Since the beginning of the year, several days of strike and demonstrations have been organised in France against the reform of the pension system, aiming to raise from 62 to 64 the age of retirement. In early March a grève reconductible was launched and workers have been constantly striking and organising demonstrations to protest this reform: last week, after the decision of the French government to bypass the vote in the National Assembly and with the negative vote on the motions de censure, the reform officially passed. Yesterday, the French Conseil Constitutionnel has issued its opinion on the constitutionality of the reform, mainly approving it. This early morning, Emmanuel Macron has officially signed the promulgation of the reform. Yet, the mobilisation is going on. Yesterday thousands of people, workers, students, migrants, women, men and LGBTQI people took to the streets. The coalition of trade unions which has been formed at the beginning of the mobilization has called for a massive day of strike on May First and stated that they will refuse to meet with the government before that date. We publish an interview done last week, before the decision of the Conseil Constitutionnel with Julie and Julien from the union Solidaires who talk about the achievements and challenges of the social movement in France.
TSS: Why have you decided to strike? What are the main points of this reform against which you’re mobilising?
Julien (Sud-Rail): I am part of the Sud-Rails federation which is the federation of all rail workers. Rail workers have different contractual statuses. Workers with ‘SNCF status’ initially retired at around 57-59 years of age, but this special regime has come to an end, so they are also affected by the reform. While it seemed that the SNCF [National society of French railroads] and the RATP [Autonomous Parisian Transportation Administration] could have special regimes, it is now clear that they are affected like all the others by the reform. And this is one of the reasons why we mobilised. Moreover, our unionism is a unionism of social change, and we know that this is Emmanuel Macron’s ‘mother’ reform. There is nothing to justify it, so it’s a societal struggle. We’re going to confront it because we know that in any case it must be stopped. This is how railway workers are concerned, with differences between the statuses, but which are residual because there is no more hiring under the special status since 2020. All railway workers who are hired since 2020 are under the general regime, because of a 2018 counter-reform made by Macron on the railway sector.
Since the first discussion on the reform, trade unions in France have been mobilising against it. What is the difference with past mobilizations, as the one against the loi travail in 2016, or the one against the first attempt to pass this reform in the beginning of 2020?
Julien: The biggest difference is the inter-union unity. This time 8 trade unions managed to find a common demand – the withdrawal of this bill. In 2019 the CFDT was for the pension reform. There is obviously anger, but I think that this is another question and that the subject of pensions is the straw that broke the camel’s back. Today the demand of a better distribution of wealth in this country is raised quite regularly. Unlike in 2019, as Solidaires, this time we decided to go on an interprofessional strike and we had many more professional sectors – energy, refineries, waste, railways for example – which went on strike. In 2019 there was only the RATP and the SNCF. Another difference is linked to the social anger in this country, which has been going on for a long time, and it is rooted in the territories. We had and have demonstrations in sub-prefectures or in towns with 6,000 inhabitants. So there is a demand for demonstrations in departments – I know the department of Isère well, for example – where, in certain towns, they had never had demonstrations, or not for 20 years. So, there is a real anger that is rooted in the territory, whereas in 2019 it was very much rooted in Paris. There is also a difference in the composition of the people who took to the streets: there are not only union members. There are a lot of people with their placards, with their words and not all with a flag of a trade union organisation. It’s really a social anger of the whole population.
Julie (Solidaires National – Health): The big difference is the intersyndicale, which is broader and more complete – something I had never experienced in my union activism. It’s something we had in the past, but I’ve been an activist since 2010 and I’ve never seen so much trade union unity and so much sustainability. We are really united, and this will also be the case tomorrow [on April 5th] in the meeting with Elisabeth Borne: we are going in together, we are going out together. We don’t necessarily have the same strategies, but this union lasts over time and there is at least one very strong demand in common: the withdrawal of the reform and the refusal of 64 years as retirement age. I don’t think anyone had thought that this could last for 4 months. Even us, from February onwards, we were saying that the CFDT was going to leave, and in fact no, it’s staying, so it’s good for all the workers.
In the last few days, much of the public opinion in France has called into the debate the past mobilizations of the Gilets Jaunes and the other protests that took place in France over the years: why is the current mobilization different?
Julie: On the Yellow Vests, it depends on the territory. In Toulouse the movement has not really died out. In the first mobilisations against the reform, we saw the comrades with whom we were militating in Toulouse during the Yellow Vests movement come back in the union marches. The big difference in the mobilisations is the fact that we rely on strike movements and strike notices to block the economy, in the case of the Yellow Vests there were no strike notices behind them, there were calls to demonstrate on Saturday.
Julien: The Yellow Vests continued to self-organise and this is the case in Isère. I think that it’s still quite weak. I don’t have the impression that on the territory is strong, but I think that the anger that there was in the Yellow Vests is the same: it means that the people who took to the streets are those who came out in the street with the yellow vests, even if they don’t call themselves Yellow Vests. This is linked to what we said earlier about the composition of the movement: in the street and especially in the territories we mentioned, in the sub-prefectures and small towns, what we see now is also a continuation of this protest that took place and that was called ‘Yellow Vests’. There is the issue of the spontaneity of actions because there are still wild demonstrations. We can see that the trade union demonstrations where you start from a point A and arrive at a point B are not the only ones because many marches overflow and, in this sense, it was similar in the Yellow Vests movement. It must be stressed that the unions have not stopped this overflow, they do not say to not do it, it depends on the balance of power that we have in the demonstrations. But we shouldn’t mystify the Yellow Vests: there are different Yellow Vests and different angers according to the territories and according to the realities, and in relation to the public service and many people contested at the time the failure of the public services.
The struggle against this reform has become more and more general and has triggered a wave of protests that goes beyond the sole issue of the reform, blaming the increase in the cost of living on the climate crisis and the ongoing war in Ukraine. What other demands are being put forward by the protesters? Are there any links with other struggles taking place in France? In particular, the events in Sainte-Soline showed that there are connections, and someone spoke of a convergence of struggles. On the 8th of March there were many feminist collectives, at least in Paris, who went on strike saying that the reform is also against women. What do you think about this?
Julie: There is really a general anger and a questioning of the productionist and capitalist system. That’s why we make the link between social and ecological emergencies. There is a slogan that we took up with the ‘Ecological and Social Alliance’ collective, composed of different unions like the CGT, Solidaires, FSU, the Confédération Paysanne but also associations like Greenpeace, Alternatiba, and the slogan was “There are no jobs on a dead planet”. It’s a collective that was created just before Covid and that now has taken this name to make the link between ecological and social struggles because today we can’t think of the class struggle without ecological struggles. And that’s why Solidaires is very invested and present in the struggle in Sainte-Soline, on the defence of water as a common good that cannot be replaced. That’s also why we follow our Sud-Rail comrades when they fight against the Lyon-Turin line (TAV), which will also destroy a valley. In Solidaires, we support these struggles and are on the streets for them.
Julien: I think it’s quite normal, when there is a conflict that lasts three months, that there is a convergence of struggles. Sainte-Soline is an obvious choice of society. Nevertheless, there we meet militants, politicised comrades. There are plenty of people in the street who are not part of a collective and it is in our interest to win on pensions if we want to regain consensus and say that we can change things. It’s good that we started to organise demonstrations with environmental associations, it means that we are really converging. But we have to win the fight on pensions because that’s what brought a lot of employees, young people, pensioners and citizens to mobilise.
Another question, linked to the ecological dimension and to water: what do you think of Macron’s new reform or, better, the new project?
Julie: It is the same very productionist policy and is going to tighten our belts while the multinationals or big farmers can continue to pump in the resources. So it’s the same thing with salaries, inflation, and energy logic: we always ask for individual savings while the big producers and the biggest consumers of energy remain the multinationals, and they are not asked to make any effort. The choices of societies are made to rest on the individual, and this choice that the government has chosen is productionism. If we don’t win, the social movement will actually fall back a lot and we’ll have a big disappointment for those who mobilised and then there’s the extreme right which is running away to recover… We don’t hear them too much, but they’re behind. If it wasn’t us it would be them.
In the last months, several essential sectors have been joining the strikes, as for example the workers of TotalEnergie and of other categories such as the teachers and railway workers. What are the connections between the struggle against the pensions’ reform, as a class and workers’ struggle, and the struggles of the climate movement? Do you see opportunities of enlargement of the mobilisation based on these connected struggles and in what form?
Julien: There is a sector that we forget, it’s the waste sector, the garbage collectors. As far as the refineries are concerned, we can say that there was a conflict, but the shortage in the petrol stations that we saw in October is not the same situation. Today we can see the difference: there have been requisitions from the government which have been much stronger, but still production in the refineries has not been stopped in March. When we talk about education, there have not been renewable strikes nationally or only in some departments. In general, there were no schools that were closed for weeks and where families were putting pressure on them. And we railways were not up to the standard we were in 2019. We entered this conflict saying that we didn’t want to be its engine, whereas that was the case in 2019. On the famous essential sectors, everyone is essential: we have comrades who are in the IT sector. If they go on strike, big companies are blocked. Moreover, there have been sectors where they don’t care about climate issues. The comrades today, or the CGT structures in the ports, the docks, and the refineries – which are difficult sectors to talk about because we are talking about social reconversion – are part of the federations which do not want to work with ecological and social alliances, for example. Regarding the enlargement, today people want to go back to the streets, but this is not how we are going to win, unfortunately, because Macron is so arrogant that there could be millions of people in the streets every week and he has locked himself in there.
Julie: We don’t manage to mobilise like in 2019 in the universities: the amphitheatres of the universities were full, with a lot of evening meetings with interprofessional general assemblies. Today it’s not the same. As far as enlargement is concerned, we see people in the demonstrations whom we didn’t see before: I have a lot of colleagues who have discovered the demonstrations and police violence too. The demonstrations were quiet, until the announcement of the 49.3, and then we saw another discourse of taking back control and making sure that public opinion was no longer on the side of the social movement. In Toulouse we’ve had three demonstrations that we haven’t managed to finish because they bring out the water cannons. That’s what the Yellow Vests experienced, that’s what we experienced during the labour law… these are things we’ve known for a while…
Julien: If I may add on the enlargement, there is one thing we are not used to, the weight of the intersyndicale in this conflict. We in Solidaires are in favour of the self-organisation of struggles, in favour of general assemblies. It’s the strikers who decide on their conflict. But the weight of the intersyndicale does not allow this self-organisation. This means that the workers go to the demonstration, they are numerous, and they wait for the evening for the intersyndicale which decides on a date. At the interprofessional level things are strong, framed and everything is fine, but it’s at the professional level in the sectors where we build the general strike. The intersyndicale takes on an enormous weight – and this is not a criticism, but the truth – and next to that the construction of the interprofessional strike does not necessarily generate conflicts in each sector. Conflicts in each company, a construction of the strike in each sector will be necessary. For example, in the SNCF we still have a national impact today. We have a social body of railway workers, but today there are many subcontractors in other sectors. For example, there’s the Renault group: there were Renault companies everywhere and when there was a strike, they would have effects almost everywhere in France. Today we are under subcontracting, you go on strike alone in your factory and you have the impression, also with the blackmail of delocalisation, of being isolated. We, the railway workers, are very few, but we have the feeling of being united and strong.
This reform does not only concern France because it puts the financial markets back at the centre, the question of interest on the debt and the policy of attracting investments by hitting workers’ rights and limiting public spending. All this in a European context where, with the war in Ukraine, political and budgetary priorities are oriented towards strategic autonomy and rearmament. In England workers are on strike in the health and transport sectors; in Germany there are struggles demanding pay rises against inflation. This is not directly linked to the question of pensions but rather to the question of work and the contestation of the productive and reproductive system.
Julie: And with the famous “we must save the pay-as-you-go system, it’s the only way”. But there are other ways. We said that this reform is an anti-feminist reform because if we increase women’s salaries by 25% it would bring 7 billion EUR into the pension funds and we could also act on equality between women and men – whereas in France today there is still a gap between the salaries of men and women. If we stop laying off people, if we reduce working hours so that there are more jobs on the market, this will also bring in contributions and this will put money back into the pension funds.
Do you think that promoting more links and forms of communication with other countries, especially in the EU area, is useful for building a stronger movement?
Julie: From the beginning of the conflict, we received support from workers all over the world. Winning today in France against the pension reform is also a victory against capital, but it’s also a victory for all the workers of the world. And we are being watched everywhere: We receive support from Spain, Greece, Italy, Turkey, Pakistan, Iran, the United States… I have the impression that all eyes are on the country. As we could see in England, affected by the strike for several weeks, there are workers from all over the world who are looking at this and hoping… if we win, it’s really a victory for everyone that could be possible in other countries too. And if Macron loses, and that’s also why he won’t let it, it’s effectively capitalism losing part of a battle.
Julien: But there is a frustration because the solution, and we claim it, is an internationalist trade unionism and that means that at a given moment we should all strike at the same time. The frustration is that we are unable to do this. The incapacity because we talk about a trade unionism on the ground, which means convincing all the workers to go on strike, and at the same time we should be able to remove our borders and act now, and it’s clear that we don’t do it. It’s good to mention what’s happening in England: we in the Railways have never tried to mobilise together. Messages of support are good, but we need to do other things, we need to fight against this liberal policy that is being played out at the level of the European Union. It’s frustrating because we consider that trade unionism is done with the workers and the problem is how to emancipate the workers, and we need to be more numerous in the trade union organisations to be able to take more responsibility for this subject. On Ukraine, obviously we are all against imperialism, but we don’t put Putin and the others on the same footing. I heard many people say that the money we give to Ukraine could be put elsewhere, but to help them we must stop this invasion and that doesn’t happen by just saying “peace, peace, peace”, we’re not going to do it with a white flag, and when we’ve stopped this war, then we could challenge NATO, the imperialists and all that.
There is also the question of the retraining of workers. Because it seems that Laurent Berger (CFDT) agrees with this fact, whereas in the demonstrations Solidaires and the CGT are against it, because they say that we have to go into retirement.
Julie: Today in France it is very complicated to change work completely, there is a new relationship with work, we are no longer like our parents and grandparents were, i.e. we enter a sector and we stay there all the time. Today work is not like that. It’s a relationship to work which has changed and we need to facilitate bridges and we need to think hard about our work and the difficulty of our jobs. The other side of this discourse is the precarisation of work and life. The reform does not take into account the fact that many people are unemployed, have precarious contracts and that there are people who do not have work contracts… Many women also have very long careers, so this must also be taken into account, and also part-time work. We at Solidaires are currently carrying out a reflection with comrades who are disabled and who tell us that they could never work full time because it’s complicated and tiring. They work part-time all their lives, they get compensation but it’s almost nothing and when they retire they will still be living in precariousness. This raises the question of thinking about a different society, about reducing working hours, which can also allow people with disabilities to move to full-time work if the working hours are shorter.