Summary: The mass movement in France has reached unexpected size, posing a serious challenge to the government’s austerity plans — Editors
In 1920, Lenin wrote of how, in approaching “the decisive battle” against capitalism with any chance of success, “one must count in millions and tens of millions” of workers in motion (“Left-Wing” Communism — An Infantile Disorder, Collected Works 31:94). France is not there yet, for its recent strikes have not directly challenged capitalism; nor did they mobilize tens of millions of workers.
Still, the estimated two million who took to the streets or struck work on January 19 amid freezing rain sent a powerful signal to the Macron government and to global capital that French workers are ready to fight hard against his move to raise the age of full retirement from 62 to 64.
On January 19, schools, trains, subways, and much of the electrical power grid were shut down. Workers at oil refineries disrupted shipments and numerous flights also had to be canceled at airports. Many young people, including striking high school students, joined the workers on the streets. And while hundreds of thousands marched in Paris and tens of thousands in other large cities, it was also noted that fairly substantial demonstrations involving thousands also occurred in many smaller cities and towns. This suggests that the spirit of the Yellow Vests movement of 2018-19, which grew in these supposedly conservative rural and semi-rural areas, is not dead.
For the first time in many years, all of France’s labor union confederations, including several federations that usually comply with the demands of capital and the state, formed a solid unified front in organizing the January 19 actions. In fact, union leaders expressed surprise at the size of the turnout, way beyond what they had expected or hoped for.
Two days later, on January 21, over ten thousand youth marched through Paris in demonstrations called by the leftwing France Unbowed party. For their part, the unions have called for another nationwide day of action on January 31, which again promises to be massive.
In predictable fashion, the global media are portraying France as an outlier society that has fallen out of step with the rest of the world, not only because it has maintained retirement at age 62, but also because it has not given up the 35-hour week the working class won 25 years ago. Against this kind of message, French unions, a resurgent left, and much of the public are saying the obvious, that keeping a relatively early retirement age and a shorter workweek can be funded through a wealth tax. Further, this is a cause that has mobilized many youth, who see that it has the potential to open up jobs for them. In short, there is a politics of solidarity emerging between labor and youth. Here, the fact that French students and workers maintain a high level of participation in student and labor unions plays no small role, as these organizations can counter the messages of capital and the state propagated by the mass media.
Moreover, the far right party of Le Pen, which claims also to be with the workers and to oppose Macron’s pension scheme, exposed its class character by limiting its opposition to words and to future votes in parliament. It will take more than this misstep to undercut France’s strong neofascist current, which has been building for decades. But the fact that workers and youth came out en masse under the banner of the trade unions, opens up some possibilities in this direction as well. Of course, any serious challenge to the neofascists will have to combine class solidarity with open attacks on racism and xenophobia.
At a time when countries in the Global South like Peru are seething with revolt, and Brazilians are mobilizing against the fascist threat, it is important to note, analyze, and learn from the creativity of these mass movements, which sometimes carry with them a real revolutionary potential. At the same time, however, we need to do the same with the kind of upsurge we’re seeing in France in 2023, following on the heels of the labor upsurges in Britain, the U.S., and elsewhere in the more technologically developed countries.