When do you need an incredibly loud fog horn to start a political demonstration? When there are over 100,000 demonstrating, taking over many city blocks, and you need some way to let everyone know the march is underway! And you have to be heard over all the music emanating from the speakers on the unions’ trucks and from people singing all along the way.
This has been the experience in Toulouse, France, which has joined hundreds of cities and towns – with well over a million people participating – across the country to protest the government’s proposed changes to retirement pensions, especially the raise in pension age from 62 to 64.
Why the strikes and demonstrations?
There have been over a half dozen national general strike days in France over this issue in recent months, typically attracting over one million participants. National polls show 63 percent of the population oppose the government’s proposal and 54 percent support ongoing strikes and service blockages.
The unions are able to mobilize big numbers because, although the level of unionization in France is 8-10 percent, collective agreements cover whole sectors of industry (not just a specific company), which means that about 98 percent of the French labour force is covered by collective agreements, whether they are union members or not. There have been distinct mobilizations by young people as well.
Spring Magazine asked a former teacher, Amandine, why the issues of the strike have such resonance with people across France.
“I think people are tired and the world of work is more and more pernicious. You see more and more burnout. Many think the arguments for pushing the retirement age to 64 aren’t fair, and that people will end up working beyond the age of 64,” said Amandine. “And there’s no guarantee you will get your full pension allotment (which should be 50 percent of your salary). It seems we’re living longer, but not better. Finally, older people tend not to get hired by industry.”
What will it take to win? Amandine explained that building people’s confidence to fight is so important. Showing support and solidarity is key to keeping up the fight. Even if the government pushes through the reforms, Amandine noted, workers must continue to fight.
If the movement against President Macron’s reforms wins, it will bolster other movements. It will show that collective action can win.
This is similar to what many socialists elsewhere argue. For example, fighting for decent work involves working on specific campaigns, e.g. for paid sick days, or higher minimum wages. Victories in these particular campaigns build the confidence of workers to fight for broader gains and then to take on the economic and political system as a whole, which will affect not just those specific workers, but humanity as a whole.
Debates rage across the union movement about next steps. More militant federations are arguing for at least the more strategic sections of the economy to go on indefinite strikes until victory; these would include the transportation sector, power stations, natural gas terminals and garbage collection.
Given the government’s intransigence, and the approval of the pension change in the French Senate on March 11, it is imperative that the working class movement in France become unified and supports an indefinite strike. Otherwise Macron and the business class will not pay the least attention. A victory here will inspire workers everywhere, including those in the UK who are holding sporadic but frequent industry-specific strikes. Ontario came very close to a general strike in November 2022, so there are plenty of lessons to go around.
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