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France Enters Second Month of National Strike

France’s workers continue to strike against Macron’s pension reforms as union leaders negotiate behind their backs.

Protesters light flares during a demonstration in Paris, on January 11, 2020, as part of a nationwide multi-sector strike against the French government's pensions overhaul.

Caught in a faceoff with Macron and the French government, France’s railway and other public sector workers remain on strike for the fifth week in a row. The national strike, which began December 5 of last year, is the longest transportation strike in France’s history and the longest general strike since May 1968, when the entire economy was ground to a halt by students and workers in an all out revolt against the government. As the strike continues, union leaders are attempting to negotiate with the government, but France’s workers are determined to continue the strike until Macron scraps his plans to restructure the pension system.

January 9 marked the third official day of coordinated national action since the strike began. Unsatisfied by a day of negotiation with the government on January 7, the country’s major transportation unions, SNCF and RATP, took to the streets once again. They were joined by other major unions, including the CGT and CFDT, France’s two largest unions, and thousands of supporters and Yellow Vests. Workers in the healthcare, education, energy, and communications sectors also participated, and in a new development in the movement, private sector workers entered the struggle, including sanitation workers. This opens the possibility for cross-industry participation that could reinvigorate the strike effort, significantly disrupt France’s economy, and finally pressure Macron to cave.

The Spirit of the Yellow Vests Returns

Macron’s retirement reform would completely overhaul the current system, consolidating France’s 42 industry-specific plans to a single, universal plan. Such changes would demolish the hard-won retirement benefits that many workers rely on. It would also raise the retirement age and decrease pension income, meaning that individuals would have to work longer for less pay and security. Such reforms would particularly affect workers who are employed in dangerous or physically-demanding jobs, like train operators, who have the advantage of an early retirement age. Under the new plan, some sectors of workers would be forced to work up to ten extra years before they could retire.

Edouard Philippe, France’s Prime Minister and Macron’s mouthpiece, announced the proposed reforms during a period of relative calm in the country after nearly a year of intense protests by both the Yellow Vests and the labor movement. He presented the gutting of the retirement system as a measure that would combat precarity in the workforce and ultimately decrease unemployment rates. The reform plan was a decisive move meant to fulfill a campaign promise and reestablish control in the country after Macron was forced to retreat on several occasions by the Yellow Vests.

But France’s people remain disillusioned with Macron and the ruling elite he represents, and the announcement was met with immediate and intense backlash from France’s working class, particularly from workers in the public sector who will be hardest hit by the reform. On December 5, workers in transportation, communications, oil, and education began a nationwide strike. Trains across the country were ground to a halt. Paris’s metro system was paralyzed. Schools were closed and students protested alongside their teachers. Flights were grounded and1.5 million people took to the streets across France to protest Macron’s austerity measures.

Since then, different sectors of workers have carried out intermittent strikes for the past month, with sectors of the railway industry remaining on strike for the entire month of December into January. Some actions have been confined to single-day walk-outs in specific industries, while others have coordinated work stoppages across multiple industries for short periods of time. General assemblies of workers have also met periodically to organize future strike actions and discuss the direction of the movement.

These activities culminated in a second day of national action on December 17th. According to the CGT’s estimates, 1.8 million people filled the streets in demonstrations across the country. Teachers and other education workers came out in massive numbers, with some estimates reporting that nearly 50% of primary schools and 60% of colleges and high schools were closed due to the strike. Students of every age came out to support their teachers and voice their own opposition to a pension reform which endangers their futures.

The open-ended nature of the strikes and demonstrations show that the movement against the pension reform is in some way a continuation of the year of Yellow Vest protests that preceded it. France’s striking workers have not only adopted the anger of the Yellow Vests, but also their combative methods—workers and supporters have taken to the streets, blocking roads and shutting down tourist sites to show the government that they will not accept its mandates. Many of the demonstrators have come into direct conflict with France’s riot police, who are not afraid to use tear-gas and rubber bullets to break up demonstrations and blockades.

No Christmas Truce, No Truce in Sight

For its part, Macron’s government has done its best to wait out the strikes, sending the police en masse to repress demonstrations and refusing to budge on the pension plan. The only “concession” it has deigned to give is an assurance that the pensions of the military and police will remain untouched and that the reform will be applied gradually across the workforce to give people and the economy time to adjust.

Nevertheless, the strike has shown incredible staying power, lasting throughout the winter holidays—though participation in the strike declined in late December, this was a huge milestone for the movement. Cynically appealing to tradition and respect for the French family, Macron begged workers to submit to a “Christmas truce” and cease the mobilizations through the end of the year. Seeing through this attempt to slow the momentum of the movement, however, workers continued stoppages and other coordinated actions through Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Years.

In one of the busiest travel times of the year, over 40% of France’s high-speed trains were cancelled and 20% of regional rail services were suspended. With Paris’s metro system similarly disrupted, many travelers were stranded or forced to use private vehicles to travel during the holidays. Though Macron tried to pin this disruption on striking workers, blaming them for keeping families apart during an important time of the year, public support for the strike remained above 60%. After the new year, the striking railway workers redoubled their efforts, increasing cancellations and delays.

On Christmas Eve, members of the Paris Ballet joined the strike—they performed the famous “Swan Lake” outside in cold temperatures for the public’s enjoyment in a show of workers’ solidarity. Like many railway workers, ballet dancers in France are compensated with an early retirement age for the toll that their work takes on their bodies. Under Macron’s plan, they would be forced to work longer or, more likely, to find other work to make a living and earn their pension.

In Lille, Lyon, and Bordeaux, electrical workers in the EDF (electrical workers’ union) and CGT went on strike on New Years Eve, causing power outages across those regions. In an act of solidarity—one that shows how much power workers have to control the daily functioning of society—these workers restored power to poor and other residential neighborhoods at drastically reduced rates, saying that electricity and gas are “essential goods” and not commodities. Instead, they targeted company headquarters, shopping centers, government buildings, and police stations, leaving these sites without power and halting operations in key sectors of capitalist operations.

Now workers in France’s major unions are launching a new offensive against the pension reform. From January 7 to January 10, oil workers in the CGT illegally blockaded petrol facilities, including refineries, petrol terminals, and depots; they stopped products from entering or leaving these locations, disrupting the transportation of fuel throughout the country. A strategic sector of the workforce, France’s oil workers are in a prime position to put a dent in profits for this industry and to disrupt other sectors, including transportation. To keep up this pressure, it is imperative that the workers in the refineries join the workers in the blockades outside in order to shut down a crucial sector of France’s economy.

The January 9 demonstrations occurred alongside the 96-hour blockade. Though participation by certain sectors is down since the last nation-wide day of action on December 17, in other sectors, participation has increased. More than a hundred schools were closed and a third of France’s teachers were again on strike. In addition, union-led demonstrations in the streets are more well-attended than ever in some regions. In Marseilles alone, 222,000 people demonstrated against Macron and the pension reform plan.

Nurses, lawyers, and sanitation workers marched alongside railway and other public sector workers in massive demonstrations across the country. At least 24 people were arrested at protests in Paris, and protesters clashed with police across the country.

With new groups of workers joining the fight, including some in the private sector, there is increasing potential for an expansion of the strike. The workers have shown yet again that, contrary to Macron’s claims, his proposed pension reforms will hurt almost every sector of workers, and they are willing to fight until he scraps all the reforms.

A Race Against the Clock and the Union Bureaucracy

Whether or not the renewal of the strike is successful depends in large part on the events of the next week. Macron’s government is doing everything it can to reach a “rapid compromise” with conciliatory union leaders in order to bring a swift end to this latest period of social unrest. Now striking workers are fighting a battle on two fronts: first, against Macron and second, against their own leadership.

On January 7, several major trade unions, including the moderate CFDT and UNSA, met with the government to discuss changes to the pension reform plan. Against the wishes of their rank and file, they have stated that they will support the pension reform as long as Macron agrees to make several changes to the plan. Specifically, they promised to end the mobilizations once Macron takes out the provision in the plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. Leaders of both unions called on their members to participate in the January 9 demonstrations, but only to put pressure on Macron to accept this amendment. Unsurprisingly, given these unions’ willingness to concede, Macron has refused to implement even this minor change.

Furthermore, attempting to divide the workers at a key moment in the struggle, government officials have met with representatives from various sectors to organize industry-specific changes to benefit their members, leaving out those workers who refuse to negotiate.

In other words, union leaders are working against the interests of the members they purport to represent by negotiating behind the backs of the workers putting their livelihoods on the line and protesting in the streets. The demand of the workers has been clear from the beginning: Scrap the pension reform. No compromise.

It is more important than ever that the rank and file of France’s massive trade unions put pressure on their leaderships to abandon these negotiations with the government. Such negotiations will only result in the implementation of Macron’s restructuring with a few minor concessions thrown in. It will not change the fact that Macron is gutting the heart of France’s social welfare system and prolonging the exploitation of millions of workers who will be forced to toil away for more years for less pay. France’s energized working class is in a good position to refuse any compromise with Macron: The strikes have already cut retail sales in Paris by half and have caused the loss of over €600 million lost in train ticket sales. Workers must use this leverage to force the leaders of their unions to continue the strike.

However, traitorous union leadership is not the only thing putting pressure on striking workers. Weeks of repression and little movement from the government has taken its toll on participation. Those that remain on strike are feeling the pain of a month without pay, and crowd-funded strike funds are not enough to make up for the loss in wages. But most workers must keep going or risk giving up the possibility of a month’s worth of back-pay. As Snoop, a transportation worker for the SNCF explained: “We don’t have a choice. If we give in now we will have lost everything.” For many workers, there is no choice but to fight until the pension reform is abandoned.

How Do Striking Workers Win?

Winning this struggle requires generalizing the strike, bringing all sectors into coordinated action until Macron scraps the restructuring of the retirement system. Concretely, this means an open-ended strike composed of workers across many industries, from healthcare to energy, in tandem with the force of France’s student and social movements. Only then can France’s working class force the government’s hand to give up its plans to impose further neoliberal austerity.

As Macron and politicians attempt to divide workers along as many lines as possible—by young and old, private sector and public sector—it is crucial that striking workers prepare to organize new sectors and bring them into their shared fight. It is particularly important that the private sector enter the struggle in order to broaden the influence and power of the strike in key sectors of the economy.

To do this, workers must expand the organization of general assemblies to discuss the strike’s direction across industries; they must also continue to organize within their unions and push for indefinite strike action. The CGT, undoubtedly the most combative union participating in the strikes, has taken the lead in coordinating specific actions, but it must be pushed to call for more than symbolic days of activity. National days of action must turn into weeks of sustained stoppages and demonstrations.

Such a level of joint activity would not only ensure the preservation of retirement benefits, but it could also motivate workers to push for more of what they deserve. The contempt for Macron and the political order he represents that was so ingrained in the Yellow Vest movement has not gone away. The calls of “Macron, resign” can still be heard in the echoes of railway workers’ demands for an end to the pension reform. With an open-ended strike composed of many different sectors, France’s working class could oust Macron completely and take its fate into its own hands.

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