France: Who is afraid of a general strike?

(All posters by the formes des luttes collective)

The strangely intermittent general strike in opposition to proposed pension reforms in france is neither “general”, nor truly a “strike”. If the movement is soon to enter its third month, with another day of protest scheduled for today (, the strike has never succeeded in paralysing the country’s economy (indeed, it barely reaches past the more unionised public sector).

Where the movement will go from here, whether it will be able to break out of its formal “labour union” demands, whether it can overflow into other resentments and/or desires, is to be seen. Its limits however are evident; if it is to become more, then it must shed its role as a defender of past reforms.

We share below, in translation, a short critical essay from the Temps critiques collective that was generously forwarded to us, and which has also been published with lundi matin.

How the current struggles finally rejoin their “historical route”

The limits of a powerful strike, at least in the two sectors that initiated it (RATP and SNCF), even though limited by a predetermined and restricted framework, that of the proposed pension reform, become clear with the hindsight that more than two months of struggle provide. The difference is striking between a movement which wants to be radical in its opposition to a State project, but which does nothing but react without taking the contest to another level; and the yellow vests’ movement which, on the occasion of a cyclical measure, an a priori harmless increase in the price of fuel, seized this opportunity to take the initiative and launch a revolt posing the question of the general conditions of life and of their sustainability. The fact that the yellow vests did not “win” changes nothing; they were also not defeated and everyone still refers to them, either to praise them or to vomit them up. It can be said that the question they posed still haunts all the powerful and their followers.

The pension movement is also asking questions, but it is as if it is not asking itself any also. Because of this self-limitation, it has no choice but to sink into a tug-of-war against the government with a more than uncertain power relationship, for it leaves out parts of the population whose life conditions are the most precarious. The latter, who were or could have been yellow vests, are only called upon to join those who are “truly mobilised”, that is, the strikers, for actions or demonstrations which find or reproduce the routine of labour union practices and activists. The proliferation of declarations, announcements and the like, rather than actions, makes one’s head spin so much that we could even let ourselves dream that we are on the verge of a revolution, when most gatherings involve only a handful of individuals and activists, often the same.(1) What remains of the yellow vests’ event does not escape this disintegration process which sees them “act” out every Saturday their survival, with no other effect than keeping the police on alert.

The basis of these gatherings or protests remains unchanged, an agitation for the withdrawal of the pension reform and the defense of existing conditions. This shows to what extent and contrary to what journalists, sociologists or political scientists say, there is no “giletjaunisation” of the movement, neither at the level of the form, where the organisation replaces the spontaneity of revolt, nor in the content, because it is not general conditions of life that are posed and questioned. Each remains fixed on the basis of his profession – when the latter still merits the term in a capitalised society which tends to transform all living work into simple work and an auxiliary to technological power. Given the industrial restructuring and automation of many services, it is enough to say that these professional situations concern little more than the public sector or certain liberal professions with a relatively devalued status (lawyers, hospital doctors) by their increase in number and the geographic concentration of their members.

A consequent ignorance: The crisis of the centrality of work

The struggles over pensions as such only really started in 2003 and at a time when, in parallel, what emerged, without being explicitly posed, except by small critical groups, but without any influence on the ground, was the loss of the centrality of living labor in capitalist valuation, with the acceleration of the process of capital/labor substitution and consequently rendering the labor force inessential. It was also approximately at this time that the State took the first measures to “compensate” for the increasing number of individuals put out of circulation, who no longer fit socially, (creation of CMU, RMI) without thereby yielding on a guaranteed income of existence (cf. the response of Jospin to the movement of the unemployed in 1998 and his refusal of an “assistance society”).

This crisis of the centrality of work has had an impact on the awareness of what retirement represents today. How could precarious young people and the unemployed, and why would they above all want to, join the current movement which only defends “guaranteed” categories or professions, when they themselves are products of the segmentation of the labor market and its profoundly unequal differentiation?

To throw away one’s work clothes, and then?

It seems extraordinary and positive to some that “personnel” suddenly throw their work clothes (or their working tools in the case of teachers) in the face of their ministers. Here again, the difference between this current gesture and that of last year shows through, where individuals had so little that was meaningful to throw away that on the contrary, they put on a kind of clothing supposed to make them exist or at least make to make themselves visible. Conversely, in the movement against pension reform, it is only a question of showing one’s dissatisfaction with the offense done to the profession and then to don the uniform again once satisfaction is obtained. What poses a problem for these “personnel” is that they are seen as workers like any others; it’s their loss of status. Indeed, it is out of the question for them to throw away once and for their work clothes or work tools in what they possess as symbolic, since they are still a small sign of a recognised social position. They remain in the posture that their “position” provides, and all the more so when fighting is so unusual in their sector that they gain additional prestige from it.

How many are ready, among them, to abandon wage differences which benefit them, for the same job? To take only the most extreme example, how many teachers who are aggregated at a higher salary than certified teachers, while having 3 hours less per week of lessons, are ready to accept the transition to an equal schedule (thus more hours for them and less for others)?(2) And no mention is made of an egalitarian re-evaluation of wages, the difference of which will only increase with seniority and a fortiori during retirement!(3)

In the narrower context of the pension reform, the “Tous ensemble/Everyone Together”, a slogan taken over from [the] 1995 [pension reform protests], sounds false because it covers, not to say hides, increasingly diverse situations and where unity can only, at best, be realised in the ascending phase of the movement, each category being able to hope more or less to profit from a victory or at least from the retreat of the government. But as soon as the movement falls back, the claim of “Tous ensemble” reveals its artificiality, when it’s my survival first and every man for himself that dominates.

This is what we have witnessed with separate negotiations which began with the start of the strikes, but with the utmost discretion since the government publicly maintained the position that the reform was non-negotiable. Until the results are made public, of course, with the establishment of a whole panoply of exceptions to the proposed reform which will concern many job categories or professions. Firefighters are currently the last beneficiaries after their bloody confrontation with the police.

But we can also be surprised by declarations, such as the strange claims by the CGT representative of the garbage collectors in Paris who announced to the press that the garbage collectors were ready to take over from the railroad and tram workers, whereas until then, aware of its responsibility, this union had held back so that Paris did not drown in its own “shit” (sic …) and by union and media announcements according to which new sectors would enter the strike. This is indeed a funny conception of the general strike!

This is perhaps the only the surprise of this strike because, for the rest, it has not taken, until now, any real step away from the predictable. What is expected by the government and tolerable for the unions has set the rules of the contest. There has been no overstepping of “functions”, except on the part of teachers who have taken responsibility for blocking the continuous assessment tests (E3C [a new method of continuous student evaluation introduced nationally at the level of secondary education by the Macron government]) in more or less close connection with high school students. In fact, this initiative upsets the “good order of things” in that it forces everyone to decide; the administration, of course, who must decide whether to involve the police; and parents who are moved by an ordeal under such conditions and what it means from a more general political point of view. But in the current state of the situation, these practices are still in the minority, both among teachers and among students and repression can continue to be exerted, as for that matter we have seen since mid-January.

This movement is predetermined by presuppositions of “the old world”, which inscribe it within negotiations between social partners. A parity which is, in fact, reduced to nothing by the proponents of the “new world”. Henceforth, the movement could no even represent a union force worthy of the name. It could only act as a pressure group and in defense of “social gains”, including pay-as-you-go pensions, special schemes and public services. This did not necessarily imply its failure, but by remaining deaf and blind to the fundamental transformations of capital, considered only in its neo-liberal guise, it found its limit: the inability to carry with it the most proletarianised segments of the labour force. In addition, the mass of yellow vests did not recognise themselves in it, even if their most resistant factions tried to play their role at the head of the protest marches.

The anti-pension reform movement has certainly refused class for the “destitution” of the president, too “populist” for it, but that was only to reproduce the old separation between what concerns the unions and what belongs to political parties; here the municipal elections are around the corner and the idea that all of this, the strike and the majority “opposition” to the pension reform project, will be translated into the ballot boxes.

The result has been to take away from the movement any autonomous political force.

Temps critiques, February 12, 2020

1. Cf. for example, a week of unrest in Lyon as presented (at the end of the article: ) on the lists of the Lyon-center group of yellow vests (which nobody knows who is behind) and where we find concentrated everything that the movement of yellow vests had been able to avoid: speaking of being “in struggle” for the simple fact of meeting, asserting particularities … while constantly speaking of unity, giving a student dimension to a movement almost nonexistent in this sector and finally passing its “corporate” interests onto the movement as a whole (cf. blocking of the metallurgical headquarters, the UIMM, to “win a high-level collective agreement”).

2. When in 2000, Claude Allègre, then Minister of National Education of the Jospin government, proposed this measure, there was an almost general outcry from the labour unions …

3. The same observation with regard to the dancers of the Paris Opera who are not ready to accept that their colleagues from the seven regional operas join their special, extra-generous pension plan. And yet, here again, everyone congratulated them during the Parisian demonstrations when they produced their show, because just as the struggle of the yellow vests was conveyed negatively” this one is portrayed positively. On the one hand, it does not scare the government; on the other, it confirms the false idea of a general opposition to power. It’s the “win-win” situation, in a labour union style.

Video from Taranis news …

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