By Ramin Mazaheri for the Saker Blog (cross-posted with PressTV)
Over the decade I have lived in France I have never seen a social protest movement win their economic objective.
Wait… that’s not true: in 2015 Francois Hollande gave in to the demands of protesting police even before their protest ended. That was pretty pathetic.
And then we also have the exception of exceptions, the ever-constant Yellow Vests. They have won a small portion of their economic demands – a tiny amount of direct financial relief, no austerity budget in 2020 and preventing the government from privatising the airports of Paris (at least temporarily).
They won by doing something which was unprecedented in France: protesting, instead of vacationing, over Christmas. They surprised everyone, including me, with their self-sacrifice, which ultimately grew to incredibly admirable proportions due to their steadfastness amid constant repression.
However, Yellow Vests are now being forced into the back seat.
Unions are leading an unlimited, general strike starting on December 5 to try and stop President Emmanuel Macron’s radically right-wing pension “reforms”.
Will their general strike work?
France’s ‘independent’ unions: if it’s good for members, who cares if its bad for the nation?
It’s so amazing how very quickly a general strike can win that it’s amazing that anyone thinks another tactic in the labor playbook is even required?
But as France’s #1 union leader, the CGT’s Philippe Martinez, told me years ago: “I don’t have a button marked ‘general strike’ which I can press.” LOL, unfortunate but true.
Again, I have never seen a social protest movement in France win their economic objective… unless we are talking about a few union members whom the government bought off with targeted concessions.
The French illustrate why “independent” labor unions might be good for a member but bad for the nation, and also why the world’s most truly progressive models don’t have labor unions which are independent from their government structure.
Since 2010 France has seen enormous, broad protest movements against wave after wave of austerity measures, but they have never succeeded in stopping them. The reason is the same old imperial logic – divide and conquer. Time after time I have watched French strikes fail because the government can quite easily give targeted concessions to just a few sectors of the workforce, and even to just a few unions within one sector of the workforce. This always has had the intended result: to reduces strike participation and provoke anger, resentment and selfishness among those who are still striking so that the movement is inevitably abandoned. France, already the land of the evil eye, has only grown more embittered and suspicious over their many failed labor movements during the Great Recession.
The Yellow Vests have totally rejected union involvement until now, and for the reason I have explained: France’s unions are self-interested, whereas the Vesters obviously promote self-sacrifice for the national good. Just like France’s political groups and NGOs, the unions are fundamentally allied with a corrupt establishment which is geared towards the pro-neo-imperialist 1% and their money-grubbing immorality.
In 1995 right-wing reforms (pushing – you guessed it – right-wing pension rollbacks) lasted three weeks and the government backed down. There were minor goods shortages, and people lost some wages, but national unity against a government’s totally unjustified, 1%-enriching policies was easily victorious.
Almost two-thirds of the nation does not trust President Emmanuel Macron to lead any sort of pension reform, so there is unity again. The reality is that Macron has a support base of just 25% which approves of whatever he does. Clearly, his remaining supporters on the pension issue are daredevils who merely want to see what the world’s very first universal, one-size-fits-all pension program will actually look like.
Such a program is totally unjust because bending rail tracks in the cold, hoisting garbage cans and – I’d say – teaching 30 kids for 8 hours a day is not something which a 64-year old person can do without serious consequences for their health and future. In the West, which makes an idol of youth and dismisses the elderly, this idea – that old people deserve a future, too – is rarer than an igloo in Ecuador.
If recent history is any guide Macron will give just a few crumbs to a few unions, and they will push past the strikers and be “scabs” to the rest of the nation with zero scruples.
This strike is perhaps a final test of union power in France: Unions have become more fragmented since 1995 – and thus less powerful – and if they fail to win here the Yellow Vests will be proven right to have excluded and denounced them.
Macron: Won’t rest until every Frenchman is an American in Paris
No nation has a universal pension system and the French government themselves truly don’t know what they are doing. No worker knows how much their new “points” will be worth upon retirement, including Macron himself. It is clear that Macron only wants to smash the current system and replace it with something more Americanised. I write that because this has been his modus operandi ever since taking office.
Macron’s policies don’t need public approval because he is not trying to get re-elected – he is trying to merely win by default in 2022, when Marine Le Pen will again serve as the scare tactic. Even if he loses he is guaranteeing himself a lifetime of lucrative speech-making in Western nations by destroying the bad example which has always been the French “mixed-economy” model.
Macron is not like Hollande in that he did not backtrack – he warned France of what he was going to do while campaigning. This gives him a mere fig leaf of democratic justification (in the classic Western-model style): he claims to have won a democratic mandate for his far-right economic plans, but every adult in France knows what I just wrote – his base of support in the 2017 election was just one-quarter of voters because everyone else voted to block the far-right (culturally, not economically) Marine Le Pen and also to sweep out the two hated mainstream parties.
In 1995, the largest French social movement since 1968, what tipped the scale was public transport workers: they bought all movement to a halt for three weeks, and they are threatening to do the same this month.
What did not tip the scales in favor of worker-class justice is France’s media.
France’s “private” media, whose editorial lines are decided by a handful of billionaires, keeps pushing this wilfully stupid point about Macron’s false “mandate” which insults the intelligence of their readers and viewers. Similarly, every report about the pension reforms begins with raising the issue of the “special regimes” – which are mainly for public service manual labourers who work in conditions which no sexagenarian should endure – in an obvious ploy to create support for the far-right reform via provoking jealousy, anger and exasperation, which cannot possibly be the foundation for the proper “reform” of anything.
Not much should be expected from France’s public media, either: even though their salaries are derived from taxpayer dollars only Iranian and Russian media have been covering the Yellow Vests from the street for the past five months.
Another group which also did not tip the scales is what, “Remember ’68, man?!”, French Boomers falsely believe will do so this time around – students.
It is only via cutting off profits to the 1% that France’s leaders – in their aristocratic/bourgeois Western democracy – will ever be forced to back down. It is workers and determined adults who can and must play the deciding factor in politics. I have no idea why the youth-worshipping West thinks baby-faced students are a safer bet than tough rail workers?
Another battle which will be decided is the “blowhard” French model of influencing government – simple, often alcohol-fuelled protests.
For the past decade the French have gone to a protest, taken a selfie (without smiling), gone home early and – as I’ve stated – lose. They are simply shocked to find, no matter how often it has occurred, that a government which keeps resorting to executive orders does not at all listen to public opinion when formulating public policy. The French love for self-expression may be self-satisfying, but it is a regular political failure.
Returning to the tactic of a general strike will hopefully show France that the only solution is economically hurting the 1% whom the Western liberal model seeks to protect from any possible economic losses.
Of course these failed bets – on “independent” unions, on the “independent” private media, on emotional and unsteady youth, on protests which lack the basic knowledge of the class struggle and the majority’s embrace of neo-imperialism in the French culture – all help explain why nearly no socio-economic movements have won since 1995.
What is different this time around?
Nobody can really tell, because it all depends on the willingness of workers to sacrifice their pay checks to win something they won’t touch for decades in the future. Every society has immediate needs to satisfy, but does France have a culture which encourages thinking about the far, unknowable future?
Everybody is making the comparison with 1995, but there is no doubt that the economic and democratic condition of the average citizen is far, far worse since then.
Anti-austerity feeling has routinely been sky-high during the Eurozone’s Lost Decade, and the French keep losing their purchasing power, government services, working conditions and the social rights it has taken a century to wrest from most decidedly un-Islamic high finance. Maybe this will tip the scales?
Is France willing to walk to work for just 3 weeks, like in 1995? If not, they should be prepared to work two extra years in their old age, and for a monthly stipend which is far less than what the elderly get now.
Footnote: Two weeks after the 1995 “victory” the far-right nature of the aristocratic/bourgeois Western model asserted itself – parliament voted to allow the social security reform via executive order. In such a model the 1% is guaranteed to win and is always the primary beneficiary of government policies and tax dollars. If the French weren’t confronted by this reality before, the Yellow Vests have changed that.
Or maybe they haven’t changed that? If the strike fails, the way the Western aristocratic model inevitably betrays the lower and middle classes – and the apathy, alienation and selfishness it necessary provokes among the mass of the citizenry- will be the primary reasons for its failure, although these reasons are never cited in the West.
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.’
The working class needs a mechanism by which to fight for its interests. Unions can be such a mechanism. However, for unions to be effective the union leaders must not be corrupt and the membership must be class conscious. Neither is the case in France or anywhere else. This does not mean that unions should be dismissed (as the writer does). Being anti union is right wing and defeatist.
Unions are a feature of capitalism and parasite rule. The role of unions under capitalism is to keep the rabble in line. Unions in Austfailia have sold out their members for forty years, yet the Right never ceases attacking them with the most repressive anti-union laws in the OECD, according to the ILO. And the ‘workers’ party’, the ALP, long,long, ago sold out to neo-liberalism (very profitable for the proto-Blairites, Hawke and Keating)and does nothing while in power to protect workers’ interests. And much of the working class is so brainwashed that they vote for anti-worker Rightwing regimes, in the hope that they will be spared and only ‘other people’ screwed. It’s called ‘mateship’.
Dead right Mulga.
@Anton G: I agree but how to find an honest man? Where to find Lamp of Diogenes? How to elect honest Leader by unseating dishonest Leader? I think one must first stand in front of mirror and use a good light to look closely for the honest man inside oneself.
Socialist-inspired countries have unions – unlike the West they are tied to the government, not independent (and thus inevitably adversarial).
This model has obviously proven way more effective. The whole point of socialism is to give workers political power… but the West discredits this model followed by Iran, China, etc.
I was not saying that workers should not collectively unite in groups to ensure proper working conditions, wages, etc. Unions, soviets, Basijs, committees – something is obviously needed, but “independence” as a virtue in itself, like so many Western ideas, test fails the crucial test of positive results in reality and practice.
Of course, in countries which are anti-socialist, like the entire West, “independent” unions are seen as the only answer. It’s a poor answer to a poor situation, but of course the West is the best and Iran, China, Cuba, etc. all are terrible dictatorships, right?
Unfortunately I believe this is an accurate assessment of the situation in France.
I agree the West definitely worships youth. Maybe it has something to do with the superficiality of the culture (or what it has become).
The young send the the elderly away to old people’s homes to forget about them. The elderly develop Alzheimer’s and dementia and forget about the young. There is not just a socio-economic fracture in society but also an intergenerational one.
Great article. Be well Ramin.
The French Trade Unions are paid by the System and part of it. They have tried, from last year to take advantage of the mobilization of the Yellow Vests to divide them, on behalf of the government, as their popularity among French workers is growing thin. The pension reform is not a Macron initiative, but dictated by the European Commission, as they imposed their economic diktat on each EU country. The Unions always keep quiet about that. See point 10 of EU document:
The Macron puppet in action: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4zmtnTe-PHw
Great article! Thanks, Ramin. It reminded me of our university trade union struggles in Brazil in the 1980s-1990s. Exactly as you say, our trade union was independent. But also partisan – in our case, we simpatized with the socialists. I wonder, now, how the unions are managing to survive under a fascist government (after the 2016 coup d’etat)…
France reminds me of the sequence of events after that famous person said “Let Them Eat Cake”.
Will Emanuel and his backers end up the same ? Get the chop.
And Le Penn or the yellow vests leader be the new Citizen Robespierre ?
A comparison of this page to the current situation is relevant.
Viva la France !
Good article Ramin, thanks!
One thing, you wrote: “No nation has a universal pension system and the French government themselves truly don’t know what they are doing. ”
The Netherlands do have a universal pension system dating from the time of old Dr. Drees, a former Dutch prime-minister, the most social statesman the Netherlands have ever had. After WWII he introduced a universal system by which every dutch citizen and even foreigners who legally work in the Netherlands all get a basis pension named AOW when they retire. The monthly sum is a bit like the SMIC in France. Most people who work pay into other systems as well to have more to spend when they retire.