Emmanuel Macron and his government are facing their first major social disputes. The complexity and multi-sector nature of the movement raise interesting questions.
In this context, it is important to look far more carefully and closely at the types of actions undertaken, the actors involved in them, and the strategies that motivate them, which is what this article proposes doing.
As Emmanuel Macron and his government face their first major social disputes, the complexity and multi-sector nature of the movement raise interesting questions. There are those who criticise the unions for a repeated and repetitive strategy that is in essence little more than a form of “managing failure”.1 Government representatives view the labour unions as time-expired relics of a bygone age. Between a governmental discourse that claims to embody reason in the face of archaism and a form of political romanticism that claims to be overthrowing the codes of political engagement and activism, it is better to begin with concrete analysis of forms of struggle and identification of the actors involved if we are to understand what persists and what is emerging from the current social disputes. At a time when both picketing strikers and “free communes” are flourishing, it is important to look far more carefully and closely at the types of actions undertaken, the actors involved in them, and the strategies that motivate them.
The current unrest in its various forms, already subject to attempts to enumerate the numbers and sectors involved by several articles,2 raises hopes that remain fragile, an enthusiasm tempered by the failures that have marked the spirits of people on the left, not to mention the bodies of protesters hit by what can be physical repression. The coming opportunity seems to lie in the coagulation of multiple struggles against a political context of ever more fast-paced reforms and an ideological context characterised by growing frustration on the left. This in turn favours links between struggles that might be judged disparate but that all share a common desire to confront a determined political onslaught seeking to break the final social and institutional resistance of employees from the public and private sectors alike.
The actors taking action in this context are from both the historical spheres of social protests and other more precarious sectors, less renowned for their willingness to protest. These protests draw on a traditional repertoire of contention which likes to think it is in transition or undergoing transformation and claims a newness that remains to be ascertained. These diverse forms and venues for mobilisation remain very much riven with ambiguities, but they are starting to coalesce, feeding off each other, claiming a convergence that remains to be seen. Whereas traditional forms of actions still set the pace (I), the rhythm of strike actions, student structures and engagement by middle managers and workers with precarious private sector jobs leads us to imagine a degree of renewal (II), already claimed in the battle for public opinion that is well underway (III).
On 22 March, rail workers began industrial action in a battle for the future of the railways that is set to last, according to the specially convened joint committee formed by UNSa and Sud Rail. On the same day, the joint union association (CGT, FO, FSU, CFTC, Solidaires, FA-FP and CFE-CGC) called on public sector workers to come into the streets to “defend public services” against all the government’s current and future attacks. If the mass mobilisation by rail workers and the public sector failed to impress the commentariat and editorialists on the day itself, it nonetheless marked the start of a movement that, two weeks later, the media think could “last”, as claimed in the headlines of the Parisien in its 4 April edition. Rail workers have embodied labour struggles in the minds of the French political class for many decades, as they still do today.
The CGT Énergie union decided to join the rail workers’ strike dates, stating that it was time to “take a look at the cost of privatisation”, now that [national gas company] GDF has paid the price of what has become an established process: the progressive opening-up of capital until full privatisation, i.e. switching from the social ownership model to the shareholder model with catastrophic consequences on working conditions, wages and services. Rail workers are determined that they will not be treated the same way, in a process already initiated by previous reforms. This bastion of organised labour seems to have redynamised the battle for public services, since many other traditionally active sectors of organised labour are taking their cue from them. After energy, it was the turn of the CGT refuse collectors, who called for an unlimited strike starting on 3 April of “all private and public waste collection and treatment actors” to support the creation of a “national public waste service.” The CGT hopes to be joined by workers from across the public sector for a day of action on 19th April, even as it is joined by further calls for mobilisation from various different sources, teachers and temporary-contract staff in the national education system, healthcare workers, and workers from formerly public industries already engaged in struggles at local or national level (postal workers, Air France, etc.). The previously lethargic student movement also appears energised by the announcement of impending mobilisation.
The first dates for interprofessional mobilisation have been set, and the bastions of the social movement continue to act as the driving force in the protests. There is nothing new under the sun, or so the sceptics would claim in response to surprise that the phrase “convergence of struggles”, previously absent from messages emanating from union headquarters, has now been heard on the lips of [CGT leader] Philippe Martinez, seemingly converted after his experience with Nuit Debout. And yet, to deduce that this is no more than a traditional mobilisation in the main unionised areas of the economy seems inadequate if we are to understand the coming opportunity. The unprecedented combativeness of other sectors holds the promise of new configurations in the balance of power, in particular through greater mobilisation of workers from the private sector.
Staff from residential cares homes for seniors [EHPAD], also part of a broad-based alliance of unions representing workers from public and private sectors alike, expressed their discontent in multiple forms, from walk-outs to strikes and demonstrations, alongside participants including pensioners. In an industry that employs close to 400,000 people, slightly over 30%3 took strike action in January to denounce their working conditions and a lack of resources leaving over-worked staff in a situation ever closer to breaking point.
At Carrefour supermarkets, an unprecedented strike by almost half its 60,000 staff employed in superstores4 took France by surprise over a weekend. 300 stores were picketed by striking workers, backed by all the unions (CGT, CFDT, FO, etc.), protesting against worsening working conditions. The announcement of this year’s € 57 profit-share payment, down from € 610 previously, was the final straw for workers who are paid a scarcely sufficient amount in return for ever-increasing workloads. Workers with insecure jobs have suddenly joined the labour struggle even though their employment conditions often make mobilisation complicated. Strikers included workers from McDonald’s, cleaners from Onet and Holiday Inn, and so on. These workers are starting to refuse to accept what employers are demanding of them, particularly those who work for businesses that have received extremely generous state assistance (competitiveness and innovation subsidies, etc.). The employment-based blackmail of the past no longer works, since workers no longer believe the lies of major companies who pocket profits and promise to protect jobs before stabbing staff in the back once they have milked the benefits of their blackmail.
The arrival of workers with insecure jobs in the labour struggle is good news for the social movement, which needs to see the emergence of mobilisation in new sectors if it is to reinvent itself and triumph. This is perhaps also how the mobilisation agenda, regenerated by the core of the social movement, can act to coalesce the general discontent that has been expressed in various places within the happy accident of the calendar.
In one anticipated area of political mobilisation, among students, actions seem to be running counter to certain prognoses and assumptions on both sides of social battle lines. Although mobilising students are using tried and tested political tools, control over their mobilisation has changed hands, and not simply because of a change in generations. Students are now thwarting what the government assumed would be a relatively painless reform of secondary schools and universities, an assumption that seemed correct in the face of weak and snail-paced initial mobilisation. What we are now seeing, triggered by the violent attacks on students occupying the law school in Montpellier,5 already exceeds what we saw when the students protested against the new employment laws. Mobilisation started slowly, a low-intensity process since the first announcement of the student orientation and success reform, the so-called Vidal Act, but is now gaining significant ground and has started to spread in the past two weeks or so.
In a formal sense, the Tolbiac Free Commune and other emerging actions in universities seem in many ways to resemble university sit-ins of the past, and not only May ‘68, whose fast-approaching anniversary keeps it at the forefront of students’ minds. The types of action taken are the same as those adopted by previous student struggles6: general assemblies, blockades and sit-ins, a national student coordination body, setting up alternative universities, etc. The speed with which alternative universities have emerged in some of the free communes is nonetheless astonishing, and their immediate success is encouragement to continue the process.
The students involved in these actions, which are fundamentally conventional forms of student mobilisation, are, however, acting in the main independently from the organisations that traditionally marshalled student revolts, such as the national student union and the youth wings of political parties. Increasingly discredited today, these organisations have abandoned attempts to guide the mobilisation, which is a movement both more autonomous and better organised than in the past, thanks to the experience of combatting the new employment laws.7 A new generation is in revolt against the employment laws, hardened in its determination by the sustained pace of successive governments that no longer make any attempt to hide their desire to smash the rights the labour movement has imposed on capital. This, fundamentally, is why the student revolt is more than simply a protest against the Vidal Act. The radical tone of student positions reflects the absence of a desire to avoid once again falling into the traps of “social dialogue”. The only negotiations undertaken by protesting students8 concern the conditions for expanding the struggle: a pass mark for all, delayed mid-terms, etc. The underlying radicality does not therefore dispense with the process for reflecting on the conditions it needs for formal possibilities. The message is unambiguous: it is no longer a matter of being on the defensive, but rather of opening the debate to include the student world, and this time round no union appears able, or willing, to act as mediator. The traditionally minority discourse within sector-specific actions, ascribed to “leftism” or its heirs, thus seems to have taken on new strength in a context marked by deep-reaching frustration in left-wing circles which, paradoxically, have not been vanquished by a surfeit of defeats, but are possibly only slumbering temporarily.
While the structures organising student mobilisation are changing, although without renewing the grammar of the political tools that they use, the presence of many managerial staff alongside striking rail workers is remarkable. This class of worker, not usually very present in any strike movement, accounted for almost 17% of strikers on 3 April according to the CGT. It is often these workers who stand in for track staff exercising their right to strike, indicating that management is powerless in the face of shared opposition to the reform project.
The lack of support by managerial staff for the government’s project can also be seen in the very low number who accepted the € 150 “occasional driver bonus” offered to managers stepping in to replace striking drivers. On 3 April, no more than 150 in the whole of France agreed to replace striking drivers. This indicates the presence of a family of rail workers enlarged to include a section of managers, whether striking or simply supporting, however minimally, the strikers by refusing to listen to a management with its back to the wall and prepared to resort to crude methods to break what it regards as a worrying outbreak of solidarity. These methods stretch what is legal to breaking point, as when [SNCF boss] Guillaume Pépy threatens to count rail workers’ rest days as strike days in an effort to combat the carefully constructed calendar of strike actions.
This is because the rules governing the rail workers’ mobilisation have revitalised traditional forms of union action by setting out a calendar for action spread over three months, with strikes held on two days in every five. This rolling strike action represents an attempt to adapt to SNCF’s particular rules governing how strike days are counted which, since the adoption of the law on maintaining a minimum service, work very much against the strikers’ interests. The rules state that, after more than two days of strictly consecutive strike action, the rest day that follows is automatically counted as a strike day. Giving strike notice for a 24-hour period, renewed once, interspersed by three worked days allows strikers to minimise financial losses in two ways, and is a clear statement of their ability to sustain a lengthy conflict.
It thus appears that the repertoire of possible political actions has been partially regenerated, including at some of the more old-school unions such as the CGT, which are well aware of the tailing off witnessed in other lengthy struggles waged and lost by rail workers and other groups since 1995. This new strike calendar is an innovation in response to bitter, and expensive, failures. Far from preventing mobilisation from spreading, the union movement, led in this case by the CGT, wants to adopt a strategic approach, and seems to be taking the necessary steps to succeed.
This new mobilisation strategy, using a new-look form of rolling strikes that combines a classic, indeed timeless, tool with an innovative calendar, is also a chance to ramp up the communication drive. The surprise and astonishment that greeted the announcement of this calendar, before the strikes had even started, generated many press articles and opportunities for union members to explain the form and substance of the approach. These days, communication by politicians and unions appears to be a crucial component in an environment where public opinion is claimed by both sides and is the object of much attention and numerous strategies.
At a time when we are increasingly hearing ill-judged comparisons with the social protests of autumn 1995, there is renewed concern for the notion of public opinion, presented as being one of the primary components of the nascent social conflict. Ever since the 1980s, the backing of the majority, because of the legitimising force that comes with it, has become a core advantage in struggles between reform-minded governments and social movements. Backing from citizens places unions and protestors in the position of defenders of the common will that the government seeks to brush aside using its position of strength and parliamentary majority. The issue for governments is the reverse, seeking to align its legitimacy in the ballot box with the legitimacy dictated by opinion surveys and focus groups, enabling it to claim support for its full programme of reforms both within the National Assembly and the population as a whole. Every social conflict to an extent calls into question the legitimacy of governments and holds within it the potential to place the government in a position where it seen by everyone as having minority rather than its former majority status, thus becoming vulnerable, devalued and cut off from the people. Conversely, the government can mobilise popular opinion to conjure up the figure of the silent majority and, inversely, the spectre of a minority acting by definition in defence of its own corporatist interests that run counter to those of the general interest. Just as Chirac failed to include Juppé’s plan in his election manifesto, so Macron did not feature reform of SNCF in his, and this omission therefore paves the way for the legitimacy of the reform process to be called into question, since it has never been approved by the ballot box. Macron and [prime minister] Philippe are seeking a majority in public opinion in order to preserve the legitimacy acquired via their comfortable majorities in presidential and parliamentary elections. And herein lies the second risk facing the government: to lose the battle for public opinion is to open the way to a challenge to its legitimacy that may prove extremely costly, as Chirac, Sarkozy and Hollande will all attest. Public opinion will referee the match that is getting underway, a battle between the protagonists that will be close fought.
When first announcing its SNCF reforms, the government was able to boast of the clear backing of public opinion, its reformist plans having been widely welcomed alongside the use of executive orders and a firm attitude in the face of union mobilisation. If the opinion polls all point to a majority in favour of the main thrusts of the reform (end of rail workers special pension arrangements, end of jobs-for-life), opinion seems to be shifting in terms of perceptions of the emerging movement and the government’s response to it. According to a poll on 14th March carried out by ELABE,9 34% of French people sympathised with or supported the mobilisation against the government’s reforms (compared to 43% who were against or hostile and 27% who were neutral). Another poll by the same company on 21 March10 shows increasing polarisation, with just 12% neutral, whilst 38% of those polled sympathised with or supported the mobilisation and 49% were opposed or hostile. In the ELABE poll on 4 April11 the curves switched, with support-sympathy running at 44% of those polled, with 41% declaring themselves hostile-opposed. Added to this are people’s views of government policy, judged unfair by 74% of those polled,12 and the attachment to the idea of a public service expressed by a large majority,13 two factors that mean a more nuanced view is needed than the bald statement that the reforms are supported. The battle for public opinion is a lengthy affair and the initial shifts14 are not favourable to the government, which probably explains the first concessions,15 intended to calm public opinion with a view to retaining majority support.
In the current conflict, the mechanisms used by Macron’s supporters to maintain support of the majority of public opinion are eerily reminiscent of the hackneyed dodges of yesteryear, testament to neoliberals’ insatiable appetite for destructive reforms. The rhetoric coming from the government treads a well-worn road, lauding reforming modernity in the face of union-inspired archaism, waving the figure of the user in conflict with the unionised worker and the cliché of rationality and adapting to a globalised and financialised economy and its unquenchable thirst for profit. It faces a social movement with conventionally-defined roles: the articulation between unions and political parties is no different from the past, with the parties expressing solidarity and support for mobilisation initiated by the unions. The attempt to reorganise assigned roles by the Amiens Charter , promoted in September by the France Insoumise movement, has yet to produce results, and organisations on the left have united in a joint framework via appeals16 and press conferences attended by everybody from NPA to Génération.s17. To this arrangement can be added the essentially conventional messages from union head offices (withdrawal of the reform and opening of negotiations on the basis on counter-proposals set out by workers’ representatives), which stress the general interest as a way to convince people of the need to force a government on the offensive on all fronts into a climb-down. Public service is one of the key signifiers in this battle for public opinion, and although the concept may appear dated to [Macron’s party] LREM, it nonetheless remains cherished by large swaths of the population, a common good that must be defended, or at least preserved.
At first sight, the battle for public opinion in 2018 seems little different from battles in previous years, but looking more closely we can discern changes or, more precisely, the development and dissemination of pre-existing innovations within mobilisation against the reform project. Social media has never been more important in a dispute, with Facebook and Twitter packed with images and videos that demolish the tired claims of the project’s defenders and provide arguments for its opponents. There are also numerous articles, texts and comment pieces all grouped behind the hashtags #JeSoutienslaGrèvedesCheminots and #TeamSNCF, which are shared as much by everyday people fed up with the arrogance of the government as they are by pages and profiles with tens of thousands of followers. This battle to oppose disinformation and impose a counter-view (and counter-propositions) is certainly not new, but has now become vital even before the first demonstration is organised. It constitutes a powerful platform for all forms of mobilisation and a form of action in its own right for contesting the hegemony of the reformers and their self-proclaimed rationality. In addition to communication tools, the form of messages is also changing and increasingly using derision, laughter and provocation to add to the deconstruction and deciphering of the dominant discourse and boost people's belief and activism. Here again, this use of communication predates the current mobilisation; during actions protesting the employment law, this communication method spread beyond a small circle of pioneers, notably Info’Com-CGT. These forms of communication supplement traditional repertoires of contention (flyers, posters, media appearances, etc.) and wage a battle on all fronts over how the real significance of current social conflict should be interpreted, particularly in terms of the absurdity of language emptied of all meaning (hostage-taking, to cite just one example). The diversity of these forms of communication reinforces demands focusing on the general interest and defence of public service and enables the movement to switch from a defensive to an offensive position to protect all employees, spearheaded by the rail workers.
While on-line strike funds using lepotcommun and Leetchi appeared during employment law protests, their capacity to receive donations has greatly increased in this spring of 2018. This is due to a number of reasons, including their visibility being boosted by a collective of intellectuals and artists (including Balibar, Salmon, Ernaux and others) creating and publicising a fund for the rail workers. This particular fund has already received almost € 300,000 in just two weeks, while it took Info’Com CGT three months to collect € 420,000 in 2016. Support from intellectual and artistic figures for the funds partly explains their success, but it would wrong to overlook the widespread dissemination of these new forms of solidarity via social media. The involvement of intellectuals and artists who support the sectors taking action guarantees the movement greater visibility while fostering a division of roles that re-establishes material connections, complementing support forums, participation in open universities and media appearances. We are also seeing a change in the CGT’s message that began with the speech made by Philippe Martinez, CGT secretary general, at the Nuit Debout General Assembly in April 2016 on the Place de la République in Paris. The union leader recognised the key role played by non-unionised components of the movements and called for unified action against the El Khomri act. Two years later, Philippe Martinez is declaring his attachment to “everyone together” and the “convergence of struggles”, insisting on the need to present the movement as defending the general interest and, consequently, all employees. This shift in discourse raises many questions about the mechanisms for coordinating the movement. The CGT traditionally considered that a joint union association was the natural home for organising mobilisation and bringing together collective anger; does the adoption of this new watchword really point to a recognition of other forms of organised struggles? In other words, is the CGT reaching out to these struggles so they can launch a joint attack?
The conjunction of new repertoires of contention in sectors traditionally at the forefront of social conflict with the appropriation of classical repertoires by sectors until now little inclined to take action is shaping a social landscape likely to foster the long awaited and oft invoked convergence of struggles. The rail workers’ surge of action, the very embodiment of social conflict, is seen by some as hope for the possibility of victory. However, not all the pieces of the puzzle are in place if we take into account the dynamics that marked the past year: Macron’s victory by default in the second round of the presidential election overshadowed the electoral renaissance of the hard left and collapse of the socialist party. This reconfiguration did not succeed in halting the government’s neoliberal movement, powered by the honeymoon period and rapidity of the onslaught. Nevertheless, the dizzying speed of the succession of reforms has triggered and united forms of resistance believed to have been crushed (pensioners and students). This opposition has been gaining strength as the socio-economic context, exacerbated by Macronist policies (lightening the tax burden for the wealthiest members of society and for capital, dismantling social protection) crystallises a discontent already expressed with the soubriquet “president of the rich”, previously bestowed on Sarkozy.
Existing forms of mobilisation are marked by contradictions and diverging mechanisms for taking action and structuring, but they all share a discontent that underpins the battle for public opinion. In this context, convergence is not born of rhetoric, but springs from the wholesale attacks which, day after day, harden the anger of different groups, making them aware that they have something in common: they are all being targeted by a government working in the interests of the well-off.18 The variety of forms, demands and actors involved in the social movements marking the advent of spring is therefore unlikely to produce contradictions, but rather to give rise to complementarities and synergies already visible in the burgeoning spaces for social protest; it is worth underlining at this point the decisive role played by the rail workers’ rolling strike schedule, providing other social movements with two days a week to rally against the government, right up to late June. This is the background to the traditional 1st May event that brings together the different components that make up the country’s political and social movements. The 5th July date suggested at an assembly at the Bourse du Travail [labour council] in Paris, organised by François Ruffin and Frédéric Lordon and attended by rail workers, intellectuals, left-wing activists and deputies, will also provide an opportunity to broaden the movement. Ultimately, the coming opportunity is the encounter between the inflexibility of a power opting for full-frontal confrontation and flourishing forms of mobilisation, adopting a variety of models and mechanisms but sharing the same enemy: neoliberalism rooted in reform, embodied by the current government and in the most dangerous form we have seen since 1983.
Lucie Champenois, Antoine de Cabanes and Paul Elek for Espaces Marx
Translation: transform! europe