by Ramin Mazaheri and crossposted with PressTV
(Ramin Mazaheri is the chief correspondent in Paris for Press TV and has lived in France since 2009. He has been a daily newspaper reporter in the US, and has reported from Iran, Cuba, Egypt, Tunisia, South Korea and elsewhere. He is the author of the books ‘I’ll Ruin Everything You Are: Ending Western Propaganda on Red China’ and the upcoming ‘Socialism’s Ignored Success: Iranian Islamic Socialism.’)
Due to a Western media blackout on the subject, many may be surprised to learn that France’s general strike has just begun its seventh consecutive week. It’s the longest labor movement in French history – and by half – but the Western Mainstream Media is ignoring France until this historic moment passes.
It seems about to pass soon.
French unions have done a woeful job leading the strike despite having everything going for them at the beginning.
The alleged superiority of the so-called “independent” union model – favored by the West but opposed by any country with a revolution after 1917 – is once again failing the nation, if maybe not their dues-paying members.
The general strike is wobbling, and by January 24th the pension bill will be formally presented to the government. It’s amazing rapacity, because presenting a bill amid such strikes is obviously rushing it into the safe arms of a system dominated by President Emmanuel Macron; it is also amazing duplicity, because Macron only released the pension scheme’s details just last week!
Wasting time has been Macron’s main tactic during the general strike, despite the fact that workers and households are increasingly desperate after having gone without work for six full weeks. To be accurate, then: “wasting time” is not his tactic, but “increasing desperation”.
A simple recipe for the Macron era is: increase desperation + trace amounts of democratic discussion + rubber bullets + total control over Parliament = Macron’s deification outside of France and his vilification inside France.
But the so-called “centrist” Macron and his deviousness are well known by now – what happened to unions and their great leadership? Many French unionists have had the gall to tell me that countries with modern revolutions “have no unions” – so show us how it’s done then, Mr. Know-it-all?!
If unions can’t win this one for the nation, can they ever in the Western model?
This was supposed to be an easy one.
Domestic polls have never shown public support below 60% for the strike – from the start until today – nor disapproval of less than 70% for Macron’s unprecedented pension scheme.
But this was a “general strike” that lacked both “general” and “strike”.
A general strike is something which union leaders never really wanted, I think. It was forced by three things, all of which were undermining the incredibly unjustified cultural faith France has in their Western union model: hospital strikes which had been going on for months (due to years of austerity cuts), wildcat train strikes that had sprouted (work-related accidents were increasing due to reduced working conditions, the result of years of austerity cuts) and the bravery and selflessness of the Yellow Vests.
Macron forced the issue with this radical pension scheme – this was to be his “Thatcher/Reagan moment”, and he wanted it that way. But unions didn’t even answer the first-round bell.
The “strike” turned out to be entirely placed on the backs of train conductors. The notable feature of this historic era is the 2-3 times longer work commutes for urban areas, as trains were shut down for weeks and over the Christmas holiday.
But where were the other labor sectors? The unions failed miserably by failing to call on them to join the “general” strike.
Unions only called six days of nationwide strikes and protests – if they really wanted to win they would have called that many in the first week alone. What this means is that most French have actually taken less than a week off for to strike against the pension replacement.
Instead of blocking the economy or, more importantly, blocking the functioning of society (no schools, no hospitals, no day care, no elder care, no anything as much as possible), unions decided only to block urban public commutes; small-town life in France has been barely touched by the general strike.
Their lack of mobilisation feeds into the worst stereotypes of French laziness, but it is laziness of the bosses: it’s as if union chiefs said, “Let the public transport workers handle it all – we’re going on Christmas vacation.”
And they did!
Macron was only too happy to postpone negotiations for more than two weeks over the holiday period; union leaders incredibly outdid him by not calling for a nationwide strike or protest for nearly three weeks. I couldn’t understand it – so then why call a transport strike over the Christmas holiday at all? Why fragment your own forces?
Transport workers continued to shoulder the load alone, but why did union leaders not encourage anyone to join to them? Just terrible leadership, strategy and organisation.
France’s labor chiefs are not new, but they acted new on the job
As could have been predicted from their history, the Macron administration’s corruption gave them a golden chance to kill the pension system: Two weeks into the strike (December 17) the architect of the entire pension reform had to resign his ministry post due to corruption allegations.
What else can you ask for?! What a gift! What a mistake from such an untested government!
A sustained, immediate, massive mobilisation over such incredibly important corruption would have been hugely effective right then: How can the fruits of a corrupt minister be wholesome?
But unions did nothing to take advantage: they all went on Christmas vacation – everyone but train conductors.
All this prolongation gave the Macron administration more time to cut sweetheart deals with key labor sectors: just after the Western new year airline pilots and cabin crews announced they had made a self-interested arrangement with the government and called off their planned strike.
Inaction from unions gave Macron time to “divide and conquer” the strike, like always in France’s Age of Austerity, when they should have known from the beginning that this would be exactly their tactic.
The government then engaged in duplicity to sow confusion and stall. In addition to the radical “universal” and “points-based” system, the government wanted to increase the retirement age by two years. But this was always a fake poison pill – it was something the government could easily withdraw in order to appear like they were negotiating in good faith: the radical pension system is a far, far more lucrative prize for France’s 1%. On January 11 they announced they would suspend the age hike.
Then they said the suspension was only temporary.
Then they didn’t clarify when the temporary suspension would start or finish.
As clear as mud, and we all keep inching toward the January 24th formal presentation of the bill, when negotiations will be finished.
This week the participation of train conductors in the strike fell to their lowest levels – metro services in Paris are now about 20% from normal levels, but anyone using the train is obviously going against the strike.
But after six full weeks people tell me they have foot problems from so many long walks to and from work. Striking is hard, and unions should know that and thus pushed with all their might from the beginning. Instead, they are trying to do so now.
Out of increasing desperation, unions called for three days of national strikes this week, but attendance has been lackluster there as well.
No generals sturdy enough to push past teenage anarchists
Back to the strike lacking a “general” – this became evident on the very first day of nationwide protest (December 5).
A few hundred Black Bloc protesters – who are either undercover police or anarchist idiots with daddy issues – held up 250,000 union-led protesters for four hours in Paris.
It was not an incredible show of strength by Black Bloc but an appalling display of poor leadership from unions. Yes the cops – who have way more guns, defensive armaments and training – did nothing to stop Black Bloc, but they never do: those are their orders from above, and this is old news.
What I want to know is: why did none of the union leaders have the skill to say, “We can’t let these skinny punks stop our first demonstration and provide the MSM with riot footage – that will scare the average person away from protesting and weaken our strike. Onwards! We march and Black Bloc can’t stop us!”
And Black Bloc would have stepped aside in two seconds. They don’t have weapons, they were vastly outnumbered and they are mostly trembling 21-year olds. The violence that day was piddling – truly 1% of what a rough Yellow Vest demonstration was like.
But no union leader could grasp this reality, apparently.
Certainly, no union leader was willing to be at the front line to push ahead and tell Black Bloc that their democratic right to protest peacefully would not be denied. Cops would have never stepped in to prevent protesters from confronting Black Bloc – that would mean protecting Black Bloc openly.
Union leaders may feel their precious brains need to be protected at all costs, but their tactical capabilities are even worse than their leadership capabilities.
I don’t know what will turn around the general strike now?
Unions have fumbled away golden opportunities and failed to apply pressure when they could have. They have, like Macron, ignored the importance of democratic public opinion.
Furthermore, there are right-wing unions and left-wing unions, after all – they do not all think alike. France’s largest union is right-wing. France is not a “socialist” country like the US claims – their political revolution was way before 1917, and it failed, too. And quickly.
The only winner here will be the Yellow Vests – their view that unions are indeed part the inept and/or corrupt mainstream political system will be vindicated if unions don’t right the ship.
Did unions ever really want to win? Their tactics don’t give that impression – it looks more and more like this “general strike” was all to give the show of resistance, not to actually resist.
However, in the short term it’s not like Yellow Vests can provide a political solution to aid the average Frenchman – it took Italy’s Five-Star Movement eight years to win actual power.
Taking a longer, historical view: in 2017 France’s two mainstream parties were swept out of power for the first time in postwar history. If they continue on their losing track, 2020 may prove to have been the year the same broom was applied to unions. What comes after that, is the question.