their having, through their parliamentary representatives, the power to amend the legislation before it became law. This was eagerly seized and over 40,000 amendments were tabled by various opposition parties, which would at very least, everyone thought, prevent the legislation being passed before the term of the present government expires.
It should have been realised that in parliamentary democracy the ruling class always has a few tricks up its sleeve, and sure enough:
“France’s government invoked a sparingly used special power Saturday to push contested pension reforms though parliament without a vote by furious opposition lawmakers.
“Prime Minister Edouard Philippe’s surprise announcement that he was cutting short debate in the National Assembly was the latest twist in the difficult birth of the pension shake-up that has sparked sustained protests and weeks of crippling strikes.
“The constitutional power Philippe invoked to force the pension bill through the assembly without a vote previously had been used fewer than 100 times since modern France was founded in 1958. The government has become increasingly frustrated with the slow progress of the bill, held up by thousands of opposition amendments.
“Philippe told parliament he was invoking the power ‘not to end debate but to end this episode of non-debate.’ He said he got approval to do so during a special Cabinet meeting Saturday …” (‘Anger flares anew over France’s divisive pension reforms’, Associated Press, 29 February 2020).
Infuriated by this betrayal, the CGT has called for further strikes and demonstrations, and these have already started. They will need to summon up tremendous momentum to overcome the ruling class determination to make the French pensioners pay for the capitalist crisis as it is clear that they have the right man in Macron to pursue a war of attrition against the proletariat for far longer than anybody else has dared to do thus far.
Meanwhile the class struggle in France is flaring up elsewhere. Footage of CRS 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 30 years.
And in Paris rubbish is piling up on the streets as the three giant incinerator plants in the suburbs which burn all 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).
Macron and his party popped up 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 Macron project could collapse with equal rapidity, opening a new chapter in the class struggle in France.