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The Internationalist
April 2023

Mobilize for an All-Out General Strike to Smash French Pension “Reform”
Against the Authoritarian Fifth Republic, Fight for a Workers Government!

Opposition to Macron Still Boiling
But Banging on Pots Won’t Bring Him Down

Forge a Leninist-Trotskyist Revolutionary Workers Party!

Bourgeois “democracy” in action. After ramming pension “reform” raising the retirement age through parliament without a vote, enacting it by decree, Macron sent it to the Constitutional Council (above) for validation, and promulgated it within hours, in the dead of night. (Photo: Libération)

APRIL 30 – Two weeks after French President Emmanuel Macron’s assault on pension rights became law, the opposition is still up in arms. True to form, Macron lost no opportunity to express his contempt for the mass of the population. After forcing through the law (raising the age of retirement from 62 to 64 years) without a vote in parliament, barely seven hours after it was rubber-stamped by the Constitutional Council,1 it was published in the Journel Officiel, at 2 a.m. on April 15. The head of state then disappeared, resurfacing on April 17 to deliver a speech calling for “100 days of peace, of unity….”

Macron is at a peak of unpopularity. Three out of four respondents in public opinion polls express a negative opinion of the president, while the same percentage want a referendum on the pension “reform” (also ruled out by the Constitutional Council) and two out of three support the protest movement against it2 Hundreds of thousands of young people have joined the fray, chanting “Macron t’es foutu, la jeunesse est dans la rue” (Macron, you’re screwed, the youth are in the streets” and marching (along with older workers) to the rhythms of the hit song “On lâche rien” (we’re not letting go). But for the arrogant would-be Jupiter,3 this overwhelming opposition is a badge of honor. We are reminded of the emperor Caligula, who, the Roman historian Suetonius tells us, “found in himself nothing more beautiful and more praiseworthy than what he called his utter inflexibility.” Caligula, as we know, ended badly.

But there was to be neither peace nor unity. From now on, Macron is “Mr. 49.3.” His use of that constitutional article to enact his widely hated “reform” by decree is proof positive that “French democracy” does not represent “the will of the people.” The president’s April 17 speech was accompanied by “casserolades” – the banging of pots and pans by huge crowds of protesters seeking to drown him out. Then, within minutes after it ended, crowds started marching through the streets across France. Trash was set on fire to general approval. Across the length and breadth of the country, his ministers have gotten the same treatment, frequently accompanied by fog horns and auto sirens. The call went out on Twitter, “attrapons les tous” (catch them all).

Tens of thousands went into the streets on April 17, banging pots and pans to drown out speech by President Macron justifying his attack on pensions. (Photo: AP)

The more prudent among the Macron gang just cancelled their trips. Of those who did not, the health minister had to sneak into a hospital in Montreuil through the emergency exit. When the president arrived at a woodworking factory in the Alsatian town of Muttersholtz, the mines and energy federation of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) had cut the power, leaving him in the dark. The regime’s hard man, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, declared “pots and pans are not forbidden”, yet when after leaving Alsace, Macron was pursued through the southern department (district) of Hérault, an “anti-terrorist” law was invoked against some of the demonstrators, and pots and pans were indeed confiscated. (Once again the power was cut off to the school he was visiting.)

As we noted in our article, “France: Drive Out Macron, Fight for a Workers Government!” (L’Internationaliste, 26 March), distributed as a leaflet in the April 6 march in Paris, such actions, if extended and sustained, could touch off a struggle for workers control throughout the economy. But the union bureaucracy, closely tied to the state, has no intent of going beyond stunts and occasional displays of militancy to a battle for power. Instead, they look to repeat the mass demonstrations – a dozen so far, each with over one million marchers – that have failed to budge the smug president Jupiter-Caligula.

The massive kettling of demonstrators (“la nasse,” or fish net), the vicious beatings, the indiscriminate use of tear gas continue. In a case reported from Nantes in late March, the round-up even included vaginal searches of female students. Alongside the casserolades, nightly skirmishing with the cops continues, include attacks on police stations as well as blockades of rail lines and highways. There are still stop-and-go strikes in various key industrial sectors such as refineries. Yet this all amounts to guerrilla warfare, and can neither stop the assault on pensions nor spark a working-class counteroffensive against the capitalist attacks.

The intransigeance of Macron is the French version of the overall capitalist drive to grind down the working class, using the imperialist war against Russia in the Ukraine to push for “sacrifice.” In Spain, the “left” bourgeois government of the Socialist Party and populist Podemos has used a combination of the carrot and stick to attack strikes and slash pensions, with the connivance of the trade-union bureaucrats. In Germany, the government is resisting workers’ efforts to catch up to inflation and continues to persecute the unemployed. In Britain, the right-wing Tory government is seeking new legal tools to repress the strike wave, while the Labour Party stabs the strikes in the back.

In France there is a burning need for a decisive mobilization of the power of the working class – an all-out general strike – but the trade-union bureaucracy has nothing to offer other than semi-monthly one-day demonstrations and tolerance for “renewable” strikes in various sectors. Next up is a massive march on May Day, where for the first time all the labor federations have joined in calling for a united protest. But this unprecedented unity at the top is based on a lowest-common-denominator policy of class collaboration. The more rightist leaders are just waiting for a “decent interval” to resume business as usual with the government, while the more left-talking ones are no less hostile to the revolutionary politics needed to break out of the impasse.

The trade-union bureaucrats and their apologists (including the bulk of the so-called “far left”) point to the relative quiet of the private sector and moan about the weakness of rank-and-file participation in strike or union meetings. But they themselves, with their politics of “popular-front” coalitions with bourgeois parties and groupings, not to mention integration into capitalist state institutions, are prime purveyors of defeatism and cynicism and mortal enemies of proletarian class consciousness. To win this battle, it is necessary to forge a revolutionary leadership to defeat the government’s attacks on the working class through hard class struggle.

New/Old Bureaucrats and Their “Left” Retainers

Hundreds of thousands jammed Paris streets on April 6, in the 11th union-called mass mobilization in 2023.
(Photo: Loic Venance / Agence France-Presse)

In the midst of the three-month-old movement against the pension “reform,” the CGT, the second largest union federation in France after the social-democratic CFDT (Democratic Confederation of Labor), held a congress at the end of March in Marseille. Reflecting widespread unrest among the ranks, for the first time in the 128-year history of the federation, the report of the outgoing leadership under Philippe Martinez was rejected, by 52% of the delegates. In addition, the candidate proposed to replace him was rejected.

The opposition, led by the federations (such as Mines and Energy) which have been pushing renewable strikes, plus a smaller group around Olivier Mateu, head of the Bouches-du-Rhone district, also failed to elect its candidate. This opposition was only a slightly more militant-sounding version of the old bureaucracy, and its candidate was the former head of the CGT federation of prison guards – agents of capitalist repression who have no place in the workers movement. The situation cried out for a genuine class-struggle opposition.

The surprise compromise candidate, Sophie Binet, quickly proved to be no more combative than Martinez. While promising a “historic, popular tsunami” for May Day, her most “militant” action so far has been to refuse to meet with Macron after he immediately promulgated the pension law. She sought to revive the dead-end of a referendum, which would have no practical effect, and lamented that “Macron is closing all the doors to a way out of the conflict in a very worrying form of radicalization” (Le Monde, 17 April). Well, what did the CGT tops expect? That Macron would simply abandon his law?

Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s bourgeois populist party, La France Insoumise (LFI, France Unbowed), is also pushing the referendum scheme and praising the “unity” of the trade-union leaderships. The same mantra is repeated by Philippe Poutou, former presidential candidate of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), in an interview (Ballast, 25 March) titled “Tout redevient possible” (Everything is possible again). Poutou praised the “dynamic” set off by the NUPES (New Ecological and Social People’s Union) popular front around Mélenchon’s LFI, formed on May Day last year, and the Intersyndicale cartel of reformist and subreformist union leaders.

Poutou was no doubt consciously echoing the words of Marceau Pivert (centrist leader of a wing of the French social democracy in the 1930s) who famously proclaimed during the mass strikes of 1936 that “Everything is possible,” by pressuring the popular-front government of Léon Blum. (Maurice Thorez, the French Stalinist leader, responded to Pivert with his equally famous phrase, “You have to know how to end a strike.”) Now Poutou, NPA spokesman Olivier Besancenot and Le Poing (the Fist), the youth group of the NPA, are proclaiming that “Macron has already lost,” because the pension “reform” could only be legislated by decree and upheld by brutal repression. This is utter “democratic” delirium.

What is true is that, while Macron has imposed his attack on workers’ rights, the struggle is not over. But to prevail, it is not enough to call to “reinforce the mobilization” (NPA leaflet, 18 April) – i.e., more of the same. It is necessary to bring to bear the power of the working class to stop production and paralyze the country, leading to a proletarian struggle for power. But for the NPA, “incantations about the general strike which are aimed at denouncing the trade-union leaderships do not suffice.” Calling for a general strike, is fine, they opine, but “doing it in a sectarian way plays a negative role, by denying the problems of the movement and creating divisions within it.”4

While alibiing the labor bureaucracy – naturally “taking into account class consciousness as it really is, and not in our dreams” – the line of NPA leader Antoine Larrache was to continue the on-again, off-again renewable strikes and to encourage all sorts of “sectoral” struggles, with the ultimate goal of ending the Fifth Republic and calling a constituent assembly. It was necessary, he declaimed, to “speed up the ripening and awareness. Without ultraleftism, without shouting ‘we are determined and revolutionary” at every street corner,” etc. For this “realist,” someday, maybe, a general strike, but forget about socialist revolution.

Révolution Permanente/Trotskyist Faction: Bourgeois “Democracy From Below”

Révolution Permanente in Paris protest after Constitutional Court ruling rubber-stamping pension “reform” law, April 14. RP calls for “radical democratic” constitutional tinkering rather than fighting for a workers government.  (Photo:  Kiran Ridley / Getty Images)

When Larrache sneers at supposed “ultraleftism,” he is addressing Révolution Permanente (RP), which split off from the NPA in December 2022 after extended infighting. But a look at RP’s politics shows that they are not so far removed from NPA. In an article following the Constitutional Council’s approval of the pension “reform,” RP stated the obvious, that “In the Face of this Anti-Democratic Power Grab, Another Strategy Is Needed!” (Révolution Permanente, 14 April). But what strategy? The authors advocate one which “expands the demands, by posing along with social and wage demands the question of the end of the Fifth Republic regime and demanding radical democratic measures: a single chamber combining legislative and executive powers, representatives elected completely proportionally for two years and revocable by local assemblies at any time, the end of privileges for elected representatives.”

This fuite en avant (fleeing forward) to “expand” the struggle by including a palette of social and democratic reforms is actually an attempt to sidestep the showdown with the capitalist state that is posed over the attack on workers’ pension rights. To buttress this defeatist program, RP “theoretician” Juan Chingo published an article, “Against the Authoritarian Radicalization, For a Radical Democratic Response From Below” (RP Dimanche, 8 April), that is a veritable ode to the social reforms enacted “from the outset of the Third Republic” (1870-1940) – which began with the massacre of tens of thousands of Communards, i.e., a counterrevolution. The article quotes Claude Serfati, the author of a recent treatise who says that “In France, more than in other Western countries, the army has been the backbone of the state for centuries.” But, “It is only with the Fifth Republic that the army has been placed at the heart of the State and of French society.”5

First off, for Marxists, the fact that the army is the backbone of the state is not some French peculiarity or particular characteristic of the semi-bonapartist Fifth Republic, but the essence of class rule. Second, it is a “democratist” illusion to claim (as much of the French left does) that Macron’s use of Article 49.3 to force through enactment of the pension “reform” law represents a “radicalization” of French bourgeois democracy. As we have noted, “left” president François Mitterrand was the champion in using this rule-by-decree device. Third, and most important, for Trotskyists the answer to the bonapartist / authoritarian aspects of the capitalist state under the French Fifth Republic is not a series of “radical democratic” reforms, à la Révolution Permanente, or a constituent assembly advocated by Mélenchon (and all over Latin America by RP’s parent tendency, the Trotskyist Faction [FT]), but to fight for socialist revolution.

The craze for constitution-tinkering of what passes for the left and “far left” these days is merely a symptom of their social democratization. The position that full, consistent and permanent achievement of democratic rights (which has never actually been attained in any capitalist society) is a bridge to socialism was a staple of the Second International, in particular for Karl Kautsky. It was also the basis for his denunciation of the Bolshevik Revolution. Seeking to head off proletarian revolution following the overthrow of the monarchy in 1918, Kautsky advocated integrating workers councils (soviets) into parliamentary democracy, in order to defang them. But in the recent articles by the RP on the mobilizations against the attack on pension rights, it’s simply about (bourgeois parliamentary) “democracy from below.”

In reality, all the theorizing is just a smokescreen. Four years ago, the RP/FT, when it was still a faction within the NPA, impressionistically declared France in a prerevolutionary crisis6 over the Yellow Vest protests. At the time, it put forward the same “radical democratic” program as now, claiming to draw on Trotsky’s June 1934 “Program for Action in France.” As we have explained, while Trotsky raised some democratic demands, this was in the context of his call for workers militias to crush the fascist leagues, for “Down with the Bourgeois ‘Authoritarian State’! For Workers and Peasants Power!” and for a “workers and peasants commune.”7 But rather than looking to the Paris Commune of 1871, “the first attempt by a proletarian revolution to smash the bourgeois state machine” (Lenin, State and Revolution), the RP/TF calls today to “abrogate the Fifth Republic” (by whom?) and to install a single (bourgeois parliamentary) assembly. Radical? Hardly, and certainly not revolutionary.

Bringing up the rear in the parade of pseudo-Trotskyists, Lutte Ouvrière (LO) basically echoes the union bureaucracy, calling for more of the same. Along with banners with such generalities as “What the government can do, the working people can undo,” and stickers saying “Workers make society run, it’s up to them to lead it,” LO declares in an editorial by Nathalie Arthaud: “Each additional day of mobilization grows and strengthens our camp. Each strike and every demonstration is a step forward by millions of workers. So, let’s be there again, as many of us as possible, to continue the struggle!” (Lutte Ouvrière, 14 April). And what then? Strike action, a general strike? LO’s magazine, Lutte de Classe (April 2023) asks if things are heading “Toward a generalization of the strikes?” Its answer: “Nothing indicates so far that we are moving towards this change,” adding that “radicalism isn’t setting trash on fire.”

It’s going to take a lot more than just “being there” to defeat this government at the head of the semi-bonapartist Fifth Republic and backed up by the full force of French capital.

Against the Anti-Democratic Capitalist Fifth Republic,
For a Workers Government Based on Workers Councils

On April 13, CGT and other unions called 12th day of action against pension “reform” on eve of Constitutional Court ruling (above, in Toulouse). Despite mass protests, Macron rammed through his anti-worker law. What is needed to sink it is an all-out general strike and struggle for a workers government. That requires revolutionary leadership.  (Photo: Lionel Bonaventure / Agence France-Presse)

The struggle over pensions didn’t start with Macron, and it won’t be settled by more demos, more strikes and more banging pots and pans. The origins of the current pension system go back to 1945 when the post-WWII popular-front government including the Communist Party (PCF) enacted social security measures aimed at heading off the danger of a revolution. For the last 30 years, the French bourgeoisie has been trying to “reform” the system by cutting back workers’ rights. In 1993, Prime Minister Édouard Balladur sought to cut pensions and raise the number of years of employment for eligibility for a full pension. In 1995, Prime Minister Alain Juppé tried to eliminate the “special regimes” of public employees in key industries, but had to withdraw in the face of massive strikes. This was followed by further anti-worker “pension reform” plans in 2003, twice under President Nicolas Sarkozy (2007 and 2010, again touching off huge protests)8 and Macron’s first try, in 2020.9 This extended battle is a showdown of labor vs. capital.

And resorting to police-state measures is hardly limited to interior minister Darmanin’s riot cops charging into crowds to savagely beat demonstrators protesting the pension law. Next on Macron’s 100-day pacification plan was the “Darmanin law” on immigration, which foresees mass expulsions of thousands of undocumented (sans-papiers) immigrants. On April 29, there were protests in Rennes, Paris, Marseille and elsewhere against the reactionary bill. A foretaste of what the law would mean is the “Opération Wuambushu” being carried out in the “overseas department” of Mayotte (off East Africa), where in the name of “fighting crime,” some 24,000 “irregular” immigrants are being expelled by special units of riot police who days beforehand were beating pension protesters in Rennes. Revolutionary Marxists call for all French military and police forces to get the hell out of Mayotte, and for full citizenship rights for all immigrants.

As decaying capitalism systematically destroys past gains of workers’ struggles, ripping up vital social programs and criminalizing immigrants, Macron has the full support of French capital – now sporting the richest man in the world (Bernard Arnault, whose fortune is estimated at $211 billion) and the richest woman in the world (Françoise Bettencourt-Meyers, $80.5 billion). Against this it is necessary to mobilize the force of the working class, in an unlimited general strike, to defeat the attack on workers’ pension rights, to drive Macron out of the Élysée presidential palace and bring down the anti-democratic Fifth Republic. This can only be done by fighting for a workers government, based on workers councils formed in struggle, not on the institutions of the capitalist state. The prospect of such a revolutionary struggle strikes fear in the hearts of the pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy. That’s why they can’t win this fight.

A “general strike” for more “democracy,” for a referendum on anti-worker reforms or awaiting a new “popular front” coalition (as the PCF is now calling for) will go nowhere. As the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote of a general strike against the austerity measures of a popular-front “left” government in the late 1930s:

“The general strike is, by its very essence, a revolutionary means of struggle. In a general strike the proletariat assembles itself as a class against its class enemy. The use of the general strike is absolutely incompatible with the politics of the Popular Front, which signifies alliance with the bourgeoisie, that is to say, the submission of the proletariat to the bourgeoisie. The miserable bureaucrats of the Socialist and Communist parties as well as of the trade unions consider the proletariat as a simple auxiliary instrument in their combinations behind the scenes with the bourgeoisie. They propose that the workers pay for a simple demonstration with sacrifices which cannot have any meaning in the workers’ eyes unless it is a question of a decisive struggle.”
–L.D. Trotsky, “The Decisive Hour in France” (December 1938)

Today, as the U.S., EU and NATO imperialists hurtle toward World War III with their proxy war against Russia over Ukraine, the League for the Fourth International holds that key to winning the all-sided attack on the working class and defending all social sectors under attack is to forge the core of a genuinely communist, internationalist workers party, on the Bolshevik program of Lenin and Trotsky, to lead the fight for socialist revolution. Jupiter-Caligula-Macron can be defeated. We have the power, what’s needed is the revolutionary leadership with the program and determination to use it. ■

  1. 1. Known as “les sages”, or the wise, the council is in reality a club of superannuated politicians, charged with ruling on the constitutionality of legislation.
  2. 2. IFOP poll for Sud-Radio, 15 April.
  3. 3. During his first campaign for the French presidency, in 2016, Macron declared that he planned a “Jupiterian” presidency, like the Roman god of gods.
  4. 4. Antoine Larrache, “Retraites : une semaine de bazar, pour aller vers la victoire ?” (Pensions, a week of chaos, heading towards victory?), NPA, 29 March.
  5. 5. Claude Serfati, L’État radicalisé. La France à l’ère de la mondialisation armée (The Radicalized State. France in the Era of Armed Globalization), 2022.
  6. 6. Under fire from pro-Mélenchon elements, RP, in another turgid article, has now backed off from its position that Macron’s use of 49.3 opened a “pre-revolutionary moment.” See “Onze nuances de scepticisme et d’électoralisme” (Eleven Shades of Skepticism), RP Dimanche, 15 April.
  7. 7. See our article “The Opportunist Left Hitched to the Yellow Vests,” The Internationalist No. 56, May-June 2019; and “Trotskyism vs. ‘Constituent Assembly’ Mania” (October 2007), in The Internationalist No. 27, May-June 2008.
  8. 8. See our articles, “France: May in October? The Spectre of a New ’68,” “To Drive Out Sarkozy & Co., Fight for Power to the Workers,” and several on-the-spot reports in The Internationalist No. 32, January-February 2011.
  9. 9. See “French Strikers Challenge Attack on Pensions,” in The Internationalist No. 58, Winter 2020.