Who is defending democracy in France? Labour unions!

When Emmanuel Macron fought for the presidency, he presented himself as a defender of democracy. He suggested that anyone who held freedom, equality and fraternity dear should support him, even if reluctantly, but nevertheless. All in the name of stopping the far right and saving democratic institutions. Less than a year after, Macron gives everyone a lesson of anti-democracy.

France in 2023 is indeed an arena of struggle for democracy. Everyone in Europe has probably heard about democratic institutions being dismantled, or seriously undermined, in countries like Hungary or Poland. While genuine democrats have reasons to be worried about rule of law in these countries, they ought to be equally concerned about ‘the old and mature’ French democracy – and one can frankly doubt if they are.

Democracy means the power of the people – and the French people are demanding loudly, clearly and unequivocally, that their voice be taken into account in decision-making.

They want to have a say on an issue that affects all citizens and to see that this say is taken into account.

11 March is the seventh day of large, mass, nationwide protests against raising the retirement age. On the first day of these protests, 2 million people demonstrated. On the sixth day, 7 March, 3.5 million people took to the streets.

The resistance is not waning, and in the polls the opponents of the reform have almost a qualified majority: 65 per cent against the reform! Just as many believe that street demonstrations are no longer enough, and that against Macron’s ideas, a strike should be staged, paralysing the country. To show the rich who are pushing the reform what happens when the working people stop working.

65 per cent is more than Macron got in the second round of the presidential election, not to mention the first. And if you ask people if they rate his current policies positively or negatively, the result is even more devastating for the president and for his Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, another face of the pension reform. In another survey, only 25 per cent of those questioned approved of Macron’s actions, 21 per cent of those questioned thought well of Borne.

What does the ‘defender of democracy’ do with such an unequivocal popular vote of no confidence? He gives all those wishing to learn a lesson in anti-democracy.

The first days of the protests he simply kept silent. At the same time, his government was speeding up as much as possible the parliamentary debate on the draft reform, almost completely taking away the voice of the left-wing opposition. On 10 March, Macron graciously deigned to respond to the trade unions’ open letter with the usual set of cliches: that the pension system is under threat and if the retirement age is not raised, what is left is either to cut pensions, raise taxes or leave the problem to the future generations.

On the same day, the infamous article 44.3 of the French constitution was once again set in motion: on the basis of this article, the Senate, instead of voting separately on each proposed amendment to the law, will only vote once – on the whole. The government therefore deigns neither to take into account the criticism of ordinary voters nor to listen to the voice of their parliamentary representatives.

Does this still have anything to do with democracy at all?

If anyone in contemporary France is defending democracy at all, it is the trade unions.

Federations with different political orientations, with different views on capitalism and the distribution of wealth, now united by a common cause, mobilise the struggle and restore people’s hope that their political involvement matters at all.

It is at the union demonstrations, and in the speeches of politicians from the left-wing NUPES coalition, that people are reminded of the fundamental issues: that for thousands of French people in physical, gruelling, lower-paid jobs, this reform means literally working until death. 25% of the poorest people in France do not live at all until today’s pension, granted at the age of 62. By contrast, at the age of 61, 25% have neither a job nor a pension. They are already struggling to survive in poverty, and after the changes, their situation will become even more desperate.

It is the trade unions that are today trying with all their might to save the rule of the people, which guarantees a minimum of social security for all, or at least aims to do so. Macron is not even trying to make a real semblance of safeguarding the institutions of liberal democracy. The abuse of Article 44.3 and zero social dialogue – this is not power of the people, this is coming close to an authoritarian rule, even if complex parliamentary etiquette is partially held.

In other words, this is simply the implementation of class interests of the business communities that helped Macron to carve himself out as a “new quality in politics” and come to power. No democracy, no implementation of win-win solutions, no universal good, was ever the point here.

– The pension system is threatened first and foremost by the fact that the government is easily bending to the dictates of the European authorities and the business community and is aiming for a drastic reduction in social spending – this is how economist Henri Sterdyniak of OFCE, a research centre at the Institute of Political Science in Paris, assesses the reform plan.

Nothing more needs to be said here. These words by a specialist are the best summary of what is at stake. One can only wish courage to the true defenders of French democracy. They have already gone down in history – but it is in everyone’s interest that they are remembered as victors.

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