Pension Reform in France

The balance sheet below is an initial reflection(1) on the wave of struggles against the pension reform introduced by the government. It may, on first reading, come across as pessimistic. However, while on the one hand only the truth is revolutionary, and that’s what we describe, on the other hand, given the movement’s size and the anger it has demonstrated against the current living conditions imposed by the capitalist crisis, it remains necessary to draw positive lessons from it, lessons such as how to struggle, and how to build a balance of forces. The political tranquillity to come will show that we can never trust the unions, and that in order to win our struggles, we must take them into our own hands, by creating strike committees, organising mass assemblies and coordinating all poles of struggle. Indeed, we will have to do the polar opposite of what has happened.

Without a Basis of Self-Organisation, Failure is Guaranteed

Since 1995, France has seen five large movements more or less similar to this most recent one against the pension reform. There have been three involving demonstrations of roughly the same size, surpassing one million participants, about pension reforms (1995, 2003 and 2010)(2), and two others on the CPE (“contrat première embauche”, first employment contract, intended to make it easier for employers to fire workers) in 2006 and against the loi Travail in 2016. The tactics of the unions have been proven time and again to doom workers’ struggles to failure: above all, lack of strike committees. Two movements succeeded in derailing the proposed reforms in question. In 1995, during Juppé’s pension reforms, the country was brought to a standstill for three weeks most notably by SNCF (railway) and RATP (public transport) workers, and witnessed assemblies, committees and coordinations. The political situation at the time was more favourable in this way. The bourgeoisie still fears student movements, as in 2006 during the CPE protests. The students who took part made the movement more dynamic, and there was a certain degree of self-organisation at its base, notably in the universities. It is these organisations, small though they may be, with a crucial atmosphere of defiance of the unions, which pushed the bourgeoisie to concede defeat on these two reforms.

Lessons must be drawn from previous failures. But in 2023, it’s still the same losing machine being set in motion. The unions, their credibility broadly undermined, have managed this time to weather the storm. For the first time, they came together under one intersyndicale (inter-union alliance). We can see that the bourgeoisie knows how to draw lessons when it suits them, once again, in order to lead the working class behind it. And what’s more, thanks to this latest manœuvre, the unions have regained some of their credibility.

Besides which, should we remind ourselves of the Gilets Jaunes’ struggle which began in October 2018? Why did the state abandon some of the proposed economic and social measures and the fuel tax? Largely because the movement was not under control. It didn’t have any leader to speak of. The bourgeoisie greatly fears these leaderless revolts. Yet France was flooded with assemblies, discussions on roundabouts with attempts at coordination. It is these modes of action, rather than the confrontations themselves, which pushed the State to release a few crumbs.

And, unfortunately, today the working class has once more failed to draw the lesson of the decades of bankruptcy of struggle behind the unions.

Can We Speak of a Non-Movement?

We owe it to ourselves to draw up a timeline of the declared failure of the movement against the pension reform, in order to properly outline the manœuvres(3) of the bourgeoisie.

The working class is being attacked on all fronts – falling living standards, inflation, rising energy prices, attacks on the unemployed,(4) etc. – and now the bourgeoisie has taken up the fight with pension reforms. Was this a way to avoid the bitter and potentially harder to control movements like those that seemed to be taking place in the UK, the USA and Germany for wage increases? The French bourgeoisie certainly does not want to see the development of such demands, and such struggles across many different sectors.

We have just witnessed a movement that has been impressive in its size and energy. It was a testament to the potential power of the working class which has already found an expression in the last few years, before the times of Covid. But for now, the working class is still fumbling in the dark, fighting with no political orientation, and because of this, it has been easy to lead it astray from its true interests.

The colossal strength and energy expressed by these immense crowds, who indeed have revealed a mass rejection of the world of misery they are expected to endure, have so far only fulfilled one purpose: placing the unions in a position to ensure that the retirement age remains at 62. Ridiculous in view of the hatred of the State and its increasingly unjust measures, when it is well known that most workers don’t retire at 64 anyway. Both sufficient age and contribution annuities are necessary in order to get the full pension, which for many is a miserable retirement.

Two important characteristics of this movement should be noted. The first is its duration (over three months), which indicates the immensity of the rage that has built up among the working class and the anaemic fringes of the population. The second is the relatively low number of striking workers implicated, which could also go some way to explaining the lack of strike committees, mass assemblies and coordinated decision-making bodies. In a period of intense struggle on this scale, its failure could ultimately lead to out of control reactions, since the combativity and the problems of everyday life have not been solved.

How has the bourgeoisie – the State and the unions alike – prepared itself to attack the working class?

The Organisation of the Bourgeois State, the “Left”, the Unions and its “Leftist” Appendages (LO, NPA, etc).

Up to now, everything has been going according to plan for the Macron-Borne government.

  • On 11 April 2022, president Macron announced that he would raise the retirement age to 65.
  • On 15 September 2022, the Retirement Orientation Council (“Conseil d’orientation des retraites”, COR, which includes highly paid representatives of unions such as the CFDT, the CGT, FO, the UNSA, the FSU, the CFE-CGC and the CFTC) submitted its annual report to the government announcing funding problems.
  • From September to December, several cycles of “consultation with social partners” were held at the Ministry of Labour, and all the union leaders accepted peaceful discussions with Minister of Labour Dussopt on the plans for pensions announced by Macron. None of the organisations walked out.
  • On 30 November 2022, Prime Minister Borne stated that it was necessary to raise the retirement age to “restore the system to equilibrium”.
  • On 8 December, the union bosses met with Borne. They presented her with “proposals”.
  • On 3 and 4 January 2023, Borne convened them again at Matignon, where none of the unions refused to discuss the pension bill.
  • On 23 January 2023, the Council of Ministers adopted the bill.
  • From 6 February to 16 March, the bill was debated in parliament. The so-called “left wing” MPs and senators played their parts in the parliamentary circus while the unions were active in the streets.

Everything has gone according to plan from the perspective of the unions. The coordinated intersyndicale is organising its so-called response with the usual arrangements:

  • On 18 January, Martinez (CGT) called for “renewable strikes everywhere possible”.
  • On 19 January, the all-union bloc (CFDT, CGT, FO, SUD, UNSA, FSU, CFE-CGC, CFTC) declared “days of action, strikes and demonstrations”, without demanding the withdrawal of the bill.
  • The intersyndicale proposed “renewable strikes”, explaining that parliament had to vote on the bill, when what the workers wanted was its withdrawal outright.
  • All the so-called “left wing” political organisations, including LO, the NPA and the like, supported the intersyndicale and explained that these days of action would be a “springboard” to a general strike.
  • From 19 January to 28 March, the intersyndicale called for ten days of “lagging behind” action, making sure that there was sometimes a week in between each one. And despite being the pinnacle of farce, these demonstrations all numbered nearly two million workers.
  • On 7 March, there were three million demonstrators. That evening, the unions, instead of calling for a unified strike for the withdrawal of the bill, complained of the “risk of a social explosion” and asked the government to listen to them.
  • And to add insult to injury – though few newspapers have reported on it – those who were able to bring the country to a standstill were quickly given financial concessions. On 2 March, the national pilots’ union announced that “the legal age of retirement will not be affected by the reform”, and so they could leave work with the full pension at 60.(5) The truckers, cash in transit drivers, removal van drivers and others received two days of retirement leave, and that was before the strike on 7 March. The government has extended these concessions until 2030, a sort of “special regime” at a time when the suppression of all these special regimes has been in debate. Truck drivers can retire five years earlier than the legal retirement age and retain 80-100% of their net wage.(6) So the floodgates are already open!

Other sections of civil servants have also received accommodations in an attempt to divide and weaken the most significant sections of militant workers.

On the side of the rank and file workers, despite there being some anger here and an outbreak of struggle there, the working class was unable to organise its rank and file with struggle committees, strike committees and coordinating bodies. The working class has never been able to create a true balance of forces.(7) And what’s worse, the so-called spontaneous movements like the one at Place de la Concorde in the evening of 16 March following the application of Article 49.3 (an article in the Constitution that allows the validation of a law without a vote) was planned by the SUD unions in Paris. The same was true of the other demonstrations, even the violent ones, across France. In fact, there were a few actions instigated by certain fringe unions that did have a bit more of a proletarian character.

For the first time, the coordinating bodies and assemblies that had been able to exist despite everything were largely diverted from their goal by decisions taken in advance.

And for example, several general assemblies voted, as the firefighters’ union of Rhône did on 17 January, in favour of the following motion:

In order to win, the issue is not to last as long as possible, but to hit as hard as possible in unison to win as quickly as possible, and in order to do this the watchword must be: general strike until the withdrawal. The CGT Confederation must immediately call a general strike for the withdrawal of the bill.

It was the same for the general assembly of higher education in Lyon on 31 January, and the general assembly of water treatment workers of the greater metropolitan area of Nantes. There were many other motions in this vein, and the unionists and leftists did their utmost to ensure that these motions were never put into action. On the other hand, they dragged workers and students into “radical” dead-end actions, here on a roundabout, there on a railway to block the trains, there on motorway ramps, etc.

Alongside this movement against pension reforms, the attacks have not ceased to rain down as the economic crisis persists, and so the prices of basic necessities continue to rise. The bourgeoisie will have to fund its march to war, as well as the firing up of the arms factories. The bourgeoisie has plans for short term measures, and for now has weathered this particular storm. As a result, the struggle will inevitably be taken up again, and the workers will have to learn from this new failure caused by following the unions up their blind alley.

From the Point of View of the State

We are being inundated by media on the subject of the institutional crisis, or the crisis at the head of the State. Yet another smokescreen. There is nothing for the working class in this omnishambles. The bourgeoisie will find a solution one way or another to its own institutional crisis, and it is not for us to dwell on this question. Besides, nothing will change following the departure of Prime Minister Borne, or even that of Macron. Nor will anything change with a new parliament like the NUPES (purported as they are to be on the extreme left) would have us believe.

We are already seeing the boss of bosses, Geoffroy Roux de Bézieux, showing on France-Info that he desires an alternative direction for the head of the State. Put nicely, he made it known in an interview on 27 March. He declared, on the subject of the senior index(8), for example, that it’s a “bureaucratic, centralised, almost Soviet vision of the country”. Good lord! Where are we? “We are fed up with the State telling us, do as I say, not as I do,” he says. If this is not him killing off his proxy, Macron, what is? And further, “the government must change its methods”, pointing the finger at the relationship between the executive and the unions. No, this isn’t a dream, this really is the boss of bosses criticising the State for failing to take into account the “prominent” role of the unions! If we understand him correctly, he is saying that Macron’s entire policy must be reviewed.

We can see that the bourgeoisie, even while finding itself in a tricky phase, has positioned itself well in relation to the workers. The working class can only depend on itself to learn to construct a balance of forces in its favour, instead of placing itself in the hands of a supreme saviour, and in this long battle ahead, it will also have to depend on its proletarian organisations, which are still very much lacking, and which will be absolutely necessary in the days to come, as these recent struggles have yet again shown.

We have lost a battle, but not the class war! History teaches us that a social movement, anodyne though it may be in its early stages, can spiral out of control and threaten the existing social order.

Bilan et Perspectives
3 April 2023


(1) At time of writing, the movement has not yet come to an end.

(2) According to the police, the only demonstration as big as the most recent ones was the one on 12 October 2010, with more than 1.25 million demonstrators. And the movement was still a failure!

(3) When we speak of manœuvres, we mean the general manœuvres of the bourgeoisie, which does not mean that every fraction does not have different interests. And for example, the State and the unions have a common interest in this case – to preserve the social order – but each has other interests as well. For the unions, it is imperative that they don’t discredit themselves.

(4) New rules planned for 1 February 2023 for compensation, supposedly intended to incentivise going back to work. In reality, numerous unemployed people have lost and are losing their unemployment benefits. They had to find new ways of saving money. The previous reform made it possible for the government to end 2022 with a positive balance of 4.4 billion euros.

(5) Le Canard enchaîné, 22 March 2023.

(6) Les Echos, 10 March, in which the Minister boasted of “a major commitment…attended by few of the unions”.

(7) Make no mistake, the failure of the movement and the manœuvres of the unions were only possible because of the weakness of the working class, which did not establish a balance of forces by organising itself independently at the base, but also because of the lack of political direction provided by real political organisations.

(8) Many workers were pushed to retire earlier in some companies because the end-of-career wages were higher, hence the debate on the subject. The left proclaims that before reforming and advancing a retirement age of 64 years, workers must be allowed to work after the age of 55!

Tuesday, April 25, 2023