By Odile Mojon, Paris / France
Is France experiencing a “mass strike” in the image of what Rosa Luxemburg spoke about?
First of all, it should be remembered that beyond France, other European countries (England, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Spain) are affected, or have recently been affected, by major strike movements, for similar reasons. These are sometimes related to the imposition of austerity policies or measures dictated by the European Union, sometimes to reforms such as the Nitrogen Plan in the Netherlands or the pension reform in France.
To return to France, the country had barely emerged from the difficult and costly Covid period when Emmanuel Macron undertook to reform the pensions system, which is now being debated in the National Assembly. As unlikely as it may seem, given the unpopularity of the project, everyone agrees that it will be adopted, either because the oppositions will capitulate, victims of their political calculations, or because it will be imposed by force (notably through the use of Article 49.3 of the Constitution).
A contemptible reform project
Why is pension reform such an explosive issue in France? Lets concentrate on two reasons.
The first is historical. The social laws, which, until now, have made France’s social model an exception, stem directly from the National Council of the Resistance (CNR). Created in 1943, in the midst of the Second World War, to bring together all those opposed to the Vichy regime (i.e. the Pétain government, which chose to collaborate with the occupying forces), the CNR succeeded in uniting political parties and trade unions of all political persuasions on the basis of the defense of France against the occupation. The great architect of this gathering was General de Gaulle’s representative, Jean Moulin (captured and then tortured to death by the Nazis), who had managed to coalesce into a single front the various domestic resistance networks that had sprung up throughout the country.
On 15 March 1944, the CNR adopted a short post-war action program entitled “Les jours heureux du CNR” (The Happy Days of the CNR) which, in eleven pages, set out the essential points that would structure French policy from 1945 to 1986, when France adopted the « Acte unique européen » (Single European Act) later to evolve toward the the European Union, in 1992.
The essence of this program can be found in a few lines announcing “the establishment of a genuine economic and social democracy, implying the ousting of the great economic and financial feudalities from the direction of the economy”.
In addition to certain measures such as the nationalization of the means of production, which led to the creation of EDF (Electricité De France – the national electricity production company), this program inspired the creation of Social Security in 1945 (Health care) and the pension system based on « participation » in 1946 (active people pay for the retired), very effective systems to which the population is very attached and which have played a central role in the development of France. Even today, despite the determination of financial interests to patiently undermine these social systems, the Social Security system continues to function (although the percentage of costs being reimbursed to patients have been significantly diminished) as well as the pension system (which has already been made less favorable for pensioners).
The second reason that makes this reform an explosive issue derives from the first. After having fought against “the great economic and financial feudalities”, France, under different pressures, has once again submitted to them, in particular by allowing itself to be misled about the real nature of the European Union1. Indeed, since France joined the European Union and, above all, since the abandonment of its monetary sovereignty, the little music of a supposed need to reform the pension system has been heard more and more frequently, although it had never been put into practice.
However, while the music has long been heard in France, the score is being written elsewhere, more precisely in the offices of the European Union. Despite its denials, it is indeed the EU that imposes on all member countries to reform their system, as some have already done, which allows them to be given as an example to the recalcitrant.
France under the thumb of the European Union
According to the Euractiv website, in 2019, 17 EU countries have received recommendations on the “long-term sustainability of public finances”, and 15 of them have been asked to specifically reform their pension systems. To date, only 6 of these 15 countries have “explicitly” planned to reform their respective pension systems, the other 9 being late, or rather not officially committed, like France.
The EU technocracy identifies the ageing of the population as the major risk “for the sustainability of public finances”. If one follows its logic, one should also include the falling birth rate and the transformation of the European space into a war economy, two factors that are the direct consequence of a lack of political will to revive an economy based on production and development able to generate wealth for all. However, the deception of this pension reform is that, apart from the fact that the pension fund is presently in surplus, the enormous productivity gains that France has experienced are never taken into account.
But the real reason behind the pension reform project is only partially here. As a matter of fact, it lies in the bankruptcy of the international, or rather Atlantic, financial economic system. The central banks, including the European Central Bank, which for years have practiced massive injections of liquidity without counterparty in the real economy (in order to bail out failing banks) are now caught in the trap of their own measures. The speculative casino that the financial system has become today first opted for inflation (to absorb a prohibitive debt on the backs of the population) before practicing a policy of raising intếrt rates in order to curb the runaway inflation. Indeed, with high rates, the issuance of credit (and therefore the creation of money in the current system) is reduced.
In concrete terms, if the public finances of several countries are not performing well, investors, attracted by the high interest rates in the United States are starting to withdraw from the euro zone and may threaten its very existence.
The European Union under the thumb of the financial markets
Having voluntarily deprived itself of a national bank capable of printing money, France is financing itself on the markets, with the consequence of a spectacular debt. The icing on the cake is that while it has benefited from low interest rates until now, it is now suffering the effects of rising interest rates, putting it at odds with its creditors and, potentially, under the thumb of the IMF, which has already issued warnings.
Like the newspaper Le Monde, which on 9 January 2023 ran an article titled “Pensions: a reform to reassure the financial markets”, several media outlets and even government officials have made no secret of the reasons behind the government’s determination to push through a bill rejected by more than 70% of the population.
However, it could be that after years of open warfare against the working classes and against social gains, the pension reform is the last straw on the camel’s back. It could then turn out to be the “third round” challenging the European integration and reviving national sovereignty, after the vote on the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 and the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty by the population in 2005, imposed by force in 2008.
When the cup is full
The demonstrations of January 31th were surprisingly large, even for the unions themselves. Unusually, many demonstrations took place in a number of small towns that are usually not so directly affected by social phenomena. On the other hand, apart from the watchwords for the days of action, spontaneous demonstrations took place here and there.
Other days of mobilization are already planned, including the day of action on February 7th and the big demonstration planned for Saturday 11th. In order to allow people who work in the private sector (and therefore risk losing their jobs if they strike during the day), torchlight demonstrations have been devised so that they can join the workers’ processions after working hours. A novelty, but one that shows the determination to mobilize as widely as possible.
Another element might shift dramatically the situation, as youth have called for occupying campuses, which could make the nightmare of Macron’s government come true.
Is this government, whose strategy of brutal repression against the Yellow Vests remains very present in people’s minds, playing the last cartridges of an order that still has the front to claim to be democratic?
A news item had caused a lot of ink to flow last summer. France had experienced forest fires on a massive scale. On that occasion, the sad reality of the paucity of fire-fighting resources had surfaced and shocked the French when they discovered the crying lack of fire-fighting aircraft and their obsolete condition when they were in working order, due to lack of investment. At the same time, the state was buying 90 anti-riot armored vehicles for 57 million euros. Certainly an unfortunate coincidence of the calendar, but the call for tender of 38 million euros launched on November 10th by the Ministry of the Interior for the supply of ammunition, including disencerclement grenades and stun grenades, has indeed put the dots on the i’s and given a sense of where the priorities of the government lie.
We can only be very worried about the future perspectives for France, as the choices of the last decades, and of Emmanuel Macron’s government, have been those of the break-up of the French social model, betting instead on contempt and division. A break-up that cannot be blamed on supposed ignorance, since in 2022 he has launched his “own” CNR (Conseil National de la Refondation), an organization that claims to listen to those who want to “refound” France. But, could it be an irony of history? It could be that this attitude is precisely the one that recreates a unity, against him and everything he represents, at a time when a growing number of people have nothing left to lose. This is the case of a growing number of small shopkeepers (e.g. bakers), who traditionally stay away from mobilizations, but who are suffering the full force of rising gas and electricity prices, forcing many of them into bankruptcy.
The machine that has been set in motion for several decades, with the blessing of the French “elites” aligned with the Anglo-American model, is that of self-cannibalization and concretely translates into the break-up of one of the leading economies in the world. As an example, the share of manufacturing industry in France is now at 9% (it was more than 20 % in 1980) of its GDP, the equivalent of Greece…
Hence, one can understand the deep, muted anger that is gnawing away at the country…
So, to the question of whether there is a mass strike ferment in France, i.e. a ferment that does not respond to orders, that is not triggered by “pressing a button”, the answer is positive. Even if this “mass strike” does not materialize or maintain itself durably, let’s remember what Rosa Luxemburg said, with the tenacity of the Yellow Vests in mind: “Six months of revolution will do more for the education of these currently unorganized masses than ten years of public meetings and leafleting.”