Jean-Luc Mélenchon: France’s Pension Battle Isn’t Over

Yesterday’s protest in parliament and on the streets proved that Emmanuel Macron has no majority to increase the pension age. In a speech reprinted here, France Insoumise leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon argues that popular mobilization must keep going to build pressure for a no-confidence vote.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon attends a rally as several thousand demonstrators gathered at Place de la Concorde, opposite the National Assembly in Paris on March 16, 2023 to protest against pension reform and the government’s use of article 49.3 of the French constitution to force the measure through without a vote of MPs. (Boivin / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

As I speak, spontaneous gatherings are taking place all over France. As you know, we are living through a historic political day. So, what happened? In particular since March 7, an incredibly intense mobilization — the likes of which we haven’t seen in fifty years — has been taking place across the country. It has continued day by day, at the call of the trade union organizations, through rolling strike movements in almost all regions and all professions.

We see people getting together to fight in the most effective way against the pension reform that forces them to work two years longer, when there is no budgetary reason to take such a decision. There is no deficit, and there won’t be one. Millions of people understand this and don’t see why they should make the sacrifice of two extra years of work given to society. And they are right.

Because this mobilization has taken place, because it has gradually spread, it has challenged all political organizations — including the ones most distant from it, or those ready to accept the idea that this retirement at the age of sixty-four should go ahead. I’m thinking of certain organizations on the traditional right. This work was done by millions of people, willing to make the sacrifice of the days that will go unpaid in all those jobs — oil refiners, garbage collectors, energy workers, and all the others you’ll excuse me for overlooking. I am thinking of all those who have entered the struggle; it is thanks to them that we’ve have arrived at this point.

What is this point? The president of the Republic was, it seems, determined to pass the pension law. So, he called a meeting with the leading representatives of his government and of the parliamentary groups to tell them: “You are going to hold a vote.” And then, when they did the sums, they realized that they would not have a majority, and so he had to take note of the political reality in the country. There is no majority in the National Assembly since the last parliamentary elections [in June 2022]. They were hoping that the [conservative] Republican party would provide him with the support. He had already started to carve up this organization. But after twice receiving the representatives of the pro-presidential minority in the National Assembly, the prime minister, and the parliamentary group presidents, Macron had to finally recognize that there was no majority for the bill. So, he had to do it brutally, to use the instrument of stealing democracy from us, that is article 49.3 of the Constitution, which declares that a text is adopted.

Popular Unity

You will no doubt see images of the incredible, historic session in the National Assembly, and what the MPs of the NUPES and France Insoumise in particular did. Following an old example dating back to the Liberation [at the end of World War II], throughout prime minister Élisabeth Borne’s speech they decided to sing “La Marseillaise” to show that they would oppose to the very end — until the last minute, until the last second — the coup de force that the government was undertaking. By tradition, when “La Marseillaise” is sung, especially in the National Assembly, well, the others fall silent and everyone stands up. After one verse, this hadn’t happened. But let me tell the symbolic meaning. Today, the majority of the French people, from all professions, all regions, all generations, are 60, 70, 80 percent hostile to this law. So much so that we can say that through the social struggle the popular unity of our people is achieved.

This popular unity has a social content. When we start the battle to have the right to retire before we are physically and morally exhausted, well, when we do that, we no longer care about the religion, the gender, the color of our neighbor. We are shoulder to shoulder trying to make life better. It’s a great lesson in what popular unity means, its ability to bring the whole people together, whereas neoliberal ideology divides everyone and creates the mess and disorder that you see before you today.

But what is the result of all this? If the motion of no confidence in the government that is going to be tabled is not passed, then the pension law will indeed be enacted. At each stage we have been told that we will lose at the next one. But then at the next stage, we have always found the extra effort, to strengthen our unity in the struggle.

No Legitimacy

So, let’s see things clearly. What does today’s result mean? There is no parliamentary majority. So, the bill on pensions has no legitimacy. Everyone is against it: the Parliament, the trade unions, the associations, and all the people who do not belong to a particular party. They don’t want this reform. I was told yes, but the Senate passed it. That is true. Yes, the Senate is part of the democratic process in this Constitution. Of course, nobody is going to say otherwise. But the Constitution says that the text passes through both assemblies and that the last word goes to the National Assembly. But the last word will not be said, because the government, by means of the 49.3, has obtained its temporary silence.

Ms Borne as prime minister was left alone in front of a group of people who did not know whether to stand up or remain seated. Some applauded and others grumbled, giving a feeling of the political disarray of the current government and the current pro-presidential minority. The reform has no legitimacy. It is purely and simply a coup de force, because there were other ways of making a decision: first of all, setting a time frame that respects parliamentary democracy and allowing a discussion of the bill in Parliament. And then, once everything was blocked, we could have organized a referendum so that, in the end, the French people could have expressed themselves. If the people said they didn’t want the bill — well, it’s happened before. Other presidents of the Republic have accepted that they had to understand the situation. But this one is locking himself into an increasingly personal and violent means of exercising power.

Did you see how the day started? At a depot in the Val-de-Marne, the president of our parliamentary group, Mathilde Panot, appeared, surrounded by several local MPs. There was this unacceptable [police] charge against them, even while our friends were there wearing their tricolor sashes [as elected officials do]. There was violence unleashed, against the striking garbage collectors and the MPs. These people are always trying to give lessons in how we ought to behave, but then they chuck tear gas at MPs. When “La Marseillaise” is being sung, the prime minister speaks over it, or at least tries to.

Social Front

So, what to do now? We must, as we have done until now, advance on both fronts, the parliamentary front and the social front. But obviously, it is the social front that is decisive, in the call made by the unions. We must now join the struggle wherever we have not done so already. You must, as a people attached to your freedom, to your democracy, show your rejection of Macron’s methods and his ways of governing. You have begun to do so tonight. Spontaneously, in dozens of cities, rallies have been formed, determined and large in numbers. Everyone will know how to keep their cool and control the action that is being taken. But we must return to this action again, at the call of the unions, tomorrow and after tomorrow.

As for us, and for the part that concerns Parliament in particular, we will continue the battle there, and be present with the strikers. We will be present among the strikers because the rebels are everywhere. But we will also be present at the National Assembly to table a motion of censure that is as inclusive as possible. This is why France Insoumise has decided to participate in a common motion of censure. I was informed of this earlier by the president of our group in the National Assembly. This means that we are ready to use all the legal means at our disposal to prevent Mr Macron’s coup de force. Today, we are told that the motion of censure will not find a majority. Well, this morning we were told that there was a majority to adopt the text on pensions. And tonight, it is obvious that there is not. So, the battle goes on, up to the censure vote.

Our duty, step by step, day after day, is to gather all the energy, all the strength that allows us to convince people and win this vote. . . . including by winning the votes of all elected representatives, including those who may change their minds. . . .

Every hour that passes must be used for this purpose. And then we will see that the battle can be won no matter what happens from now on. The lack of a majority in the National Assembly must be converted from a negative into a positive censure motion. This is what must be done for the sake of our democracy. . . .

To all those who grant me audience or authority, I ask them to immediately join the struggle wherever they can, by organizing in all possible forms peaceful rallies in front of the representation of the state administrations headed by Mr Macron. Our calendar of action is all mapped out. There will be local initiatives here and there, that’s for sure. And there is the call that the trade union organizations are making in unison, which I ask you to follow. Get together this weekend, as the trade unions are asking. And on March 23, there will be a national demonstration in all the cities of France, called by this cross-union agreement and the organizations of the Left of the National Assembly, notably the members of France Insoumise. So, let’s keep up the fight.