Macron against the “5th December wall”

Daniel Cirera

The massive coming strike and mobilisations against pension reform

By Daniel Cirera, General Secretary of the Scientific Council of the Fondation Gabriel Péri

Tuesday 19th November. Dinner at the Élysée Palace. The President brings together a close circle of ministers and parliamentarians. No more hesitation: the pension reform will be implemented.[1] Everyone must be on a war footing. No question of letting oneself be afraid. It had been necessary to back off in the face of the yellow vest protests,[2] to let slide in the case of the hospitals. The students can wait. This time, it’s make or break. It has to work. The next day the offensive was launched: parliamentarians, ministers and the Prime Minister lead the media assault. The element of language is simple and brutal: “The 5th December strike is a movement of privileged people against a reform of justice”! The aim is to rally public opinion against employees who benefit from special statutes, particularly in the public transport sectors, in the name of “equality of the pension system for all”.

The strike will be massive

Two weeks from 5th December. The strike day and related mobilizations promise to be massive. In the corridors of the Élysée Palace, there is talk of the “5th December wall”.

In September, the unions of the Paris metro, known as the RATP, issue a call for an unlimited strike. The main unions of the national railway company, the SNCF, decide to join the action on the same date. Before the summer, Macron had brought the liberalisation reform project before parliament, calling into question existing statutes in the name of competition, deaf to threats of strikes or any form of consultation. On 16th October, the main national trade unions, excepting the CFDT, had launched a call for a united strike across professional sectors. Renewable wherever possible, decided by employees. Since the summer, movements with broad participation have affected hospitals, while strikes against deplorable conditions have spread to emergency rooms. In November, health workers and doctors march arm in arm to demand credit, to demand work. The suicide of a teacher causes a shock, revealing the unbearable working conditions in certain sectors and the depth of malaise affecting the profession. Students organize themselves in multiple universities. Firemen, lawyers and airline pilots are all seen in the streets. The generalized sense of exasperation reaches even the police. The country is in pain. The climate demonstrations are massive. The trap that sometimes divides ecological and social issues is avoided through the slogan “end of the world, end of the month, same fight”. The 23rd November march against violence against women is a tidal wave. On 4th November, at a general meeting in Montpellier, the yellow vests call to join the 5th December strike.

50% of French respondents still proclaim themselves in solidarity with the yellow vests, even while the majority also condemns violence. This solidarity goes far beyond the movement born a year ago: 87% say they are in solidarity with the movements defending hospitals, and 62% with the fight against pension reform. (according to a Viavoice poll in the Libération newspaper). In terms of the biggest difficulties in daily life, first comes the cost of living (69%), then “inequalities” (51%), followed by the lack of resources and personnel in certain public services (51%).

What is at stake

Macron pushes the offensive because he knows that the confrontation will be long-lasting. He must limit the impact of 5th December, show that he will not surrender. 46% of survey respondents think he will not give in, compared to 38% who think he will. With the methods used to intimidate and divide, it must be shown that it is a question of working longer to earn less in retirement. The balance of power includes an awareness of what is at stake with this reform and in this confrontation.

Macron is the man promoted to the highest position to impose these reforms that none of his predecessors, from Chirac to Hollande, could implement. The pension system has been reformed several times, but not on its main points: raising the statutory retirement age, which is now 62, and moving from pay-as-you-go to a funded pension system “par capitalisation”. To achieve, in the end, what Blair and Schröder and other governments have been able to impose. The moment was ripe, with the collapse of the classical parties, the break-up of the left, the push from Le Pen. The space was freed in 2017 for a “grand coalition” in the French style, in a populist moment, even while in the first round of the election Macron had obtained only 24% of the vote (versus 21% for Marine Le Pen).

With their unexpected eruption, the yellow vests blocked the royal road promised to the young President. The impact of this revolt is based in the overlapping demands for “better living”, “living and not surviving” and, quite simply, “making ends meet”, in which a majority of the country, including all popular categories combined, recognizes itself. This is what is happening this autumn. The Libération newspaper concludes its survey by noting that “it is public opinion itself holds the most favourable balance of power. Its support for the open-ended strike that begins on 5th December will be crucial”.

75% think Macron must change his policies

The success of 5th December will shape what comes next: sharpening the confrontation, continuing the movement through its enlargement. Leaders and activists know that it will be a matter of opening up space for new enlargements of movements rooted in concerns, both professional and personal, “about life”. Movements converge at their own pace, according to situations, power relations, cultures of action, towards common goals, facing the same political obstacles.

Nearly 9 out of 10 French people believe they are living through a social crisis. For them, Macron has not changed, either in form or substance, and 75% believe that he should change his policies. There was a moment when he could count on institutional legitimacy, partially derived from a public that was disinheriting the previous governments. Especially since neither Marine Le Pen nor Mélenchon appeared to answer the people’s hopes.

At the end of 1995, a movement of several weeks of strikes paralysed the country. With the support of public opinion, the power of the movement had forced then-Prime Minister Alain Juppé to withdraw his pension reform project. Less than two years later, the broader left was in the majority and took over the government. We are no longer living in 1995. Recalling this moment, a former adviser to Sarkozy warns: “in a political, social and moral situation that is infinitely more explosive today than in 1995, the outbreak of a social conflict of the same nature could plunge France into indescribable political and social chaos without any foreseeable resolution”. The sociologist François Miquet-Marty is concerned that in “this accumulation of democratic deficiencies”, and with the weakness of the left, “troublemakers and at worst violence can prosper, in their cumulative effect flirting with the destruction of democracy”.

On the left, give a signal

This democratic deficiency, which is fraught with dangers, is one of the characteristics of the moment. The responsibility of left forces, even if weakened, is required. From all corners of the left. It is a matter of meeting the pressing demand for an alternative to Macron. To overcome the feeling of fatalism in the face of the supposed duel to take place between Macron and Le Pen in the coming months. The work of reconstruction will be long and will take unpredictable forms. It will be necessary to innovate, to really respond to the political crisis. Each signal becomes even more important. On 11th December, at the call of Fabien Roussel, the National Secretary of the PCF, a meeting has been called to bring together Socialists, Communists, Ecologists and Mélenchon’s “Unbowed”, alongside trade unionists and association activists. It is a question of showing the willingness to work together for a pension reform that will bring justice.

Wednesday 29th November. Headline in Le Monde, France’s newspaper of record: “Reforms: Philippe (the Prime Minister) ‘ready to discuss’”. In Le Figaro, the conservative daily newspaper: “Emmanuel Macron’s communication operation is not working”. Public support for the strike and associated mobilisations has increased from 57% in October to 66% now. Rendez-vous: 5th December.

Translated by Ethan Earle, director of “A Season in Hell: Burning issues in French politics


[1] Editor’s note: For more on Macron’s proposed pension reform, see “An attack on the solidarity-based system”, written by Catherine Perret, Confederal Secretary of France’s General Confederation of Labour (CGT) and published by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Brussels Office on 8 November 2019.

[2] Editor’s note: For more on the yellow vests, see Ethan Earle’s “Which way off the roundabout”, published by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Brussels Office on 17 October 2019.

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