Workers Vanguard No. 1167
13 December 2019
Massive Strikes Rock France
PARIS, December 10—Strikes and protests against the government’s proposed destruction of the pension system are sweeping France. On December 5, millions of workers went on strike, with some 1.5 million participating in demonstrations. Train and subway workers were joined by teachers, hospital personnel, electrical workers and hundreds of thousands of others, including the Paris Opera. National railway and Paris transportation workers, who are the backbone of the struggle, are now in the sixth day of their strike.
Today was another day of strikes and protests, although somewhat smaller than last week. Close to a million workers, students and teachers were out, and seven of the country’s eight oil refineries shut down. Widespread outrage was sparked two days ago by the revelation that the pension reform commissioner, Jean-Paul Delevoye, was acting (until yesterday) as an adviser to the insurance industry, which has been gunning for the pension system in order to rake in money from private pension funds.
The French police have become notorious in Europe for savage repression. On December 5, two journalists known for documenting police violence, Gaspard Glanz and Taha Bouhafs, were wounded by “crowd control” grenades. Many thousands of police searches have been carried out against demonstrators, and hundreds have been arrested. We say: Drop all charges against protesters!
The majority of the train and subway union federations have said that they will continue to strike until the pension reform plan is withdrawn. Tomorrow, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe is scheduled to announce the plan’s details. However, he made it clear today that there are “no magic announcements” that will “stop the demonstrations.” We print below a translation of an article, datelined November 24, from Le Bolchévik (No. 230, December 2019), newspaper of the Ligue trotskyste de France. Our comrades have been distributing ICL press and intervening into general assemblies and demonstrations in Paris, Rouen and Lille.
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The showdown over retirement pensions is approaching. For two and a half years, President Emmanuel Macron has sought to complete the dirty work begun under former president François Hollande’s Socialist Party (PS) government: to dismantle the unions and qualitatively escalate the attacks on all workers. To that end, the Hollande government passed the anti-union El Khomri law, followed by Macron’s decrees modifying the labor code.
In 2018, the elimination of rail workers’ status, based on significant benefits and other gains, aimed to weaken this powerful trade-union stronghold. By paralyzing the economy, railway workers had played a key role in halting the government’s attacks on the entire working class in 1986 and 1995. The dismantling of unemployment insurance last summer, following the gutting of the labor tribunals, also aimed to make workers think twice before raising their heads on the job. Getting fired now does not just mean that it would be difficult to scrape by; it could also mean destitution and ending up on the streets. Yet, a section of the bourgeoisie is beginning to worry about the scale of the mobilization called for December 5. A victory for the working class could turn the tide of the class struggle, not only in France but throughout Europe.
Down With the European Union!
The government uses “EU directives”—drawn up mainly in Berlin and Paris—as a war machine to justify the necessary “reforms” so that France can maintain its status as one of the few powers whose financial capital, backed up by elite troops, oppresses the rest of the world.
The EU consists of a series of treaties signed between imperialist powers—mainly Germany (which generally has the last word) and France— and their victims, especially the countries of southern and eastern Europe. The latter are oppressed thanks to the “freedom of movement” of big German and French capital, which is guaranteed by the EU. The objective of the EU is to maximize the capitalists’ profit rate by maximizing the rate of exploitation. This is to be accomplished by the destruction of the trade unions, full-scale privatizations and the establishment of common standards that make markets more accessible to the most powerful capitalists (notably German and French, with the support of the United States). Down with the EU and its monetary instrument, the euro!
Pensions: Macron Targets Everyone, and Especially Women
Macron now wants to tear down the entire system of social benefits, and especially the retirement pension system. This is the most significant of all the gains that workers have been able to wrest since the victory of the Soviet Union against the Nazis in 1945. Since the destruction of the Soviet Union almost 30 years ago, all these gains have been systematically attacked. These attacks underline the fact that under capitalism, reforms that favor the working class can only be won through struggle and must be defended tooth and nail. To put an end to this exhausting struggle, the only solution is revolution—the overthrow of the dictatorship of capital and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
The government is particularly targeting the special retirement benefits of public employees. This is an attempt to set the rest of the working class against this supposedly “privileged” category. But in fact, the points-based pension system (the newly proposed system for calculating retirement pensions) targets all workers. Capping pension payments for a growing proportion of pensioners at their current level (13.8 percent of GDP) would automatically mean that over time everyone, including current retirees, would see their pensions slashed by some 20 to 30 percent.
The government for a while floated the idea that at best it would be willing to accept a “grandfather clause,” under which only new entrants into the labor market would be affected. This is ten times worse than the CPE. That was a bill, which then president Jacques Chirac tried to push through in 2006, mandating second-tier status for young workers—but it was for two years, not for their entire lives. Spurred on by a youth mobilization, the working class took to the streets en masse and forced the government to back down. That was the last great working-class victory in this country.
Who, aside from a treacherous bureaucrat à la Laurent Berger, head of the CFDT union, could view the grandfather clause as an acceptable compromise? How can workers, who are struggling to provide their children with a better life than they themselves had, accept that they be denied any semblance of a retirement pension? By dividing the workers according to the kind of employment contract they have, the capitalists can more easily attack everyone’s gains.
For the capitalists, the only way to solve the “budgetary equation” of pensions is to hasten the death of the elderly, who no longer create profits—by making them work longer, by reducing their pensions and by dismantling public health services. While hospital workers, including doctors, have been mobilizing for months, the government has stepped up the privatization of hospitals and the elimination of hospital beds as it pushes health care workers to switch to the private sector.
A class-struggle leadership of the unions would demand the immediate nationalization of the entire health service, including retirement homes, by expropriating all the private companies and Big Pharma. What is needed at the very least is the immediate hiring of hundreds of thousands of workers in this sector, on a full-time basis!
Whereas previously, two weeks’ work sufficed to get you credit for the entire three-month period in the calculation of your pension, in the future, 14 days worked would represent 14 days of pension credit, not a day more. All precarious workers are targets. But women, who have the most staggered careers and are paid the lowest wages, would be doubly victimized because they would have to depend even more on the retirement pension of their spouses. In addition, women are responsible for most of the care for elderly parents and grandparents. This will especially be the case for those no longer able to pay the exorbitant bills of private nursing homes, which are increasingly becoming nothing more than places to die, where, moreover, women workers labor under conditions and for wages that are getting worse by the day.
So much for Macron’s cynical whining about “violence against women.” All his measures strengthen the institution of the family, the main source of oppression of women and youth. The workers in power will open the way for the emancipation of women by socializing housework and the care of children and the elderly, as the Bolsheviks began to do in 1917 under much more difficult conditions.
Down With the War on Education!
Today, young people must struggle for years to get a decent job. The self-immolation of Anas K. in Lyon has tragically underscored the extent to which working-class and minority youth who are trying to pursue a higher education are increasingly reduced to poverty. They must overcome “Parcoursup,” the racist system of selection for university admission introduced by the Macron government, and the exclusionist barriers of the LMD (bachelor-masters-PhD) system. Anas rightly condemned Macron, previous presidents Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, and the European Union.
In the eyes of the capitalists and their lackeys in the government, workers need to know just enough to work with competence and increased productivity, but not enough to question this system of exploitation. And, in case they are needed, there are the fascists, who have been increasing their attacks, as for example against left activists at Nanterre University. The dean there called the cops to the rescue when the fascist scum found themselves on the receiving end.
Inequalities due to class and ethnic origin are steadily increasing throughout the education system, which is precisely the goal of Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer’s restructuring of secondary education. The education system needs a couple hundred thousand new hires and billions invested in infrastructure just to return to the shabby level of a few years ago! For quality education for all, with living stipends and adequate student housing!
The Workers Movement Must Defend Minorities!
The government has resorted to various means to restrict school trips in Seine-Saint-Denis, suburbs of Paris where the population largely consists of immigrants from North and West Africa and their descendents. It has strangled municipalities financially, invoked the police/military “anti-terror” Vigipirate operation to prevent children from using public transportation and tried to keep veiled mothers from accompanying children. The latter may result in no school trips for the kids, given how few resources are available. On the left, Lutte ouvrière (LO) was the only organization that dared to openly oppose demanding the right of these women to wear the veil. But this vicious attack by Blanquer is part of an all-out racist campaign to set workers who are considered to be white against the others, especially those of Muslim background with family roots in the former French colonies.
Behind its attacks on “political Islam,” the French bourgeoisie (which is supposedly “secular,” but is in fact mainly Catholic and even Jesuitical, as in the case of Macron) is targeting all youth of North African and sub-Saharan origin, whether they are religious or not. The bourgeoisie has every reason to fear that young people of Algerian descent will follow the example of their cousins in Algeria and also take to the streets against the racist hogra (contempt) they suffer daily. The goal of the capitalists is obvious: to divide the working class, which in many strategic sectors of industry and transport includes workers from these origins.
That is why it is essential, for the unity of the working class, to defend minority youth against discrimination. Since the 2005 revolt, all the measures of police terror that have been used against youth in working-class and minority neighborhoods are now systematically being used against the labor movement. This is especially true since the 2015 terrorist attacks and the state of emergency established by Hollande’s capitalist government. Down with the racist “anti-terrorism” campaign! Down with the police/military security operations Vigipirate and Sentinelle! Full citizenship rights for all who are here, regardless of how they got here!
In fact, of all the eclectic measures demanded by the Yellow Vest movement a year ago, the only ones that Macron has tried to carry out are the reactionary ones—namely, stepping up the deportation of undocumented migrants and strengthening the “substantial means granted to the justice system, the police, the gendarmerie and the army.” These are precisely the bands of armed men who constitute the core of the capitalist state, whose function is to defend the capitalists’ private ownership of the means of production.
For the past year, the cops have been unleashed against the Yellow Vests, who were disrupting Macron’s attacks on the workers and the oppressed. The cops are not workers; they are the guard dogs of capital. It is scandalous that all the union federations “unionize” them and welcome their participation in union demonstrations. A “strike” by cops is in reality a bonapartist mobilization to strengthen the repressive apparatus. Cops, prison guards and security guards, out of the unions! The cops’ ruthless violence against the Yellow Vests resulted in two deaths, while dozens of people lost an eye or a hand and more than 1,000 were sentenced to prison.
A year ago, the Yellow Vest movement highlighted the depth of anger that had built up in the most diverse layers of the population, from precarious workers to the petty bourgeoisie, crushed by the banks and capitalist trusts. At the time, we called for the labor movement to take the lead of the struggle. The Yellow Vests, who were in the midst of occupying the traffic roundabouts, turned to the truckers, whose unions (CGT and FO) had announced a strike.
But the misleaders of these unions called off the strike at the crucial moment. That increased the bitterness, if not hostility, of a section of the Yellow Vests toward the labor movement. CGT head Philippe Martinez had openly denounced the Yellow Vests as fascists instead of taking up those demands they raised that were in the interest of the working class and mobilizing the workers’ power to obtain them (while at the same time kicking out the fascists who were prowling around the Yellow Vests). This was hardly a surprise! In 2017, Martinez had called to vote for Macron. For Martinez and all the other reformist bureaucrats at the head of the unions, it is first and foremost necessary to save French capitalism—and too bad if the workers have to pay the bill.
Lessons of the 2018 Railroad Workers Strike
Rail workers suffered a grave defeat last year, but they were not crushed. Indeed, they are going to play a crucial role in the coming weeks, because last year they fought with courage and determination for more than three months.
Clearly, the tactic of striking for only three days out of every five was a losing one. The left wing of the union bureaucracy—who are members of LO, the Nouveau parti anticapitaliste (NPA), etc.—criticized it, but the problem was more fundamental than a question of tactics. No union leadership, including the supposed radicals of the SUD, had the perspective, and the determination that goes with it, of a general confrontation with the government. Besides, the union bureaucrats openly accept the framework of the European Union.
Macron hid behind “Brussels” (in fact, Paris and Berlin), i.e., the EU, which is demanding the privatization of the railways in the name of “free and fair competition.” Well, what that shows is not that you have to accept this framework, but on the contrary that the workers must tear up the EU treaties. That the Communist Party (PCF), the NPA and LO are ardent defenders of the EU (all wrapped up in lamentations for a so-called “social Europe”) shows their prostration before their own bourgeoisie.
To justify their strike tactic, the bureaucrats invoked the need for consensus among the main unions, particularly the CFDT, which represents many train drivers. The division among the unions is poison. It often results in one union scabbing on a strike called by another. It can also lead the unions to adopt the perspective of the lowest common denominator, that is, the losing tactics acceptable to the most right-wing union leadership.
What is needed is a fight for industrial unions, organizing all the workers of one industry into one union. Our goal is not to patch together the different union bureaucracies but to forge a new leadership, a class-struggle leadership. Fighting for industrial unions goes hand in hand with a definite political perspective: the struggle to have subcontracted and precarious workers be covered by contract terms that are the most favorable for the workers.
More broadly, the fight against unemployment does not mean utopian appeals, in the manner of LO or the NPA, for the capitalist government to “ban layoffs.” It means a fight to divide the work among all hands, on full-time contracts—in other words, a massive reduction of working hours for everyone. This requires a struggle for free, high-quality childcare and nursery schools (without which women are forced to be only partially employed), as well as for contraception and abortion that are truly free and available to all women. It also requires a massive program to build affordable housing. Without all the above, demands for “women’s rights” amount to nothing but the cynical gestures of bourgeois feminists.
Of course, the bourgeoisie will say that they cannot afford these demands (and that, in any case, the EU would prohibit it). If capitalism cannot satisfy the urgent and elementary needs of the working class and oppressed, let it perish! Trotsky wrote in the program of the Fourth International, the Transitional Program (1938):
“Insofar as the old, partial, ‘minimal’ demands of the masses clash with the destructive and degrading tendencies of decadent capitalism—and this occurs at every step—the Fourth International advances a system of transitional demands, the essence of which is contained in the fact that ever more openly and decisively they will be directed against the very bases of the bourgeois regime. The old ‘minimal’ program is superseded by the transitional program, the task of which lies in systematic mobilization of the masses for the proletarian revolution.”
Break with Class Collaboration!
Will this detested government succeed in its aims? The long-accumulated anger of the workers, the poor and the oppressed is ready to explode. For that to happen, it is necessary to get past a sort of skepticism about whether the struggle can win given the present union leadership. It is indeed a question of leadership, but it is only in battle that a new union leadership, a class-struggle leadership, can be forged. This is indissolubly linked to the fight for a multiethnic revolutionary workers party capable of being the tribune of all the oppressed, in order for the working class to be able to lead them in a general struggle to overthrow capitalism.
It was basically the railway and transit workers’ victory on the field of battle in December 1995 that allowed workers to retain for another 25 years their access to retirement pensions and the national health care system, despite all the attacks that have subsequently taken place. But this victory was diverted into a political dead end. The PS, PCF and LCR (the misnamed “Revolutionary Communist” League, which later became the NPA) had then concocted a new parliamentary combination with bourgeois parties (the Greens, Chevènementistes and Left Radicals) dubbed the “Plural Left.” LO, too, voted for the candidates of then prime minister Lionel Jospin’s PS where they were running against those of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front.
The Plural Left was duly brought to power in 1997 under Jospin, with the PCF heading the Ministry of Transportation and Jean-Luc Mélenchon heading the Ministry of Professional Education. The government proceeded to privatize Air France and started the privatization of the SNCF national railway system (creation of the RFF), and demoralized the workers. The latest incarnation of these alliances with the so-called “left” bourgeoisie—examples of what are known as “popular fronts”—was the Hollande government, which spawned Macron.
We warn, even though on the eve of December 5 it is a perspective that may appear unbelievable: the PCF and the so-called “far left” will again betray by proposing a new popular front. We are already seeing its contours with the “red and Green” popular front of François Ruffin. This “unbowed” leader of Mélenchon’s party, La France insoumise (France Unbowed), to say the least, bowed before the anti-Muslim campaign by refusing to participate in the November 19 demonstration against Islamophobia. La France insoumise is a chauvinist bourgeois-populist party. These groups cynically manipulate the workers’ aspirations for unity in order to drag them into “unity” with their bourgeois class enemy and divide the workers through chauvinism. It is necessary to build the unity of the working class against the bourgeoisie.
Beware the variants of this same thing in the form of calls for a constituent assembly! Even with a “left” majority, a constituent assembly would still be a bourgeois parliament with the perspective of a capitalist “Sixth Republic.” What is needed is a new ruling class: the workers! It is on the basis of the Trotskyist program of proletarian revolution that we seek to rally the vanguard of the working class to build the party, the French section of a reforged Fourth International, that can lead the workers and oppressed to victory.