France: The showdown to make Macron give in (plus statement by Intersyndicale)
Translated from Alencontre by Dick Nichols.
After the big demonstrations of January 19, whose scale was already comparable to the big demonstrations of 1995 and 2010 (during the mobilisations against the previous governmental attacks on the pension system), the demonstrations of January 31 have just exploded the counters: more than 2 million women and men in the streets according to the Intersyndicale, the CGT announces the number of 2.8 million, of which 500,000 in Paris. In the capital, while taking the main avenues, the procession had to be split so that the demonstration did not remain blocked at its starting point, Place d'Italie.
In almost all cities - 270 rallies took place in large, small and medium-sized towns - the processions were larger than on 19 January. Even the Interior Ministry's figures - 1.27 million - are the highest for a day of demonstrations in the last 30 years. It's a real mass mobilisation of the working classes with, obviously, in the processions, a greater number of employees coming from the private sector, most often strikers. The massiveness of this day reflects all the opinion polls that reflect a growing disavowal of the government's counter-reform project: more than 80% of employees, a majority support for the strike movement, and the feeling that it will be necessary to go beyond the strikes and block the economic activity of the country to force Macron and Elisabeth Borne to withdraw their project.
The young people at school, high school and university were well present: 300 high schools mobilised, 200 of which were blocked (with the obvious will of the police to violently break the blockades), dozens of universities, 150,000 young people mobilised according to the count of the youth organisations, so three times more than on 19 January.
"We are united and determined to have this pension reform project withdrawn", thus ends the declaration of the 8 trade union confederations which has just announced two new days of mobilisation: 7 and 11 February. This inter-union declaration is important on two levels. Firstly, the trade union front is being maintained between unions that have often been divided in recent years in the face of government projects. Secondly, and this is a precedent for more than 10 years, the trade union leaderships are in agreement to impose a pure and simple withdrawal of the government's project, which is based on two pillars: the postponement of the retirement age from 62 to 64, and the rapid transition to a minimum of 43 years of work to obtain a full pension.
It is clear that we are heading for a major political and social confrontation in the coming weeks.
Despite the battalions of "experts" and commentators who, in all the media, seek to support and explain the merits of this reform, despite the Macronist and Republican (Les Républicains-LR) ministers and deputies who occupy the platforms, the rejection of the reform, far from weakening, has not stopped growing in recent weeks. Yet Macron did not hesitate to invite 10 editorialists from 10 media (Le Monde, Les Echos, Le Figaro, BFM-TV, RTL, among others) to "inculcate" the elements of language capable of distilling effective propaganda on the pension reform. Each additional explanation will have only increased hostility.
Particularly among women, who understood that they would suffer even more from this reform. While women employees in France have, on average, a salary 22% lower than that of men, they have a pension that is 40% lower, notably because of chopped-up, incomplete careers, since they usually have to put up with part-time work and resignations to take care of the family's children and domestic chores, and since they represent the majority of single-parent families. The mechanical effect of the move to 64 years of age and 43 years of pensionable service would be to make it even more difficult to obtain a full pension and to cancel out the two years of pensionable service (one in the public sector) granted for each child, which made it possible to bring forward the retirement age. Precarious workers and low-skilled workers or those who are too worn out by arduous jobs also know that they would be the largest group unable to remain in employment between the ages of 62 and 64
Contrary to what Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne explains, the massive and growing rejection does not come from a lack of pedagogy, but rather from the population's understanding of the content of the reform. Women, long careers and the most precarious will suffer more from this reform. All this makes the arrogance of ministers like Gérald Darmanin (Minister of the Interior) and Gabiel Attal (Minister of Action and Public Accounts), among others, professional politicians since their graduation, daring to castigate those who do not want to work longer and daring to claim, in front of the strikers, to be "the France that wants to work", even more unbearable.
Moreover, as was the case during the previous major movements in defence of pensions, the government's fallacious arguments have been largely dismantled and combated by activists from the trade union and social movement, with an ample supply of arguments coming from anti-liberal economists.
Thus, Macron and Borne still claim to want to "save the system endangered by demography". According to them, the increase in the number of pensioners and the decrease in the number of working people would endanger the system. Ironically, it is the official figures detailed by the Conseil d'orientation des retraites (COR) and the statements of its president Pierre-Louis Bras - former director of the Social Security and Inspector General of Social Affairs - that put the official argument to rest: "Pension expenditure has stabilised overall and even in the very long term, it is decreasing in three out of four hypotheses... So pension expenditure is not slipping... and in the only hypothesis retained by the government, it is decreasing very little, but a little in the long term. Pension expenditure is not slipping, but it is not compatible with the government's economic policy and public finance objectives," he declared on Thursday 19 January before the National Assembly's Finance Committee. These objectives are well known: they are those of respecting the European Union (EU) convergence criteria and achieving a public deficit of 2.9% of GDP in 2027. Bruno Le Maire (Minister for the Economy, Finance and Industrial and Digital Sovereignty) committed himself to this in the 'budgetary trajectory' sent to the European Commission last summer. It is committed to implementing the reform of the pension system in order to reduce its share of public spending.
It should also be noted that the real problem that appears in the COR report on the financial evolution of the pension system does not come from expenditure but from revenue, and in particular from the employee and employer contributions of the 2.2 million civil servants in the local and hospital sectors, which represented 22 billion euros of revenue in 2021. In the figures on the public wage bill communicated to the COR by the Ministry of Public Accounts, it is surprising to note that the overall number of staff in these two civil services will remain roughly the same until 2027, with a virtual freeze on salaries. Therefore, there are no projections for hiring (apart from 15,000 hospital workers) or for salary increases for these 2.2 million civil servants. This would mean, if these figures were to become effective, an 11% drop in the real salary of civil servants by 2027. The shortfall to the pension system from these figures would be roughly 3 billion per year, which would be available to the system if civil service salaries follow the projections used for all salaries . The figures communicated to the COR by the government to justify financial imbalances by 2027 are therefore a deliberate underestimation of the resources of the pension fund.
The state is dramatising the accounts of the pension scheme in order to make employees pay once again for the return to the Maastricht criteria for public spending, describing as irresponsible those who are prepared to allow so-called deficits to grow. The report by the Lille-based researchers of the IRES  is therefore interesting. In 2019, they put the total amount of aid to companies, budget spending, lower social security contributions, tax exemptions and other "niches" at 157 billion. 157 billion is 6.4% of GDP, more than 30% of the State budget. All the aid to companies represented only 2.4% of GDP in 1979. Thus, if we are concerned about the balance of the social security system, which is supposed to be based on employer and employee contributions, it should be noted that in 1995 companies accounted for 65.2% of social security funding. The share has fallen to 46.9% in 2020, "thanks" to the cuts in contributions aimed at "lowering the cost of labour". In the 2023 budget, the amount of tax exemption schemes is 85 billion .
The government has obviously realised that it is facing the double hostility of the entire trade union movement, 80% of employees and the general population, and that it will no longer be able to convince them. He therefore wants to move quickly, with two objectives: to try to discourage the workers and to exhaust the movement by proclaiming: that any mobilisation is and will be useless ("the postponement to 64 years is no longer negotiable" declared Elisabeth Borne last Monday); that the reform will be voted on quickly, without any change; that there will be no adjustment on the fundamental points. Nevertheless, he does not want to appear isolated in the National Assembly and the Senate.
By including its reform in the rectifying Social Security Financing Bill (PLFSS), Article 47-1 of the Constitution, through an institutional manipulation, will allow it to go fast, by limiting the debates in the Assembly to 20 days and the whole of the debates to 50 days. The government thus assumes the right, if the vote does not take place within the allotted time, to legislate by ordinance and decree, bypassing Parliament. It also has, if necessary, the 49-3 article which allows it to force through without a vote by putting the government's confidence at stake.
So go fast, while seeking to seal the deal with the leadership of the Republicans (LR), whose deputies and senators can give him a majority in both chambers. But even in this camp of the Macronist and Republican right, things are not yet settled. To date, 16 Republican and related deputies out of 62 refuse to vote for the project and Macron's allies in the Assembly (Edouard Philippe's Horizon-29 seats and François Bayroux's MODEM-51 seats) are stating several disagreements. They do not want to leave the role of majority maker to the Republicans alone (Renaissance, Macron and Borne's party, has only 169 seats out of 577 and needs to gather 289 votes to obtain majorities). The negotiations will be all the more intense as all these MPs are increasingly at odds with a large part of their own electoral base, which is also hostile to the reform.
What is at stake for all these parties and their elected representatives is their positioning in the context of the next elections (presidential and legislative) in 2027. In the government, Bruno Lemaire is playing for credibility against Gérard Darmanin, as a candidate to succeed Macron within the presidential party. There are too many crocodiles in the swamp of capitalist neoliberalism. Each current of the majority risks playing its own score on this bill, weakening the government's false serenity posture, which has already been destabilised by the popular mobilisation.
Moreover, Macron's camp is playing a dangerous game by constantly trumpeting in recent weeks that his reform was democratically legitimate since the candidate had announced it during the presidential campaign of 2022. This boast is all the more revolting in the trade union movement and among left-wing voters, as Macron only won, despite his programme, thanks to the NUPES parties and the trade union movement, which had called for him to be voted in to block Marine Le Pen. In the first round of voting, Macron only won 20% of the registered voters for his political programme. This contempt for his voters in the second round would undoubtedly have the consequence, if an identical disastrous configuration were to occur in 2027, that the "republican barrage" behind a candidate of the Macronist right against Marine Le Pen would no longer have any effectiveness.
On another level, the Macronist leaders and their media thurifers have been bluffing themselves by claiming for weeks that the trade union movement is so weakened and divided that it will not be able to unite or act effectively over the long term, thinking that the social body will quickly fall back into resignation and apathy. At worst, they envisage a repeat of the 2010 scenario. At the time, faced with Sarkozy's pension reform project, which raised the retirement age from 60 to 62, the unitary protest had exhausted itself with seven months of demonstrations and strikes that had never paralysed the country's economic life or prevented the reform from passing.
To try to ward off another scenario more perilous for them, they raise the spectre of possible "blockades" in transport or fuel supplies, claiming that this will quickly discredit and paralyse the strikes. This is an attempt to erase the fact that in 1995, the millions of workers blocked by three weeks of strikes gave remarkable support to the strikers of the SNCF and the RATP. To erase also that, these last days, a majority of workers is convinced that it will be necessary to block the economic life to obtain the withdrawal of the project. It is the conviction that we can be strong and determined enough to win that can be the best element to encourage a large popular support for strikes paralysing transport or fuel distribution.
Moreover, unlike today, in 1995, the transport strike was above all a "proxy" strike, with railway workers and RATP drivers being the rather too solitary point of the confrontation. Moreover, the CFDT confederal leadership was opposed to the strike and in support of Prime Minister Alain Juppé's plan. Nevertheless, "right in his boots", he had to back down and withdraw his plan. There are therefore two more favourable factors today: a broad trade union unity, a rise in power of several professional sectors...... and also a third one which is precisely the experience of 2010, shared by many trade union teams.
So it is possible to do as well as in 1995 and even better, avoiding the mistakes of 2010. In the tug of war that is beginning, there may well be a marginal erosion of the right in parliament but, at worst, the government will keep the weapon of the 49-3 and the passage of decrees and ordinances if, at the end of March, the time for debate is over before the final vote. So, beyond a possible political crisis due to the pressure undergone within the right, the decisive element to win, to force Macron to withdraw his project, will be the economic blockage and the conviction in the ruling class that this reform is not worth the industrial and commercial paralysis. The MEDEF (Mouvement des entreprises de France) itself did not think in the autumn that this reform was indispensable now, being more focused on the one of the Unemployment Insurance which, from February, translates into a 25% reduction of the duration of compensation.
The timing imposed by Macron and Borne imposes both the need to organise a massive movement of demonstrations and to create a striking balance of power quickly. The parliamentary process will not be completed by the end of March.
So, the debate on how best to move towards one or more renewable strikes while maintaining the massiveness and unity of the movement is at the heart of many discussions. The compromise of the decisions of the intersyndicale on the evening of the 31st reflects these contradictions.
The CFDT leadership is determined to maintain the trade union front but it conceives the action as a battle of opinion, to win over the majority of the population to the refusal of the reform and to obtain the withdrawal by popular mobilisation, massive demonstrations... and by persuading the deputies not to vote the text. Consequently, we need to have a rhythm of successive mobilisations, a work of conviction, to lobby the elected representatives...without launching into renewable strikes, notably in sectors that would block economic life for several days or weeks. However, having only this strategy as a guideline would lead to the failure experienced in 2010.
This is why a large number of activists and combative teams emphasise the need to organise and prepare for a renewable strike. This is what guides the tempo given by the CGT chemical federation with several days of strikes of increasing duration in the first half of February, notably in the oil sector. It's an identical tactic that we find in the CGT Energy, the CGT Ports and Docks, the CGT and Sud Rail at the SNCF. All these unions have planned at least two days of strikes between 6 and 8 February.
The decision of the intersyndicale to have one day of strike on 7 February and one day of demonstration on Saturday 11 February is a compromise between these two positions.
Moreover, despite the massiveness of the last two days of strikes, there is a difficulty in pacing the rise of strikes in the public service, energy and transport, a difficulty that is reflected in a small drop in the number of strikers in these sectors. In the same way, including at the SNCF, the general assemblies are not massive, not reflecting a dynamic growth of the strike. But many militant activists think that a real rise in power in these sectors would require not wearing out the mobilisation by staggering repeated days, but a clear display of a calendar building a cross-industry confrontation for which it is worth doing several days of strike action. All these parameters are all the more difficult to manage in a coherent way as the different tactics also reflect divisions in the trade union movement, including within the CGT on the eve of its confederal congress.
These centrifugal risks reinforce the need to build general assemblies of strikers, inter-professional and inter-union coordination structures in the towns and industrial zones to create a unitary and combative local dynamic. This is starting to happen and is sometimes extended to other structures of the social movement such as the Confédération paysanne.
In several sectors, there will be the attempt to continue the strike after 7 February, and the demonstrations of 11 February, on a Saturday, in all the cities of the country, will surely be massive and popular with, in particular, those who were not able to go on strike and/or demonstrate on 19 and 31 January. In any case, the days to come must serve to convince ourselves that victory is possible and that we must give ourselves all the means to achieve it.
The political stakes of this movement are important for several reasons. Those who are demonstrating and striking are motivated by the attack on pensions, but also by the government's attacks on unemployment benefits, vocational training and, of course, the loss of wages that, after the Covid years, inflation and low pay rises represent. So, it is the whole capitalist policy of Macron and his government that is called into question. This motivates all the more to win on pensions and all the reasons for anger appear clearly in the placards, the slogans and the discussions in the demonstrations.
As important as it is to keep a united front centred on the withdrawal of the Macron-Borne project, those who are in the movement understand that the outcome of this trial of strength will be an improved balance of power in the event of victory, and a deterioration in the event of failure, in the face of the employers and the government. It is all the more important that this class issue emerges, this balance of power to be established for a different distribution of wealth, as there is a major stake in making credible the anti-capitalist demands for the financing of the commons, social security, health, housing and wages. This is happening at a time when February will see day after day the publication of the annual results of major French companies, which promise, on the whole, to exceed those of 2021.
There are therefore several issues at stake in this mobilisation for the anti-capitalist left. The NPA is trying to take its full place by pushing for unity of action with all the political forces of the workers' movement opposed to the reform, while seeking to build common initiatives of the entire workers', trade union, associative and political movement, just as the LCR had taken its place in 2006 in the fight against the European Constitutional Treaty.
Another battle is being played out in this movement between the anti-capitalists and the extreme right. The RN (Rassemblement National) is once again trying to surf on the popular discontent in the media in order to appear, with the complacent help of the media, as the real opposition to Macron and proclaim its opposition to the pension reform. But the far right knows that it is persona non grata in the trade union marches (and moreover denounces the trade unions that called for voting Macron against it) and, in the Assembly, the RN remains voiceless in the battle of amendments to counter the project, leaving this space to the NUPES.
It must be said that the RN, on the substance, shares the "need for employees to make efforts to finance pensions". The RN, after having had its fingers rapped by the liberal economists around it, has shelved its 2017 programme: a return to retirement at 60 with 40 years of contributions. Apart from careers that began before the age of 20, where his programme maintains the return to the age of 60, the RN is quietly in favour of full retirement between 62 and 67 with 42 or 43 years of contributions. Basically, they find themselves in agreement with Macron, even if they loudly denounce the refusal of Macron's project to postpone the retirement age to 64. There is no point in looking for the slightest demand in their programme for social justice, for the distribution of wealth by attacking the capitalists, for a fiscal and budgetary policy that puts an end to the gifts to big business. Their solutions for pensions, apart from a postponement of the retirement age for employees, lie in a pro-natalist policy and an end to gifts to... immigrants! To challenge the RN's place in this mobilisation is therefore done not only in the streets but also by denouncing the duplicity of its posture. (Article received on 3 February 2023)
 Our Public Services Collective January 2023
 "Capitalism on life support. Mesure, théorie et effet macroéconomiques des aides publiques aux entreprises françaises" by Antoine Abdelsalam et alii, IRES 2022 cutt.ly/60Lw4HH
 See the February 2023 issue of Alternatives Economiques
Declaration of Intersyndicale (interunion committee)
Statement of the Intersyndicale of 25 January
The trade union organisations are being received today by the Social Affairs Committee of the National Assembly on the draft law on pension reform. We are present today, leaders of our organisations, to reaffirm our collective opposition to the draft reform which goes against the interests of workers by shifting the legal retirement age to 64 and accelerating the extension of the contribution period.
This reform is all the more unfair as it will hit all workers hard, especially those who started working early, the most precarious, but also those whose jobs are not recognised as hard.
All our organisations, united against this project, announced a first day of interprofessional strike and mobilisation on Thursday 19 January which was a massive success, bringing together 2 million workers, from the public and private sectors, young people and pensioners.
Our organisations can also count on the support of the population: the inter-union petition has so far gathered 750,000 signatures. 70% of French people reject the reform and 2/3 of French people support the mobilisations.
Between now and 31 January, the date of the next mobilisation, we have called for more actions and initiatives throughout the country, in companies and services, in places of study, including strikes.
Our pay-as-you-go pension system is not in danger and nothing justifies such an unfair and brutal reform. Contrary to the government's assertions, the state of our pension system is far from worrying. A surplus of 900 million euros has been generated in 2021, whereas a deficit was projected. The Conseil d'orientation des retraites also considers that there is no uncontrolled dynamic in pension expenditure.
Attached to a better sharing of wealth, the trade unions never stopped proposing other financing solutions during the consultation with the government. The government, stuck on its project, has never seriously studied them.
For our organisations, other solutions must be found, in particular for a real employment policy; taking into account the employment difficulties of senior citizens; combating the inequalities faced by women who often have incomplete careers or involuntary part-time work; developing access to vocational training in order to allow workers to retrain in the sectors where there are the most risks and hardships.
The concerns of the French today are employment, wages and purchasing power.
The intersyndicale calls on the entire population to mobilise in even greater numbers on 31 January to say no to this unfair reform.