Letter From Paris
“Dressed in black, masked, gloved, and discreet, they announced with laughing eyes: ‘Today, it’s Operation Free Gas’”—so began the reportage of a journalist following two national gas company workers around as they took direct action to protest the proposal to “reform” the public pension system.1 Organized into little commandos, these workers, calling themselves “Robin Hoods,” took action to provide gas to working-class households for a low price or even for free in Marseilles, the great working-class city of the south of France. At each stop, they posted a notice on the gas hookup, informing the users that “Electricity and gas are more expensive, people have less purchasing power, the financiers are getting rich, and the workers are getting irritated.” These Robin Hoods know that they are not changing the basic condition of the poor in messing with the pipelines but, they say, “It’s our way of doing something for the common good. Energy is a common good, it should not be controlled by the law of the market.” So they’re turning the energy back on for poor people who can’t pay, whose gas and electricity have been cut off. They also arranged for lower rates for bakers in economic difficulty. In two big Marseilles neighborhoods these Robin Hoods have reduced gas and electric costs by 50 percent.
They also decided to “visit” the government representatives who were planning to vote for the pension “reform,” to try to “convince” them otherwise—or else, they would simply cut off their electricity.2 ”We’re going to act, because they only understand power relations.” They began these direct actions in 2004, when the energy company changed from a public to a mixed public-private entity. At first, the workers kept their earlier pay and benefits but successive right and left governments reduced both. Today, with the “reform,” the few advantages of their pension plan will be reduced. As always, the government equalizes down. This is why the energy workers are extremely engaged in the anti-“reform” movement. Like all the big companies, the energy enterprises are raking in gigantic profits while the prices paid by consumers only grow. It has just been discovered that the national gas company is still selling Russian gas, even while the official rhetoric features war-mongering anti-Putin propaganda, bringing war hypocrisy into the debate.
These direct actions illustrate particularly well the social situation and the changes underway in workers’ thinking in France, the workers’ attitude towards legality, and the ambiguous position of the unions on this question. To begin with, such actions reveal a radicalization of certain (minority) sectors of the working class. They express an understanding of the fact that the workers have power over social reproduction, and they start from the principle that the political class serving capitalist business understands only force. The attitudes of the working-class rank and file are reinforced by the government’s arrogance, which since the start has simply imposed its “reform” framework, leaving the unions limited space for negotiation. Thus it pushed the most reformist organizations, who for decades had—with reservations of course—gone along with all neoliberal “reforms.”
The transformation of the working class, the disappearance of the old proletarian collectivity, the precarization and atomization of working conditions—all these are factors that have changed people’s feelings about work and legality. The affirmation of the idea of a “common good” should no doubt be seen as related to a consciousness of the impoverishment of large sectors of society and working-class neighborhoods, where unemployment and precarity are omnipresent, where poverty gains ground with unemployment and low wages. Hatred for the rich, the well-off classes, ostentatious spending remains strong. In France today the word “Macronist” has become synonymous with “defender of the privileged.” The Yellow Vest movement, beyond the ambiguities and contradictions that came with it, made a profound impact as a sort of demand for the honor and dignity of the poor and those left behind. It’s significant that the Yellow Vest chant, ”We are here, we are here, for the honor of the working class and a better world!” has become the chant most often heard at demonstrations and at all social confrontations. It has replaced The International.
With respect to the old unions, finally, the situation is also clearly transformed. Here the example of the Robin Hoods is illuminating: The energy sector unions were traditionally dominated by the CGT, a union under the firm control of a Communist nomenklatura dating from the postwar Stalinist years. Up to the beginning of this century this bureaucracy rejected all illegal action on the rank-and-file level, which it saw as the expression of leftist, adventurist, provocative tendencies. Today they are forced to support these direct actions, which have escaped their control. It is the union membership who are carrying them out, and if the leaders wish to keep some semblance of control over the apparatus they are forced to accept them. This was already true during the transportation strikes of previous years. This is to say that the leadership’s control is fragile and can be bypassed at any time. Just a few weeks before the start of the current movement against the “reform,” for instance, a wildcat strike, organized horizontally on Twitter and other social networks, paralyzed the French railway system. The unions, in this sector also led by old Communist bureaucrats, were faced with a fait accompli and could not do anything about it--to the great panic of the management of the national railroad company, who were forced to give in to the demands. The government wondered, “Where are the unions?” Still, a month later they began the pension “reform.”
Let us briefly sum up the essence of this “reform.” The government’s basic idea is that the current system of financing public pensions needs to be rescued because it is threatened with collapse. This is ultimately for demographic reasons: the number paying in is diminishing while that of those receiving pensions is growing. This idea is contested by a number of “experts” on good terms with the system, who note, first of all, that the system is currently in equilibrium and can remain there so long as employer contributions are kept up. One of the problems is in fact that the public pension system is based largely on workers’ payments, while employers’ contributions are progressively lightened. True but, say the unions and what remains of the reformist left, one could also finance the system out of the state budget, with a tax on wealth, profits, and capitalist revenue, in the same way as other public policies are funded. Except that this idea is obviously not acceptable to the government, as it crosses the neoliberal red line: capitalist profits are not a variable on which governments can act. As a result, the precarity of work and the general decrease in wages diminish workers’ contributions and weaken the pension system as it exists. The only “solution” discovered by the masters of our time is to lengthen the time during which workers pay into the fund. According to the proposed law, the contribution period would grow from 40 to 43 years and, apart from those who start work at sixteen, people would have to wait until 64 to be able to receive a pension, instead of 62, like today. Those groups of workers who in the past received particular advantages because of the difficulty and danger of their work will have to lose them. This would include the energy workers among whom the Robin Hoods have made their appearance. Beyond these basic changes, the “reform” contains a series of clauses and exceptions that make the whole thing confusing and incomprehensible. As someone remarked, “It’s complicated, but that’s done on purpose.”
It's the two additional years of work that have crystallized massive opposition to the “reform,” because they symbolize the spirit of the thing: to make people work longer and reduce most pensions, especially those of the most vulnerable workers. From experience, everyone knows that, given the present-day worsening of the conditions of exploitation, many workers won’t make it till 64. Already today there are many who stop before they are 62, leaving work with reduced pensions. It is, in sum, an attempt to further worsen the living conditions of workers in general. For those with above-average wages, it is also a spur to subscribe to the private pension plans run by large financial groups. (This change is already underway in the northern countries of Europe, such as Holland and Sweden.) All these measures particularly affect women, whose careers are the most fragmented and fragile, and young people facing working conditions that are ever more precarious and “flexible.” It is also known that workers 60 and over are often excluded from the labor market, surviving in dire poverty while waiting to reach the age (now 62, tomorrow 64) when they can finally receive their meager pension. In France, already today nearly 50% of workers are no longer working when they are eligible for their retirement pension, living on unemployment or welfare. And a fourth of poor workers die before they are eligible for the pension. Finally, to pass this “reform” the government has begun to announce a series of advantages that have little by little been revealed to be gross lies, such as the demagogic promise of a minimum pension of 1200 euros for a million working poor. The number got smaller in successive days until, after a month, it was reduced to no more than 10,000 lucky ones …
Since the “reform” met with strong opposition in parliament from the new left-socialist bloc, the Macron government has gambled on getting it through with the votes of the traditional right and the soft opposition of the extreme right. For trans-Atlantic readers, a few lines may be useful to recall the current state of political forces in France. The Communist Party is now a minor affair. The party apparatus is still in the hands of a few Stalinist apparatchiks, even if what remains of the party’s ranks has changed and has become a sort of left-wing social-democratic current. The Socialist Party (PS), which still administers half the country at the regional and municipal level, is in tatters. It exploded when Macron’s group maneuvered to take over almost all of the party, particularly the young and the most opportunist. The current minister of labor, an unpopular, ambitious cretin, is a former member of the Socialist Party, as is the prime minister, with her cold Thatcher-like image. The PS’s allegiance to economic neoliberalism (like all the European socialists) has accelerated the death crisis of the old social democracy. The new party of the anti-neoliberal socialist left, La France Insoumise, now groups around it a few escapees from the old PS. This new force draws much of its energy from the new movements of recent years, such as land occupations, housing and environmental struggles. They are also open to new ideas such as anti-productivism. The majority of its parliamentarians are fairly young and combative, not deeply rooted in politics and often upsetting parliamentary life; they are presented in the media as “badly brought up” kids who don’t respect the institutions.
In this new political configuration, the people around Macron have been revealed for what they always were: a neoliberal conservative force, aggressive and haughty, totally devoted to the interests of French capitalism. During the last presidential elections, given the enormous number of abstentions, Macron was elected by barely 30% of the voters. Furthermore, a good number of the votes that elected him were cast to block the extreme-right candidate. The following legislative elections made the tendency even clearer: Whenever there was a choice between an extreme-right candidate and one from the socialist left, the Macronist party preferred to help elect the candidate of the right, a tactic that allowed Macron to prevent the socialist left from winning a parliamentary majority. In this way Macron facilitated the entry of more than 80 extreme-rightists, much to the disappointment of those (each time fewer) who continued to see Macron as a rampart against “fascism.” The current alliance between the Macronists and the extreme right is based on a neoliberal economic program. An amazing recent media image illustrated this convergence: the deputies of the extreme right applauding the current Macronist minister of labor, a former socialist, at the conclusion of the parliamentary debate on the “reform.”
The point of dwelling on the wretchedness of contemporary politics is only to return to what is important to us here: the “reform” of public pensions is going to be voted in by the neoliberal right, united despite their disagreements. To get there, the government threw itself into the small-scale politics of concessions on little points, lies, variations on what’s basic, to the point that—as the average citizen says—no one can understand what the law is about, unless it’s that we have to work two years longer to end up poorer and more tired. That’s why the unifying slogan of the mobilization against the reform has become “Two years more—No!”
The mobilizations against the “reform” brought to the surface in France an energetic opposition to the capitalist system. After the COVID years and the measures of confinement and social control, numerous discourses announced the arrival of a gray era of resignation, individualization, incapacity to construct something collective. The current mobilizations, first of all, prove the contrary and illustrate how mistaken it is to draw definitive conclusions from momentary situations of submission. In the determinist discourse of integration, what is temporary is taken for something permanent. People forget that it is the very process of capitalist reproduction, with its class contradictions, that sets social movements in action. The gigantic demonstrations taking place in France for more than a month—the energy, the desire for collectivity, and the pleasure of being together fighting the same thing—force us to recognize that the spirit of critique and the rejection of present-day social organization are always there. One can even almost think that the last two years of life under confinement and submission to the propaganda of fear have only reinforced them.
Apart from their breadth and the number of participants, the current demonstrations also reveal some particularities of the current situation. The extensive participation of young people can be explained by the fact that they are the most directly affected. However, the majority of young people are rather skeptical about pensions: they are now convinced that they will never receive them. So if they are involved it is above all because this “reform” appears to them to express a present and future social logic that they completely reject. They already live in precarity or poverty, without perspectives, and facing ecological disaster. Older demonstrators, having outlived the problems of the labor market, demonstrate because they see in the principles of the “reform” the model of the future society that the new generations will have to undergo. So this is a kind of social solidarity. The demonstrations also break with the classic ones featuring “left-wing people,” since they include a lot of precarious workers and those with low wages, service workers like employees in healthcare, restaurants, cleaning, retail, and distribution. These traditionally more passive proletarians, whom one didn’t used to see in demonstrations, form the rank and file of company unions, which explains their current appearance in the united front of the unions against the “reform.” Finally, women come to the demonstrations in large numbers, with young women particularly visible, often in groups of friends, carrying very imaginative placards and posters. Last but not least, many people are demonstrating for the first time in their lives. The slogan from May ’68, taken up here and there—"When it’s unbearable, we won’t take it any more!”—has become meaningful again. Another striking trait of the movement is the extension of the mobilizations and the demonstrations on the national level, with particular presence in small provincial towns. In many medium and small cities it is not rare to find 10 to 20 percent of the population in the streets. Sometimes more than half the inhabitants turn out. After a month of mobilization, polls (always approximate) show that only 10% of the population favor the “reform.”
The position of the unions merits attention. For the first time in years a united front of unions is opposing the government, from the little, traditionally resigned, rightist unions, like the Christian union and the white-collar union, to the old CGT and the most combative union, SUD. The very reformist CFDT, which for years supported the neoliberal policies of successive governments, has on this occasion taken the lead of the mobilization at the sides of the CGT and SUD. As we noted earlier, this change of attitude is to be explained both by the arrogance of the government and, especially, by the fact that the ranks of this union contain a majority of precarious and badly-paid workers in unpleasant sectors like services, particularly affected by the new measures. These are workers who find it unbearable to imagine two more years of exploitation. It may be that the arrogance of the ruling class expresses a too optimistic confidence in the weakness of the unions. The crisis of unionism, its organizations progressively emptied of substance by the disappearance of room for negotiation and reform, is one thing. The idea that this crisis signifies the workers’ submission to their impoverishment is quite another. This time, a line has been crossed, waking up the most exploited workers.
It is nevertheless certain that this union front has reinforced the energy of refusal. On the one hand, because the division of the union apparatus seemed to many workers to be a sign of weakness, something that explains a recovery of union membership, which had been falling for years.3 One could say that from this point of view, the movement is already a victory for the unions. This nevertheless poses a problem for the future: These new members come to the unions with a spirit of struggle, a will to oppose the way things are, to create a force fighting the bosses and the government. Once the present moment has passed, they may well be shocked by the organizational drone of the unions, and lose their illusions.
In Greece, after the terrible train “accident”—in fact, a state crime4—in early March that killed dozens of students, demonstrators marched shouting “Privatization kills!” and “Our deaths, your profits!” They expressed clearly the idea that is spreading today across all the countries of old Europe. It is a rejection of the social consequences of the neoliberal policies of today’s capitalism, an attitude that continues to spread in the wake of the disaster of the anti-Covid policies that laid bare the destruction of public health services everywhere in Europe. This wave of protest is appearing in a number of European countries. In Great Britain, first of all, where the strike movements that have broken out, diverse and well-timed, have been disorganizing social life for months. But we find them also in countries where social conflicts have been rare in recent years. For instance, in Denmark, a measure designed to lengthen the yearly work period to finance the increase in the military budget, by eliminating a vacation day, produced a large demonstration in Copenhagen. In Portugal, after several decades of lethargy, workers mobilized against the destruction of public services--schools, transportation, and hospitals. The creation of a new, non-corporatist union for struggle in the schools and the descent into the streets of Lisbon of thousands of people suffering the rapid impoverishment of living conditions and the impossibility of finding housing are developments disquieting to the socialist political caste in charge for years, corrupt to the bone with the greatest impunity. Finally, in Spain, the recent gigantic demonstration of a million people in Madrid to defend the public health services (in Spain these are managed by the different regions, like the school system) expresses a radicalization of social anger.
In France, the feeling that the public services are being gradually destroyed has driven a growing part of society to revolt. What is called the “social state”—what the workers think of as a guarantor and protector of their general conditions of life inside the present social system—is collapsing. From the postal service to health care, from schools to transportation, all are falling apart, one after another. This nth “reform” of the pension system is seen as one more step towards the demolition of living conditions that seems to have no end in sight. The idea of irreversible gains won in earlier struggles is behind us. And the neoliberal propaganda selling “privatizations” as improvements of defective public services has become laughable, because the chaos taking over in all these sectors, as well as the rapid increase of inflation, make daily life more difficult. The inability of the capitalist system to reverse environmental destruction with its disastrous consequences adds to this state of affairs. The logic of “productivism” is seen to produce inequality; opposition to it takes on an anti-capitalist character. With the possible exception of a few taliban who still dare to defend the benefits of capitalist “progress,” the ecological struggle has come to include every social struggle. In short, the classic ways to locate a cross-class consensus now appear derisory and insufficient.
The alternative—to face up and fight back--seems unavoidable to many. A situation of conflict between social forces, against the capitalist class, is coming into being, even among those who for a long time have preferred the easier path of reform. This particular situation has brought to the fore a sensibility that was formerly underground, shining a new light on the absurdity of the condition of wage labor, now seen in the perspective of the ravaged condition of the world and the difficulties of life. Work has become for many synonymous with precarity, a violent life, impoverishment, the destruction of beings. So to work “two more years” to guarantee an end to this life without human meaning—No! It’s enough to report the innumerable individual placards and slogans of the French demonstrations, with their wealth of imagination, to grasp the general sentiment of rejection of this state of affairs. These are no longer only union demonstrations demanding negotiations in the framework of a reform, they are also demonstrations against the way the economy works and the intentions of the world’s masters, against a vision of the world. After the failure of the “Glorious Future” of comrade Stalin and Co., here the glorious future of private capitalism is called into question. Among the slogans from May ’68 revived in the recent demonstrations, one often reappears: “Don’t lose your life earning a living.” If it is true that in its concrete actions the movement has not, with rare exceptions until now,5 gone beyond the careful and integrative framework of the big union apparats and a strictly political clash, the truth is that the movement has already allowed the flourishing of a more radical spirit of opposition which needs only to expand, to become a collective force. Everything depends on the evolution of events underway. Even if the strike movement appears timid in relation to the point at issue, even if the balance of forces remains favorable to the powers that be, the game is not played in advance. And a serious political crisis is already underway, whatever the outcome will be. It is significant that the mood in the continuous demonstrations expresses the idea that we may lose this battle but we have created a force and there will be another future.
To complete this picture of an unattractive period of history, the presence of a war at the very doors of Europe, with its train of violence, destruction, endless massacre, and uncountable acts of barbarism, has further weakened belief in the possibility of a consensual life under capitalism. We must also note that slogans against the war, calling out a deadly inter-capitalist clash paid for with the lives of Ukrainian and Russian youth, have been on the increase in the French demonstrations, to the extent that the mobilization is becoming rooted in society.
To conclude, it seems evident to those who are directly experiencing these mobilizations of opposition that the dominant element of the new energy, beyond the question of “pension reform,” is a rejection of the world as it is, of which this measure marks only one more step in the increasing subjection of proletarians to the logic of profit. This is the great difference from the struggles of earlier years, like that of 1995 against the previous “reform.” The mobilization underway is not only a mobilization on the ground of the quantitative, a ground on which the old institutions, parties, unions, governments could discuss, negotiate, find a consensus. It is a mobilization whose principal motor is a qualitative desire to change the order of things, to call into question the deadly logic of capitalism. ”Capitalism should retire,” read a placard carried on February 7 by a group of young women in Paris. This qualitative element is not negotiable. It is there, it will remain beyond this movement, which has allowed its expression. It imposes itself as a necessity that must be taken up, developed, imposed on the masters of the present time—the only light that can allow our exit from the dark night they are preparing for us, and into which we have already entered.
A Week Later … A Movement Begins, a King is Afraid
The passage of the pension “reform” law—first, barely, in the Senate, then by Macron’s decree—gave a powerful new impulse to the social movement. As a perceptive participant-observer put it, “Conflict is front and center: since March 16, when the reform became law, a radical spontaneity has been reactivated. Marches of all sorts form spontaneously every day, almost everywhere, irregular, without authorization, adopting the slogans of the Yellow Vest in their original form. This is a sign of a significant change, a mutation, a return of the undisciplined, of emancipation from convention. Occupations, sudden attacks, refusing to pay tolls, demonstrations on the offensive, mobilization of schoolkids, people coming together in large numbers. Even the strikes have become tougher in certain key sectors: garbage collectors, railway personnel, electricians, gas workers. Whence a proliferation of social guerilla actions, more or less coordinated, even if minimally, but all stumbling, sooner or later, on a sort of limit, that of strategy—confrontation, avoiding direct conflict, or resistance?—which should be adopted in the face of the forces of repression on which Macron’s kingdom depends, whose most shameful methods it has legitimated and encouraged since the Yellow Vests?”6
Indeed the spontaneous demonstrations are spreading, especially at night, outflanking the police, who are more and more violent. During the gigantic demonstration of March 23 in Paris (with more than a half million participants), a day after the speech in which Macron continued to defend the law, one slogan was often heard: “A movement is only beginning.” A very significant fact is the increasingly massive participation of young people. At the same time, strikers are increasingly taking to direct action. Hospitals received free electricity while bank branches and the offices of politicians who voted for the law had their current cut; at the limit, the workers in charge of protocol refused to unroll the red carpet for King Charles III of England, who canceled his visit to Macron! Garbage piled up especially in the chic neighborhoods of the capital. Unexpectedly, a group of radical lesbian feminists marched to support the workers striking the refinery that provides fuel to the Paris airports.7 All the struggles and movements are coming together on the same front. Slogans have become even more imaginative: “Can we telework in old people’s homes?”, “The garbage is not in the streets but in the ministries!”
We conclude for the moment with this appeal handed out in the Paris demonstration by some young people, not members of any official organization:
One place, one occupation, one bastion.
WE NEED A PLACE!
Unauthorized demonstrations every evening, from 7n pm on.
Good for us!
We must believe in our strength!
This strength burns, burns everything in its way.
How can we run short of things to burn?
How to continue to develop without consuming ourselves?
Hold tight to what’s happening—see what’s missing.
One, one place, one place, one place.
One place? A theater? A museum? A MacDonalds? A city hall? The Elysee palace?
Don’t go back home, keep blocking the streets, start wild, share the wildness, go even further.
Seize a place for the revolution.
Bring your bedding.
- Khedidja Zerouali, « Les Robin des bois » offrent le gaz contre la réforme des retraites, Mediapart, 12 février 2023.
In early March, several offices of parliamentary deputies and government ministers, including the minister of labor, experienced a loss of electric power.
The unions claim thousands of new membership[s since the beginning of the movement in France.
The railway network where the catastrophe happened had recently been privatized; the signal systems had not functioned for months; and the newly hired workers were inadequately trained.
Like the gas workers’ actions described earlier.
- Freddy Gomez, “Digression sur une étincelle,” A contretemps, March 23, 2023.