In 2023, France has entered a new period of social and political crisis. The crisis has highlighted the social, ecological and democratic contradictions. The mobilizations are significant. The social movement against the pension reform is continuing. The ecological protest has become more radical and has been violently repressed. The resistance to authoritarianism has galvanized the youth. How to explain the violence of the contradictions and the fierceness of the confrontation.
Barely elected for a second presidential term, Emmanuel Macron found himself with a relative majority in the National Assembly. He thought that the pension reform would allow him to reconstitute a majority with a party, Les Républicains, that was willing to increase the duration of contributions and postpone the age of retirement for a full pension. He planned to consolidate this alliance, even further to the right, with laws against immigration and housing rights. He underestimated the depth of the polarization of the political field into three ideological currents: a neo-liberal right, a new identity-based and nationalist right polarized by an extreme right, and a united left. This polarization has been consolidated on an international scale. In France, it makes it difficult to obtain a parliamentary majority and accentuates the excesses of a presidential regime. It highlights the inadequacy of the institutions in a period of crisis.
The choice of the question of pensions was not merely tactical; it corresponded to a strategic orientation that was not urgent but was part of a long history. It became clear from 1981 onwards, when the left-wing government won the elections and introduced retirement at 60 and the 35-hour week, in order to make good on its promise of "time to live". The left-wing government had no idea of the central contradiction it was about to open up. Before 1982, the question of pensions was not present in social movements. From 1982 onwards, it became a central and recurrent issue.
If we look back at the history of social movements in France, we are struck by the importance of the struggles over pensions. From 1982 onwards, there have been many workers’, farmers’ and students’ struggles. There were about fifteen large-scale social movements that resulted in national mobilizations. In 1984, the march for equality and, in 1986, the hunger strike of the undocumented; and again in 1986 the student strike against the Devaquet reform. Without mentioning in 1984, the only national mobilization of the right for the private school. From 1995 onwards, out of 9 major mobilizations, there were six against the reforms of the pension system; whereas there were none before. In 1995, against the Juppé pension reform plan; in 2003, against the Fillon pension reform plan; in 2010, against the new Fillon plan; in 2018, against the status of railway workers; in 2019, against an Edouard Philippe reform; in 2023, the current reform. Since 1995, three large-scale movements did not concern pensions, the first-hire contract in 2016, voted for but officially abandoned by Jacques Chirac, the Labor law known as the El Khomry law in 2016 and the Yellow Vests movement in 2018.
Something fundamental is therefore at stake on the issue of pensions. It is the priority objective, the obsession of all successive governments since the introduction of retirement at age 60 in 1982. Two reasons have been put forward: longer life expectancy would make it impossible to finance pensions. International competition would not allow it and would ruin the French economy. This was followed by a cascade of pension reforms and a return to the 35-hour work week, which were met with considerable social mobilization. The years that followed gave an answer to these fears. The French economy did not collapse under the shock of international competition; it resisted for forty-six years. The financing of pensions has not proved impossible despite the systematic reduction of social contributions by companies. On the other hand, the French situation is unacceptable to European and international capital. The trend in other countries is to increase working hours and the retirement age. In Europe, the retirement age has risen to 67, and it is planned to go up to 70. The French exception is unbearable.
We must accept the idea that it is not a particular laziness of French employees that is at fault. What is at issue is not work, it is wage labor that leaves a profit to the ruling class, it is forced and exploited work. The demand is not to work less, it is to be less exploited. The demographic evolution does not cancel the class struggle. Retired people and even working people do not want to work less, they want to choose freely and work freely. They already do an enormous amount of socially useful work, in terms of family care and community life, without which society could not function, reproduce and improve.
European and international capitalism expects the French leaders to bring their workers back to the common norm and to stop setting a bad example by showing that it is possible to reduce working hours. This demand has become stronger since 2008 after the financial crisis which showed the extent of the crisis of capitalism and which resulted in the shift towards an austere neoliberalism, combining austerity and securitization. Emmanuel Macron, anxious to be recognized as a European, if not world leader, and convinced of the benefits of neoliberal capitalism, is ready to give pledges.
This repeated offensive to bring French workers back to a standard acceptable to European capitalism is meeting with stubborn resistance. How can we understand the importance of workers’ resistance? The mobilization for pensions is part of the resistance against the questioning of the reduction of working hours. These are very difficult struggles. Denis Paillard, in his book "Rêve générale, ceux d’en bas et l’émancipation" (General dream, those from below and emancipation), cites Marx’s recurrent position on the struggle for the reduction of working time, whose radicality lies in the fact that what is at stake is the very body of the worker, of every worker, man, woman, child. A radicality that is not present in the same way in the other struggles, for example those for the increase of the wages. What is at stake in these struggles is the evolution, because of the demographic evolution, of the sharing between capital and work, and the safeguarding of a socially useful work in relation to the exploited work.
This social confrontation has strained relations; it has been prolonged by a lack of understanding of the ecological situation. Awareness of the magnitude of the stakes in the environmental situation has increased significantly, particularly among the younger generations. The demand for actions and policies on the scale of the stakes is more and more pressing. The evolution of the climate is worrying and threatens the future. The deterioration of the situation for air, water and land cannot be fought by speeches without policy changes. The question of mega-basins is regularly raised. The privatization of water reserves increases the danger for the groundwater. The search for solutions through large, uncontrolled and privatized works is opposed to the mobilization and the change of transformation model carried by climate mobilizations. The warnings are met with official indifference.
The climate movement has taken on great importance. It is worried about the inefficiency of the big conferences and asks for concrete interventions and real political commitments. The demonstration against the big ponds showed the convergence between the young generations, the working farmers and the community movements. The fear of the creation of new ZADs (Zones A Défendre) has been used by the government to justify an aggressive and violent policing policy. The government violently attacked the demonstrators, claiming the presence of violent elements, overestimating the presence of black-blocks and declaring war on a fantasy threat qualified as ultra-left. These elements of language translate the overexcitement of the minister of the interior and led him to ask for the dissolution of the Earth Rising, a movement of convergence between young people, working farmers and voluntary associations.
The violence of the repression against the demonstrators and against the environmental activists contributes to radicalize large sectors of the youth. The use of the 49-3 procedure, allowing to bypass the vote in the Parliament, has served as a revelation of the authoritarian trend of the government. The stubbornness to force through a reform that is rejected, according to recurrent polls, by two-thirds of voters in France and by nearly 90% of the working population, and using a procedure that avoids a vote in the National Assembly, has been a revelation of authoritarian tendencies. The procedure may be legal, but can we consider as democratic a procedure rejected by two-thirds of the voters? By pitting legality against the majority of the population, institutions and democracy are in great danger. The anger is very strong and will not subside any time soon. The withdrawal of the pension reform, including the raising of the retirement age to 64, could open up prospects for a real negotiation for a reform of the pension system and the respect of the reduction of working hours. The debate on the reform of the institutions will not be missed.
The social movement is ecological and also a democratic movement. It puts forward the resistance to authoritarianism. It also resists contempt. It questions the meritocracy that seeks to link the managers to the ruling class, to the financial bourgeoisie. The general control by an omnipotent financial class feeds the idea of a generalization of corruption and the rejection of politics. The contradictions of the new period are sharpening. Movements are the bearers of new radicalities: the workers’ and trade union movement, the peasant movement, the feminist movement, the ecologist movement, the movement of the first nations, the movement against racism and discrimination, the movement against precariousness, the movement for the rights of migrants, the movement for the right to housing. The strategy of these movements is in full evolution. The rise of the security and identity-based ideologies of the extreme right throughout the world reflect, in particular, the fear of the future and the resistance to these new radicalisms. The future is wide open! The convergence of social, ecological and democratic struggles initiates a strategy of emancipation.
Thanks to Feroz Mehdi for the translation