Lettre d’Europe: France’s General Strike

Paul Malgrati, Villars-sur-Ollon, March 2023

France is being stirred by the most significant general strike since the beginning of the twenty-first century. On 7th March, French syndicats claimed more than 3.5 million protesters nationwide, with between 30 percent and 50 percent of striking workers in the education, energy, civil service, and transport sectors. This was the biggest success for the unions since the beginning of the upswell. After five days of actions in January and February —which rallied at least 1 million protesters each— the French movement has now reached numbers unseen since 1995, when Jacques Chirac’s government had to withdraw his conservative reform of French welfare.

Walking in Chirac’s footsteps, Emmanuel Macron plans to push back the state pension age from 62 to 64. Needless to say, this measure is hugely unpopular, with 70 percent of French people opposing it according to polls. By contrast with the UK, where private (or professional) pension funds are mainstream, France’s pension scheme remains chiefly state based. In the current system, workers who reach the required threshold of 42 working years will receive an allowance averaging their wage from the last 25 years. Macron now wants to increase this threshold to 44 years of work.

Unfortunately, parliamentary attempts to thwart Macron’s minority government have failed. Divided between left-wing and far-right components, the opposition has been both incapable and unwilling to join forces. Certainly, the same cannot be said about moderate and radical trade unions who united for the first time in 13 years —an alliance which broadened the scope of current protests. Yet thus far, and despite the seriousness of the strike, the government remains inflexible. Such disdain is not new: it is consistent with Macron’s relationship with French unions since he took power in 2017.

The next few weeks will be tense, and it is hoped that French strikers (especially in the energy sector) can hold long enough to bring the economy to a standstill. Should their action fail, however, Macron’s aloof strategy might become increasingly risky. The memory of the 2018 Gilets Jaunes insurrection is still fresh and, should all legal routes faill, the possibility of violence might become real.

Paul Malgrati is a poet and scholar from France. He is author of Robert Burns and Scottish Cultural Politics and the poetry collection Poèmes Écossais.