France: The Movement against the Pension Reform

From the CrimethInc. collective (22/03/2023) …

France: The Movement against the Pension ReformOn the Threshold of an Uprising?

In France, a new surge of protest activity has erupted against the government of Emmanuel Macron in response to an unpopular pension reform. This promises to be the most powerful unrest in France since the Yellow Vest movement. In the following introduction and translation, we explore the roots, forms, and prospects of this movement.

Introduction

The bastards know it well: what they feared in the quasi-insurrection of 2018 is not so much a social subject—whatever the worst leftist sociology says—nor even a set of practices. It was an ungovernability, determined and diffuse. A wave of hatred of the neoliberal universe.

La Haine

After two months of traditional protests and occasional strikes stage-managed by the intersyndicale (the coordination of the eight biggest national unions in France), the movement against Macron’s government pension reform came to a head when Elizabeth Borne (Macron’s prime minister and the head of the government) announced that she was going to use article 49.3 of the Constitution to implement the pension reform without a vote in the National Assembly.

During those first two months, large numbers of people took to the streets, but despite public support, the protests and strikes were not combative. However, the deputies in the National Assembly were divided; it was possible that a majority would oppose the pension reform, so Borne sidestepped them. The law still has to be approved by the Senate, but for now, that is beside the point. French deputies opposed to Macron and Borne filed for a vote of confidence, which would have pushed Borne’s government out of office.

On the night of Thursday, March 16, people spontaneously assembled in symbolic locations in Paris and other cities to protest the use of article 49.3. As the night wore on, they refused to leave, despite police becoming more and more violent. In the end, police arrested a large number of people across France—almost 300 in Paris alone—almost all of whom were released without charges the next day.

Over the weekend, spontaneous street protests (les “manifs sauvages”) broke out, taking advantage of a garbage collection strike to fill the streets of Paris with flaming garbage bins. As police violence intensifies, the “spontaneous” aspect of these protest plays an important technical role. Most mass protests in France, such as the ones that took place before Thursday, are “déclarées”—groups register them with the police beforehand. Spontaneous protests are legal, but the framework for repression is less clear than it is for the authorized demonstrations. This is a big issue: courts still have to rule on whether you can be arrested simply for being in the vicinity of a spontaneous protest, what the consequences should be for leading a spontaneous protest, whether the French constitutional right to demonstrate includes spontaneous protests, and what the police can legally do to target people at these protests.

Moreover, all the authorized protests have a set location or route, whereas the current spontaneous protests are unpredictable. They do not converge on a strategic location, nor do they have a particular goal aside from harassing the cops. Groups ranging from 100 to 1000 move in different directions all around a given area, barricading the streets, painting, and setting things on fire. Just as occurred during the 2020 George Floyd uprising in the United States, the police can’t contain and control several groups at once.

“We can handle one 10,000-person protest, but ten 1000-person protests throughout the city will overwhelm us.”

Los Angeles police officer, summer 2020

The more fatigued they get, the more violent the cops become. People are being very brave, but they are also sustaining serious injuries and trauma.

These spontaneous street protests are occurring at night, while early in the morning and during the day, the strike has been intensifying, with people organizing more and more blockades. The strike began before the application of article 49.3 last Thursday; the chief sectors that are participating include garbage processing (collection and incineration), fuel distribution (refineries and transportation), and public transportation (city transit, trains, and airports).

The unions have called for a nationwide strike this Thursday, March 23. When the leadership announced this last week, it came across as an effort at pacification, to get people out of the streets; but because people did not cease to take to the streets, instead, it now represents an opportunity to escalate. We expect the country to be blocked, and for the unions to be outflanked by spontaneous direct actions all over the country, involving both autonomous groups and local union branches. This has already begun to occur—in Fos-sur-Mer or in Rennes, for example.

In Paris, the people leading the strike are the garbage collectors, working from three different locations. They have been on strike since March 7, and have maintained picket lines since then. Only one picket line has been breached by police, and it has reformed since then. They need money to keep the strike going. They have become the stars of the movement, in some way, because the garbage accumulating in the streets of Paris has provided the ideal material for the nighttime crowds to set on fire—an endlessly replenishing resource for as long as the garbage trucks remain inoperable.

Generally speaking, the people on the picket lines are workers and leftists of various stripes, while those running the streets at night are younger and rowdier. These groups are not antagonistic to one another, which has not always been the case in the French political landscape. People seem to enjoy meeting each other when and where they can; there are no general assemblies bringing all the generations together, but neither the unions nor the older leftists are condemning the nighttime riots.

Over the preceding months, a conversation had developed about how COVID-19 caused a break in the transmission of techniques, stories, and cultures of struggle in French activist circles, and how that led to the propagation of centralized (and frankly, boring) politics in many universities. In this movement, we are seeing new political formations emerge along with decentralized and autonomous experiments in direct action and resistance, revealing the limitations of the traditional means of control and repression. The events of the past week show that we can put to rest any fears about the passivity of the younger generation.

Last Monday, the National Assembly voted not reject the government, further outraging people. The fact that the government of Macron and Borne remains in power will keep the precarious balance between nationalist and leftists agendas stable, for now. But for how long?

As in the Yellow Vest movement of 2018, nationalism is a driving force in these protests. No one has really pulled out the French flags yet, but they could make their appearance soon. For good or for ill, since the Yellow Vests, the mainstream French political imagination has been almost entirely focused on the French Revolution. People are calling for Macron to be beheaded, to protect the sacred honor of French democracy, and so on. All this comes with a broad and—thus far—diffuse nationalism. Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National party is waiting in the wings to capitalize on the situation.

To continue growing, the movement will have to surpass its current limits. So far, the riots and the blockades have been majority white; most working-class people of color won’t benefit from the current pension system anyway. Unless it becomes clear what they might have to gain from this movement, they probably will not take to the streets, and that will limit the possibility of an insurrection. Likewise, while dramatic images have indeed circulated from Paris and other cities, unlike the Yellow Vests, this movement started in the big cities, and it remains unclear how far it will spread to the more rural areas of the country.

Likewise, it remains to be seen how a new round of unrest in France would influence movements elsewhere around the world. The rhythm of unrest in France is generally out of sync with political events elsewhere. The Occupy movement and its equivalents took place in Spain, Greece, the United States, and even Germany in 2011, but the French equivalent, Nuit Debout, occurred a full five years later; the Yellow Vest movement began a year ahead of most of the global revolts of 2019. But with movements picking up steam again in Greece and elsewhere, events in France could contribute to shaping the popular imagination around the world. None of the tensions that catalyzed the global revolts of 2019 and the George Floyd uprising of 2020 have been resolved. From the United States and France to Russia and Iran, governments have simply attempted to suppress dissent with brute force, as people slowly, steadily become more desperate and angry.

In the short term, comrades in France are hoping to build power to resist the upcoming repressive laws targeting migrants, undocumented people, houseless people, and squatters that are in the works from the government of Macron and Borne. In Paris and the neighboring areas specifically, the struggle against the city’s preparation for the Olympic Games in summer 2024 is also on many people’s minds. Reclaiming the streets is urgent when evictions, destruction of parks and public spaces, and the construction of massive and unnecessary infrastructure in the northern suburbs of Paris is being weaponized as a means to control and cleanse traditionally working-class neighborhoods.

The Nuit Debout movement of 2016, a part of the resistance to the labor law that was introduced that year using article 49.3, is one of the precedents for the movement emerging today.

Bedtime for Macronerie?

(This is a translation of “La macronie, bientôt finie?”)

The announcement on Thursday, March 16 that the government would use article 49.3 of the Constitution to impose its pension reform without a National Assembly vote propelled the protest movement into a new dimension. Despite fierce repression, a strange mixture of anger and joy is spreading throughout the country: spontaneous demonstrations, surprise blockades of main roads, invasions of shopping centers or railway tracks, dumping garbage in the offices of deputies, nighttime garbage fires, targeted power outages, and more. The situation has become uncontrollable and the president has no plan other than to promise that he will hold out at all costs and sink into a headlong rush of violence. The days to come will therefore be decisive: either the movement will wear out its energy—though everything indicates the opposite—or Macron’s rule will collapse. In this text, we’ll try to present a progress report, analyzing the forces involved as well as their strategies and objectives in the short and medium terms.

Alone against All

If we consider the two forces officially present, the situation is unique in that neither can permit themselves to lose. On the one hand, we have the “social movement,” which we often think has disappeared but which always returns for lack of anything better. The most optimistic see in this the necessary prelude to building a rapport de force that could pave the way for an uprising or even revolution. The most pessimistic believe that, on the contrary, it is compromised from the outset—that the channeling and ritualization of popular discontent contributes to the good management of the prevailing order and therefore to maintaining and reinforcing it.

Be that as it may—on paper, this “social movement” has everything to win: the unions are united, the demonstrations are numerous, public opinion is largely favorable to it, and although the government was elected democratically, it is very much in the minority. The stars are therefore aligned, all the lights are green; in such objectively favorable conditions, if the “social movement” loses, that means that it will never again be able to imagine or claim to win anything.

Strikes and blockades have broken out across France.

On the other side, there is Emmanuel Macron, his government, and some fanatics who believe in him. They know they are in the minority, but that is where they draw their strength from. Macron is not a president who was elected to be liked or even appreciated. He embodies the terminus of politics: his pure and perfect adherence to the economy, to efficiency, to performance. He does not see the people, life, human beings, only atoms from which to extract value. Macron is a kind of evil droid who wants the best for those he governs against their will. His idea of politics is an Excel spreadsheet: as long as the calculations are correct and the numbers come out right, he will continue to move forward at a steady pace. On the other hand, he knows that if he hesitates, trembles, or gives up, he will not be able to claim to govern anything or anyone.

A face-off is not a symmetry, however. What threatens the “social movement” is fatigue and resignation. The only thing that could make the president give up is the concrete risk of an uprising. Since the use of article 49.3 on Thursday, March 16, we see that the situation is changing. Now that negotiation with the authorities has become obsolete, the “social movement” is boiling over and surpassing itself. Its contours are becoming pre-insurrectional.

There remains a third, unofficial force, inertia: those who, for the moment, refuse to join the battle out of laziness, happenstance, or fear. At present, they are effectively playing for the government, but the more unstable the situation, the more they will have to take sides, whether for the movement or for the government. The great achievement of the Yellow Vests was to bring frustration and dissatisfaction out from behind the screens, getting people offline and into the streets.

The Best Retirement Is Attack1

But what is really behind this confrontation and its staging? What is it that grips the heart, inspiring courage or rage? What is at stake is the rejection of work.

Obviously, no one dares to formulate the issue this way, because as soon as we talk about work, an old trap closes on us. Its mechanism is, however, rudimentary and well known: behind the very concept of work, one has voluntarily confused two quite distinct realities. On the one hand, work as singular participation in collective life, in its richness and creativity. On the other hand, work as a particular form of individual labor in the capitalist organization of life—that is, work as pain and exploitation. If one ventures to criticize work, or even to wish for its abolition, that will usually be understood as a petit-bourgeois whim or gutter punk nihilism. If we want to eat bread, we need bakers; if we want bakers, we need bakeries; if we want bakeries, we need masons; and for the dough we put in the oven, we need farmers who sow, harvest, and so on. No one, of course, is in a position to dispute such evidence.

The problem, our problem, is that if we reject work to such an extent, if we are millions in the streets pounding the pavement to avoid being subjected to two more years of work, it is not because we are lazy or dream of joining a bridge club, but because the form that the common and collective effort has taken in this society is unbearable, humiliating, often meaningless and mutilating. If you think about it, we have never fought for retirement—always against work.

For people to recognize collectively on a grand scale that for the great majority of us, work is pain: the authorities cannot permit that idea to take hold, for it would imply the destruction of the whole social edifice, without which they would be nothing. If our common condition is that we have no power over our lives and know it, then paradoxically, everything becomes possible again. Let us note that revolutions do not necessarily need great theories and complex analyses; it is sometimes enough simply to make a tiny demand that one holds onto until the end. It would be enough, for example, to refuse to be humiliated: by a schedule, by a salary, by a manager or a task. It would be enough to have a collective movement that suspends the anguish of the calendar, the to-do-list, the agenda. It would suffice to claim the most minimal dignity for oneself, one’s family and others, and the whole system would collapse. Capitalism has never been anything other than the objective and economic organization of humiliation and pain.

A Critique of Violence

Having said that, we must recognize that in the immediate future, the social organization that we are contesting is not only held together by the blackmail for survival that it imposes on everyone. It is also held together by the violence of the police. We won’t get into the social role of the police and the reasons they behave so detestably; those have already been synthesized well enough in the text “Why All Cops Are Bastards.” What seems urgent to us is to think strategically about their violence, what it represses and stifles via terror and intimidation.

In the last few days, researchers and commentators have denounced the lack of professionalism of the police—their excesses, their arbitrariness, sometimes even their violence. Even on BFMTV [the most-watched conservative news channel in France], they were surprised that out of the 292 people arrested on Thursday, March 16 at Place de la Concorde, 283 were released from police custody without prosecution and the remaining 9 were given a simple reprimand. The problem with this kind of indignation is that, in focusing on a perceived dysfunction of the system, they prevent themselves from seeing what can only be an intentional strategy. If hundreds of BRAV-M [the Brigades de répression des actions violentes motorisées, police motorcycle units established during the Yellow Vest protests] are roaming the streets of Paris to chase down and beat up protesters, if on Friday a prefectural decree forbade any gathering anywhere in an area comprising about a quarter of the entire capital, that is because [Emmanuel] Macron, [Minister of the Interior Gérald] Darmanin, and [Paris Police Prefect Laurent] Nuñez have agreed on the method: empty the streets, shock the bodies, terrify the hearts… while waiting for it to pass.

Let’s repeat, one never wins “militarily” against the police. Police represent an obstacle that must be kept in check, dodged, exhausted, disorganized, or demoralized. To do away with the police is not to naïvely hope that one day they will lay down their arms and join the movement, but on the contrary, to make sure that each of their attempts to reimpose order through violence produces more disorder. Let’s remember that on the first Saturday of the Yellow Vests movement, on the Champs Elysees [a famous avenue in Paris], the crowd that felt particularly legitimate chanted “the police with us.” A few police charges and tear gas later, the most beautiful avenue in the world was transformed into a battlefield.

Learning the Lessons of Repression

That said, our strategic decision-making capacities for the street are very limited. We have no general staff, only our common sense, our numbers, and a certain inclination towards improvising. In the current configuration, we can nevertheless draw some lessons from these last weeks:

  • The policing of demonstrations, which is to say, the task of keeping them within the bounds of harmlessness, is a task shared between the union leaders and the police force. A demonstration that goes as planned is a victory for the government. A demonstration that overflows the bounds prepared for it spreads anxiety to the top of the government, demoralizes the police, and brings us closer to the abolition of work. A crowd that no longer accepts the police-led route, that damages the symbols of the economy and expresses its anger joyously, is a disruption and therefore a threat.
  • Until now, with the exception of March 7, all mass demonstrations have been contained by the police. The trade union processions have remained perfectly orderly and the most determined demonstrators were systematically isolated and brutally repressed. In some circumstances, a little audacity releases the energy necessary to escape from the frame; in others, it can enable the police to violently close down any possibility. It happens that when you want to break a window, you first break your nose on the edge of the frame.
  • Because of their speed of movement and their extreme brutality, the BRAV-M cops are the most formidable obstacle. The confidence that they have built up over the past few years and especially in recent weeks must be undermined. If we cannot rule out the possibility that small groups will occasionally outwit them and reduce their audacity, the most effective option would be for the peaceful crowd of union members and demonstrators to no longer tolerate their presence, to stand with their hands up whenever these cops attempt to break through the demonstration, to shout at them and push them away. If their appearance in the demonstrations starts causing disorder instead of restoring order, Mr. Nunez will be forced to exile them to the Ile de la Cité [the island in the center of Paris], to cloister them in their garage on rue Chanoinesse.
  • On Thursday, March 16, following the announcement of the use of article 49.3, a union demonstration announced ahead of time and more scattered calls converged on the other side of the Concorde bridge in front of the National Assembly. The primary objective of the police being to protect the representatives of the nation, theys pushed the crowd back to the south. Thanks to this maneuver, the demonstrators found themselves propelled into and dispersed throughout the tourist streets of the city center. The piles of garbage left by the garbage collectors’ strike spontaneously became bonfires, slowing down and preventing police responses. Spontaneously, in many cities around the country, burning garbage cans became the signature of the movement.
  • On Friday March 17, a new call to go to the Place de la Concorde was contained. Though the demonstrators were courageous and determined, they found themselves caught in a trap, a vice, unable to regain their mobility. The prefecture did not make the same mistake as the day before. On Saturday, a third call to gather in the same square convinced the authorities to ban all gatherings in an area stretching from the Champs Élysées to the Louvre, from the Grands Boulevards to the rue de Sèvres—in other words, across about a quarter of Paris around the Presidential Palace of the Elysée and the National Assembly. Thousands of police officers stationed in the area were able to prevent the beginning of any gathering by harassing passersby. On the other side of the city, a gathering at Place d’Italie took the police deployment in stride and started a spontaneous demonstration in the opposite direction. Mobile groups were able to block the streets for several hours, setting fire to garbage cans and temporarily escaping the BRAV-M.
  • The ABCs of strategy are that tactics should not clash, but should compose. The Paris prefecture has already presented its battle narrative: responsible but harmless mass demonstrations on one side, nightly riots led by radical and illegitimate fringes on the other. Anyone who has been in the streets this past week knows how much this caricature is a lie and how important it is to keep it that way. For this is their ultimate weapon: to divide the revolt into good and bad, responsible and uncontrollable. Solidarity is their worst nightmare. If the movement gains intensity, the trade union processions will end up being attacked and, consequently, defending themselves. The surprise blockades of the beltways by CGT groups [Confédération Générale du Travail, a national trade union] indicate that a part of the base is already determined to go beyond the rituals. When the police intervened in Fos-sur-Mer on Monday to enforce the prefect’s orders, the unionized workers escalated to confrontation. The more that the actions multiply, the more that the grip of the police will loosen. Gérald Darmanin mentioned that there have been more than 1200 spontaneous demonstrations over the past few days.

“Power Is Logistical—Let’s Block Everything”

Beyond its own violence, the effectiveness of the police also lies in its power of diversion. By determining the place, the form, and the time of confrontation, it saps the energy of the movement. If we bet on disorder and the threat it poses to the government to compel Macron to give up on extending working hours, the blockade is crucial. Indeed, no one will wait indefinitely for the general strike of a working class and a labor movement eroded by 30 years of neoliberalism; the most obvious, spontaneous, and effective political gesture is now the blocking of economic flows, the interruption of the normal flow of goods and humans.

What has been organized in Rennes for two weeks can serve as an example. Rather than confronting the police as their primary objective, the people of Rennes have set up semi-public assemblies in which blocking actions are conceived. This Monday at dawn, a call for “dead cities” saw hundreds of people spread over several points of the city come to block the main roads and the Rennes ring road. Two weeks earlier, 300 people set fire to garbage cans in the middle of the night, blocking the street of Lorient until the early morning. The challenge is never to confront the police but to take them by surprise, to become stealthy. Even from the point of view of those who only swear by numbers and are still waiting for the general strike, this multiplication of blocking points and disorder is obvious. If, after the explosion in response to use of article 49.3 last Thursday, there had only been the call [from official union leadership] to demonstrate the following Thursday, everyone would have resigned themselves to a last stand and defeat. The blockades and the diffuse disorder have inspired the courage, confidence, and impetus the movement needed to project itself beyond the deadlines determined behind the doors of the union leaders.

Occupy to Meet and Organize

The collapse of classical politics along with its parties and its disillusionment has opened the way to innovative autonomous experiments. The movement against the labor law, Nuit Debout [a movement in 2016], the Yellow Vests, les Soulèvements de la Terre [the uprisings of the earth, a recent series of environmental mobilizations using mass direct action], and many others have confirmed in recent years that not only was there nothing left to expect from representation, but that nobody wanted it anymore.

Each of these sequences would deserve a thorough analysis of its strengths and weaknesses, but we will stick to one basic fact: undoing power implies inventing new forms, and for that, in the atomization of the metropolis, we need places to meet, think, and act from. For decades, the occupation of buildings, university campuses, or other places has been part of the obvious practices of any movement. A university president who accepted the intervention of the police on his campus was immediately condemned, as it was taken for granted that the collective and participatory reappropriation of space was the minimum response to the privatization of all spaces and the policing of public space.

It is clear that today, no occupation is tolerated. If, as people have done in Rennes, one takes over an abandoned cinema to transform it into a Maison du Peuple [“house of the people”] where trade unionists, activists, and locals meet, the socialist mayor of the city evicts it within 48 hours, sending hundreds of police officers. As for the universities, their authorities shamelessly invoke the risks of disorder and the possibility of distance learning to close them administratively or send the police against their own students. On the other hand, all this underscores how important it is to have places where we can meet and organize ourselves, how much they can increase what we are capable of. In Paris, an occupation of the Bourse du Travail [labor union hall] was attempted after a boisterous assembly and a spontaneous banquet beneath the glass roof of the workers’ movement. However, it withered away in the night, due to the indecision or incomprehension of the unions and autonomous rebels. We need places to build connection and solidarity and we need connection and solidarity to hold places. The story of the chicken and the egg.

In Rennes, the movement temporarily overcame the problem: once evacuated, the participants in the Maison du Peuple met in broad daylight and continued to organize blockades as well as meetings—presumably while waiting to be sufficiently united and strong to take back a place with roof, running water, and heating. In Paris, the limits that the Nuit Debout experiment reached seem to have foreclosed the possibility of meeting outdoors. The caricature that lingers would have it that open-air discussions only produce monologues without beginning or end. However, we remember the aperitif at Valls’2 and the possibility, even from our self-centered metropolitan solitude, to make the decision at the drop of a hat to rush to the Prime Minister’s house with several thousand people. The fact that the government is so intent on leaving us without meeting points shows how urgent it is to establish them.

Towards Infinity and Beyond

As we have said, the contours of the movement are becoming pre-insurrectional. Every day, the blockades multiply, the actions intensify. Thursday will therefore be decisive. From the point of view of the reform, if the demonstrations on Thursday get out of control, Macron will be cornered. Either he will take the risk of a black Saturday3 everywhere in the country—that is to say, the Yellow-Vestification that he fears above all—or he will back down on Friday, invoking the risk of significant uncontrollable outbursts.

Everything is at stake now, and more. The left is waiting in ambush, ready to sell an electoral loophole, the illusion of a referendum, or even the construction of the 4th International—whatever it takes to call for patience and a return to normal. For the movement to endure and avoid cooptation as well as repression, it will have to confront as soon as possible the question that is central to any uprising: how to organize itself. And undoubtedly, some people are already thinking and talking about how to live communism and spread anarchy.


Further Resources

  1. A reference to “the best form of defense is attack,” the original text puns on the similarity between the French words for “retreat” and “retirement.” ?
  2. On April 9, 2016, during a general assembly, participants in the Nuit Debout movement decided to invite themselves to the home of Prime Minister Manuel Valls for an aperitif. A month later, on May 10, 2016, facing an unruly social movement, Valls announced that he had decided to invoke article 49:3 of the Constitution in order to implement the unpopular Loi Travail [labor law] without a vote in the National Assembly—a precedent for the current crisis. ?
  3. Starting on December 1, 2018, the Yellow Vest movement repeatedly mobilized on Saturdays, disrupting urban areas. ?
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