France is boiling over like it has not been for long. Images of May ’68 are surfacing in the minds of student youth, while workers are calling for the overthrow of the government and burning of the neoliberal legacy of the last 30 years. All because of the pension age reform raising the pension age from 62 to 64. Elizabeth Borne, together with Emanuel Macron, did not win their reform through parliamentary means. They did not convince the public or politicians. They invoked Article 49.3 of the French Constitution, which allows them to bypass the National Assembly and push through a law without a vote. The only safeguard is that triggering this article allows a vote of no confidence. Only once, in 1962, when the article was triggered, the government lost. Macron’s neoliberal monarchy withstood, but for how long?
Since the 14th of March, French newspapers had been writing that Macron had only two choices, either to have a good relationship with Les Républicains – a republican party alluding to De Gaulle’s legacy but de facto having nothing to do with him – or to invoke Article 49.3. Ministers themselves, however, insisted that the government would not go down this route. They claimed in interviews that the article was widely condemned as undemocratic (which is, actually, true!). At the same time, trade union leaders warned that the use of the so-called 49.3 would lead to an escalation of conflict, in an already deeply divided country.
Minutes before the bill was due to be voted on 16 March, Macron was still unsure which of the possible exits to choose. The atmosphere in the Assemblée Nationale – the lower house of parliament – was hellishly heated. Senior government politicians and representatives of the presidential administration were running around the corridors. No one was sure what path the government would take. At the last minute, the ‘nuclear’ option passed in the presidential camp. Article 49.3 was again invokedn, as the president was “not sure of the support of a sufficient number of votes”.
All this chaos, as in a spoof, shows us the state of French politics in recent months.
Elizabeth Borne and Macron’s minority government, formed by several liberal parties, the largest of which is Macron’s Renaissance, with 250 MPs out of 577 seats in the Assemblée Nationale, is constantly wavering. It has signed programme agreements with Les Républicains and the Nationalists led by Marine Le Pen. These rely on voting through individual laws rather than an overall vision of the state and its reform, resulting in constant negotiations between the right-wing parties. The left, united under the NUPES bloc – Nouvelle Union populaire écologique et sociale – is demarcated from the rest of the parties by a cordon sanitaire, despite a second-place result in the elections.
More than 70 per cent of the French are against the current pension reform, which appears to be the main achievement of Macron’s last term in office.
No one wants such a legacy, except himself. The atmosphere in France right now is extremely tense, secondary school and university students, but also teachers, doctors and most other industries are involved in the pension bill. People are rebellious and angry at the government, they feel that they are not being listened to, which explains the massive participation in strikes and protests
– reports Yousra Khalifa, a journalist from Lille.
Who, on the other hand, supports the pension reform?
– It is hard to resist the impression that we are dealing with a class struggle in ‘pure’ form: a maximum of 30 percent of people in the polls speak favorably of the reform – my editorial colleague Małgorzata Kulbaczewsk-Figat tells me. – These are the wealthiest French, property owners and annuitants, business people. Then there are some pensioners who have come to believe that their own benefits could fall if there is not system chance. Among wage earners, as well as young people, the percentage rejecting the reform clearly exceeds 70 per cent. Macron is therefore relying exclusively on the support of business circles, who understand perfectly well that the reform is not so much to save the pension system (because even French economists are divided as to whether its situation should be described as bad at all), but to guarantee additional budget revenues without the need to raise taxes for companies
– she concludes.
Young people demonstrating in Lille, 28 March.
Workers and students have been taking to the streets every day since 16 March, in the middle of the week between 2-3 million people take to the streets of France day after day according to various figures. These people are taking to the streets because they feel infantilized by government propaganda claiming that simple people do not understand the reasons for raising the retirement age. Nobody listens to their voice, nobody negotiates with the parties they voted for, which are mostly on the left. Many people didn’t vote because they simply don’t believe in French democracy anymore
– Khalifa adds.
In Lille, where I live and study, it is often students who are at the forefront of marches and blockades. Many of my friends take part in them daily.
Among French students, one has to admit that there have been difficulties in launching a real mobilization, despite references to May 68 we are very far from that, at the beginning of the struggle against the Macron government it was the workers who were at the forefront of the movement. Nevertheless, since 7 March there has been a revival of mobilization. Universities and schools are occupied. Classes are being interrupted and transformed into popular agoras where students can express their views and debate
– Peter Noam, a student and member of the Jeune Communist du Nord, tells me.
Interestingly, however, many universities know how to counteract student self-organization. The university administration often preemptively decides to switch courses to distance learning. Thus depriving students involved in resistance to reform of contact with their peers.
Lille, 28 March 2023.
The course of the vote of no confidence on 20 March shows that the Macronist government is treading on increasingly fragile ice. When it came to no confidence vote, both left-wing and extreme right factions wanted Elisabeth Borne’s departure as Prime Minister. The motion got also the votes from a centrist club of Libertés, indépendants, outre-mer et territoires (LIOT) club and 19 representatives of the more moderately right-wing Republicans. The latter rebelled against the recommendation of their own club’s leadership to reject the vote. It was an unexpected turn of events, confirming that there is growing discontent among center and center-right MPs over the autocratic actions of Macron and Prime Minister Borne.
– It is primarily about the use of Article 49.3 of the French Constitution, cutting off parliamentary debate whenever those in power are unsure of the final outcome. Some representatives of the right have come to believe that Macron’s ostentatious disregard for the voice of the people will ultimately end in disaster for this political camp. This sentiment was expressed during the debate on 20 March by Olivier Marleix, a Republican, who accused the president of narcissism, disregard for anyone’s opinion and said that if Macron does not change his behavior, this parliament will not make it to the end of its term.
– adds Malgorzata Kulbaczewska-Figat.
What is certain in all this, however, is the attitude of the trade unions, which united against the reformon a historic scale. Never in the most recent history have all unions from right to left fought so united against a single government.
– After the declaration of the President, who assures that he hears the demonstrators but does not want to modify anything in his project, all the trade union organizations consider this a provocation. To this day, there is no division between the unions
– Laurent Brun, head of the CGT union among railway workers, tells me.
The government has decided to radicalize its position towards its electorate: no compromise is expected.
– It’s a declaration of social war, in their minds it was remarkably that simple. For almost two weeks, spontaneous demonstrations/gatherings have been multiplying, massively followed by the population and particularly suppressed by the police. The speech was perceived as contempt for the working class (as a ‘smicard’, a speech over the ground) this certainly explains the great mobilization of the last days’ – Jeune Communist de Nord member Peter Noam tells me.
Militants of the CGT and other trade unions continue to demand a return to exit from the labor market for all workers at the age of 60 in retirement and an anticipated exit at 55 or 50 in the case of particularly difficult jobs. In public opinion, most citizens now favor refusing to raise the retirement age and lowering it to 60. This is therefore possible and affordable, as several avenues have been identified, whether it is the gain in equal pay for men and women, which generates additional social security contributions of more than €5 billion, the reduction of abuses in employers’ social security, which accounts for €100 billion per year, or employment and wage policies that create additional resources, numerous activists and trade unionists tell me.
Every day new cities are joining the revolt, it has a trade union-worker dimension, but environmentalists and environmental activists are also joining in.
This is exemplified by the events of 25 March when a demonstration took place opposing the mega-reservoir project in Sainte-Soline (Deux-Sèvres). Two demonstrators were found in a life-threatening condition after police intervention, several others were seriously injured in the face, dozens injured with serious open wounds. Faced with hundreds of activists organized and equipped to confront the forces of order, but also with thousands of other peaceful activists, the state did not hesitate to deploy more than 2,000 mobile gendarmes. The latter resorted to the indiscriminate use of so-called indirect weapons, capable of maiming and even killing. In hours, they fired over 5,000 grenades, tear gas ammunition, and many GM2L grenades containing a dangerous pyrotechnic charge. And this is just one of the mobilizations of recent days.
This is how life in France looks like now.
The trade unions are still hesitating whether they should call for a long, general strike, knowing that this would be too harsh on people who take part. However from the 3rd of April till 8th of April major events are being held in Paris and other parts of France, from yellow vests-style protests to strikes, with the key mobilization planned for 6 April. Most of the actions are organized on the local level. Possibly, this is a sort of prologue and resting point for the unions and organizations across France.
We are in a crisis, economically, politically, and socially. As Gramsci said, “the new world is dying and the new world is emerging slowly, it is in this chiaroscuro that the monsters drip”. – continues Peter Noam. – Today capitalism is in crisis, the government no longer has the approval of the masses. It is the Left who speaks for the masses. We communists must win this battle at all costs to sound the great return of the masses to politics, in case of defeat, I think we will have to face ten times the fascist forces. However, I am optimistic that we will win. This is not the first time that a law passed by parliament will be repealed, given the power of a social movement!