strikes in France

Image: Elina Sazonova
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By KEVIN B. ANDERSON*

Millions of workers rise up against austerity and threat of pension changes

In 1920, Lenin wrote that to have a chance of success in the “decisive battle” against capitalism “one must have millions, tens of millions” of workers in action (Leftism: Childhood Disease of Communism). France is not there yet, as recent strikes have not directly challenged capitalism or mobilized tens of millions of workers.

However, on January 19, under freezing rain, around two million people took to the streets and went on strike, sending a powerful message to the government of Emmanuel Macron and to world capital: French workers are willing to fight bravely against raising the retirement age from 62 to 64.

Schools, trains, subways and a good part of the electric power plant were stopped. At oil refineries, workers stopped shipments, at airports, canceled flights. Many young people, including high school students, joined the workers in the streets. Hundreds of thousands marched in Paris, tens of thousands in other big cities, thousands in substantial demonstrations in small towns. All indications are that the spirit of the 2018-2019 Yellow Vest movement, which grew up in supposedly conservative rural and semi-rural areas, is not dead.

For the first time in a long time, all of France's trade union confederations, even federations usually attuned to capital and the state, united a solid front for organizing January 19 actions. The union leaders themselves were surprised by the size of the adhesion, much greater than they estimated and hoped for.

Two days later, on January 21, around ten thousand young people marched in Paris in demonstrations called by the leftist party France insubordinate [Insubmissive France]. For their part, the unions organized another national day of action on January 31, which was quite massive.

As predicted, the global press has portrayed France as an atypical society that has fallen out of step with the world, not only by maintaining retirement at age 62, but also by not giving up the 35-hour week won by the working class 25 years ago. Against this kind of discourse, the French trade unions, the resurgent left and much of public opinion assert the obvious, namely that maintaining a relatively low retirement age and a shorter work week can be financed by a tax on the richness.

Furthermore, it is a cause that has mobilized many young people, who see possible job vacancies. In short, a political solidarity between work and youth emerges. The high level of participation of French students and workers in their organizations is important, as these organizations can combat the discourse of capital and the State voiced by the press.

Marie Le Pen's far-right party, which claimed to be on the side of the workers and against Emmanuel Macron's maneuver, showed its class character when it confined its opposition to words and the promise of votes in parliament. It will take more than that to undermine the strong French neo-fascist current that has been brewing for decades. However, the fact that workers and youth left en masse under union flags opens up possible paths. Of course, any serious challenge to fascism will have to combine class solidarity with open attacks on racism and xenophobia.

In these times, when revolts are boiling in countries of the global South, such as Peru, and when Brazilians are mobilizing against a fascist threat, it is important to note, analyze and learn from the creativity of these mass movements, which can carry with them a potential true revolutionary. But the same must also be done with regard to the labor uprisings that we are witnessing in France in 2023, in Great Britain, in the United States and in the most technologically developed countries.

*Kevin B Anderson is a professor of sociology and political science at the University of California-Santa Barbara. Author, among other books, of Marx on the Margins: Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies (boitempo).

Translation: Rodrigo Maiolini Rebello Pinho.

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