As we go to press, 7 January, the French government is sitting down with the various union federations to discuss the ongoing dispute over its pension “reforms”.
The government hopes that a few limited or even cosmetic concessions will be enough to peel away some unions and begin to the mass strikes and protests that have swept France since early December.
It is standing firm on its central policy of changing how the level of public-sector pensions is calculated and introducing disadvantages for those who won’t retire later (64, as against 62 now). Many private sector pensions are also tied to those in the public sector.
Macron and co. are determined. But so are France’s workers. 9 January will see a new day of strikes, opening three important days of mobilisation with a national demonstration on Saturday. After a relative lull over Christmas, activists are arguing “Pas de retrait, pas de trêve!” — “No retreat, no truce!”
These are the biggest mobilisations since the (mainly victorious) pensions struggle of 1995, and the longest strikes since the great, quarter-revolutionary wave of 1968.
However this is not a general strike – yet. The key industries are the railways and transport, and education. Strikes are mainly taking place in the public sector, though there are some important one in the private sector, including at oil refineries.
Students and school students have taken action in support.
There seem to be some large contingents, but also many smaller groups of strikers and mobilised workers in many different places across the country.
French union leaders sound militant compared to their British counterparts, but they have a long and repetitive record of demobilising impressive struggles, including repeatedly over pensions since 1995. (When the unions won).
A better maintained culture of workplace militancy than in Britain, and the absence of anything like our anti-union laws, means it is easier for workers in France to take action, generate a substantial movement, and keep going despite inertia or pressure from the top of their unions.
That doesn’t mean union leaders’ role is unimportant. Apart from anything else, they could have – but have not – helped by calling for it to bring many new groups of workers into the struggle.
As often with French strikes, this one has thrown up a wide scattering of rank-and-file organising and coordinating bodies.
Socialist and militant trade union activists are discussing how to expand and extend these networks, to create genuine counter-power to the union hierarchies.