France’s Pension Protests Are the Culmination of a Long Rebellion Against Neoliberalism

Emmanuel Macron’s government has angered millions with its attack on the French pension system. But the strength of the protest movement owes to struggles that came before — and the organizations allowing a sustained challenge to the neoliberal agenda.

Protesters take part in a demonstration after the government pushed a pensions reform through parliament without a vote in Clermont-Ferrand, France, on March 28, 2023. (Jeff Pachoud / AFP via Getty Images)

The movement that has been developing in France since January 19 is exciting for many reasons. In not much over two months, it has profoundly changed the political atmosphere in France, pushed back the ambient defeatism, and destabilized (even frightened) the zealous defenders of the established social order and neoliberal policies. It has broadened the expectations of the millions of people who have joined the struggle and thus begun to give them a sense of their own strength.

Above all, this mobilization has intensified the crisis of hegemony that has been deepening in France for years; it has shown how socially isolated Emmanuel Macron’s government really is. It had crystallized social discontent that had not always found ways to express itself politically. It has transformed into righteous anger the generalized distrust of a large part of the population — in particular the working class and youth — toward Macron and his government.

An ”Economic Issue”?

This also means the issue is no longer just about Macron’s pension “reform” (or better, counterreform). It is no longer simply “social,” in a limited, trade union sense. It is eminently and fully political: as it becomes national, takes on a broad social scope, and sinks firm roots, the movement becomes a confrontation not with this or that capitalist (as in a fight against layoffs or job cuts at the firm level), not with this or that sectoral measure (of whatever importance), but with the whole bourgeois class as represented and defended by the political authorities. Such a movement can open up a fault line in the political order, by changing the relations of force between the classes in the long run.

Great popular movements inherently tend to blur the categories that separate the “socioeconomic” from the “political.” Such categories are, indeed, only artificially imposed on the class struggle. Any mass struggle — and this one is no exception — turns out to be inextricably social and political; it inevitably sets as its logical target the political authorities and the major interests that the current ones stand for: the propertied, the exploiters, and the dominant class.

Such a struggle is also ideological and cultural, insofar as it calls into question the narratives (both big and small) that the dominant construct to justify this or that counterreform, or more broadly their social order and its parade of injustices, alienation, and violence. But also in the sense that it allows a battle to be waged between antagonistic conceptions of the world; it encourages a blossoming of alternative visions of what society, human relations, our lives, should be.

Past Mobilizations

The current movement stands on the shoulders of many previous ones, at least the sequence of struggle beginning in the mid-2010s. In particular this means the battle against airport construction project at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, the struggle against a labor law which made employment contracts more precarious, the Yellow Vests movement, the feminist mobilizations against gendered violence and gender inequalities, the 2019–20 movement against pension reform, and all the struggles (notably anti-racist ones) against police crimes and all state violence. It integrates, articulates, and develops its achievements, both in terms of methods and tactics of struggle and ideologically.

Yet there is also a difference, which can hardly be overlooked. This lies in the growing power and increased combativeness of the parliamentary left, in particular the seventy-four MPs for France Insoumise. They have greatly contributed to politicizing and radicalizing a mobilization that most of the unions — in particular the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT) — had wanted to keep on a strictly “social” terrain.

We can thus be pleased that most of the new France Insoumise MPs never sought to counterpose the parliamentary battle (with its own means of action) to the classic methods of class struggle: street demonstrations, picket lines (on which we repeatedly saw these MPs appear, including the president of the France Insoumise parliamentary group, Mathilde Panot), and blockades (notably of high schools and universities).

Expand and Intensify

All our efforts must be directed toward further expanding and intensifying the movement, until victory. We don’t know how far we can go, but getting the government to back down on its counterreform is the bare minimum. In the years to come, such a victory will count double or triple, precisely because Macron has sought to make this counterreform the mother of all battles — a test of strength that would allow him to consolidate his power until the end of his presidency in 2027 and begin the total destruction of the working class’s twentieth-century social conquests.

As a Thatcherite who has learned his lessons well (from the neoliberal counterrevolution), Macron knows that he needs to break the most combative sectors of the social movement. For he knows this will sow despair among the majority of those who are currently mobilizing and building strikes and demonstrations, as they both block things up and make a bloc of their own with the – more or less explicit — aim of a world of equality and social justice.

State Violence

In this confrontation, Macron’s government has already indicated, both in word and deed, that it is ready to go as far as necessary. This is in turn fueling the movement’s politicization, through the use of all-out police repression. Breaking any illusions that may have existed over the recent appointment of a supposedly less draconian Paris police prefect, the interventions in recent days by the “forces of order” have been extremely brutal.

Such brutality has been normalized and routinized over the last ten years; this is not about “slip-ups” or “mistakes” but the ordinary actions of a police going through a considerable fascization process. But the police action is also marked by a certain disarray, faced with the sheer number and determination of protesters after Article 49.3 was used to push the pension reform through parliament without a vote.

In a small minority among the general population, the government forced through a series of institutional maneuvers typical of the Fifth Republic (whose constitution is, as we know, far from all the standards of a democracy, even minimal ones). Further destabilized by the buildup of videos and witness accounts of state violence, Macron’s camp, and its ideologues, surely are not managing to persuade people that violence is coming from the demonstrators or that police violence is a myth invented by barbarians thirsty for cops’ blood. It is proof that the monopoly of legitimate violence is only ever “claimed” by the state, to use Max Weber’s famous definition, and that sometimes, when the “success” evoked in this definition is not there, things run aground.

Both these maneuvers and the extremely brutal repression of the movement in recent days have provided an opening for a campaign against authoritarianism and for political freedom. In close continuity with Macron’s first term and the François Hollande and Manuel Valls governments of 2014–16, these forceful measures make it possible more broadly to pose the problem of the Fifth Republic’s Bonapartist institutions, the need for a break with the current constitutional framework, via a constituent assembly, and the possibility of a real democracy, if only on the institutional level.

“Prerevolutionary Moment?”

Naturally, debates have now begun on the French left as to how to characterize the current social and political situation. Some have spoken, from Juan Chingo to Frédéric Lordon, of a “prerevolutionary moment,” with a revolutionary situation or process in view, as if “only a shove were needed for the whole system to come tumbling down” (Jacques Rancière). The corollary of this assertion, at least in Chingo’s article, is that the main (or even only) obstacle to the proletariat engaging a revolutionary struggle now comes down to the “trade union leaderships” — or “the leadership of the workers’ movement,” i.e., the intersyndicale, the allied union leaderships.

Indeed, insofar as the proletariat “as a whole” — we are told — has been radicalized by the movement, the authorities’ power today hangs on the thread of the trade union leaderships’ ability to channel social anger: hence “the intersyndicale acts as the last emergency pressure valve of the crisis-hit Fifth Republic regime.” And further on: “We can thus say without risk of being mistaken that the principal obstacle for the prerevolutionary ‘moment’ to transform into an openly prerevolutionary situation, or even a revolutionary one, resides in the conservative and institutional leadership of the workers’ movement.”

Such a claim is important. For even if the organizations that uphold such a line are very weak, the problems it poses reflect concerns more widely shared among combative sectors of the social movement. This has obvious consequences: if one takes such assertions seriously, it necessarily follows that the immediate denunciation of this “leadership of the labor movement” acquires an absolutely central role for all those who work for a radical change of society, as well as the construction of a movement leadership different from and alternative to the intersyndicale.

Chemically Pure?

The first error in this reasoning lies in its underestimating certain limits of the mobilization. Such limits must be taken seriously if we want to overcome them by means other than by rhetorical tricks, which are only meant to convince the convinced, or by a call for voluntarism, which is only attractive to those already willing to act.

These current limits mean that while this movement is capable of making Macron back down on his pension project and potentially on all the counterreforms planned for his five-year term, it is not — at this stage at least — capable of leading to a revolutionary situation. If the militant voluntarism of a minority is absolutely necessary, it is not alone enough to overcome these weaknesses and to move from social protest — however broad and radical it may be — to revolution. This is true even in a situation like the current one, which objectively requires a political break and a revolutionary transformation, in an ecosocialist, feminist and anti-racist direction.

A revolution is never “chemically pure,” or faithful to a manual written once and for all. But it presupposes some elements without which to speak of a “prerevolutionary moment” is more about wishful thinking (or of tactics for the promotion of small militant groups) than a strategic hypothesis. Insofar as the fundamental and distinctive trait of a revolution is the more or less assertive appearance of a duality of powers (between the bourgeois state and forms of popular power outside the state, but also within the state itself), prerevolutionary moments presuppose certain ingredients: a consequential shutting down of economic life, significant levels of self-organization, a beginning of centralization and national coordination of the movements in struggle, as well as cracks in the state apparatus and, more broadly speaking, in the ruling class.

All these elements are missing in the current movement.

Only a few sectors of the economy are experiencing real strike activity (and even less a rolling strike), sectors that are essentially public or para-public (garbage collectors, rail, electricity, National Education, etc.). Few large private companies are at a standstill, including on days of major union mobilization (except in some sectors like oil refineries).

Moreover, even in the sectors where the strike has a certain magnitude, self-organization in the framework of general assemblies and strike committees is very weak, even in comparison with previous movements.

Groupings bringing together activists from different sectors have emerged (as in 2019–20), but they are in the extreme minority relative to the overall size of the movement (not to mention the working class as a whole), especially in comparison with the “interpros” [cross-sectional mobilizations during the successful movement against pension reform in] December 1995; they seem to be more a means for small militant groups to increase their audience and to build themselves up, than a real means of influencing the extension and intensification of the strike.

Finally, the state apparatus is holding firm (in particular the repressive police-army-justice apparatus) and the employers continue to support Macron (even if it seems that this counterreform did not seem particularly urgent to them).

All these limitations in no way diminish the value the current movement. It could be that the coming weeks will allow us to go further than the present situation. But the correct definition of tasks and strategy depends on properly diagnosing how things really are. In this matter, there is no room for complacency.

How Broad?

A second mistake, which stems from the first, is to pretend to have solved what should be a major strategic problem for the movement, but also for the trade union and political organizations in the period to come. By claiming that we have witnessed in the last two months the “radicalization of the proletariat as a whole,” we ignore the fact that the generalized and virulent hostility toward Macron is in no way equivalent to a mass anti-capitalist consciousness (so much so, moreover, that it is necessary to fight against an excessive personalization and psychologization of Macron, that makes him into a “madman,” a “lunatic,” etc., when he is above all the proxy of capital and in particular, financial capital). And above all, we should not underestimate the reality that a large majority of the proletariat has not in fact entered the movement.

Workers — almost all of them — are surely opposed to the counterreform and hostile to Macron. Yet most are still standing on the sidelines. Only a small fraction of the class has demonstrated and the vast majority has not gone on strike — indeed, for unavoidable material reasons (wage insecurity, management pressure, etc.). Moreover, the level of self-organization is, overall, lower than in previous movements (including recent ones like the one of 2019–20, in particular at the state rail firm, and even more so compared to December 1995). Cross-sectoral coordination is either nonexistent or very weak and sporadic.

The popular movement has indeed become more autonomous since the imposition of Article 49.3, organizing daily actions all over France without the approval of the intersyndicale and using more offensive methods of struggle. The general assemblies seem more crowded these last few days. But it is still the intersyndicale that sets the tone and rhythm of the movement, and no one is currently — from near or far — in a position to contest this role.

One may object that, even in a revolutionary process, the exploited and oppressed are never mobilized in their entirety. But, to take only the case of France, it is estimated that in May–June 1968, there were up to 7.5 million strikers (and 10 million people mobilized) in a country that then had much fewer wage-earners (around 15 million, as opposed to more than 26 million today). Because of the large-scale blocking of the economy for several weeks, the large number of occupations of workplaces and the initial disarray of the political authorities, the situation then had prerevolutionary aspects (despite the limits of self-organization, which did not allow for the emergence of workers’ councils), and this gave tasks of a quite particular nature to activists convinced of the necessity of a revolutionary break (within the Communist Party and the far-left organizations).

Crying Betrayal

The difficulties of the movement are not all explained by the harmful role of the intersyndicale — far from it. On this point, we cannot be satisfied with a circular reasoning, which only tells us: if there is no self-organization, it is because it is the intersyndicale that directs the movement; and if the intersyndicale sets the tone, it is because there is no self-organization.

The hypothesis of treacherous leaderships preventing the movement’s transformation into a genuine revolutionary process had at least an objective basis in 1968, which was worth discussing. Back then, there were powerful workers’ unions, the main one of which — the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) — was led by a French Communist Party (PCF) with a broad working-class base and a large electoral audience (over 20 percent).

The PCF hindered the forms of self-organization that could have emerged in workplaces, in favor of a generally passive strike (where workers were called on not to intervene directly but rather to let the union officials lead the way). The party also refused to take the bold initiatives that might have made it possible to raise the question of power and of a government of rupture, especially during the few days or weeks when Charles de Gaulle’s government seemed at it’s wits’ end, stunned by the scale of the strike and by the determination of the student movement.

The situation is radically different today: the unions are much weakened, at least compared to what they were in 1968, and there is no longer a mass workers’ party. If we follow Chingo’s hypothesis of leaders reining in militancy, this should open the way to a general strike. The opposite is true, because it is in the sectors and enterprises where there are the most union members and where the combative unions continue to be present (generally CGT, Solidaires, and/or Fédération Syndicale Unitaire [FSU]) — because one cannot put all the unions, nor even all the “union leaderships” in the same bag — that the strongest disposition toward conflict is generally expressed.

Conversely, the sectors and enterprises without a union presence — the ones where the masses’ supposed availability for radical action is expressed in a manner unhindered by the “leadership of the workers’ movement” — are the ones where atomization, passivity, and a managerial pseudoconsensus reign and are even where the far-right vote flourishes.

We can see in the universities how much this argument is really valid: while the unions are very weak there, the activists present have had the greatest difficulty, at least so far, in making broad structures of self-organization emerge (most of the general assemblies had until recently mobilized only a few hundred students); and even in the universities that have recently known some rather mass ones (Tolbiac University, University of Toulouse-Mirail), the weak implantation of student organizations weakens the enlargement and the self-organization of the movement.

In other words, if the proletariat was already radicalized as a whole, and if the union leaderships constituted the only lock to be broken in order to start a revolutionary offensive, we would see the development of radical struggles and advanced forms of self-organization in the sectors where the union implantation is the weakest, i.e., where these leaderships’ grip is the most fragile. Nothing could be further from the current reality.

The idea of replacing the (reformist) union leadership with a truly revolutionary one has all the advantages of simplicity and all the disadvantages of oversimplification (if not of unrealism when the famous “alternative revolutionary leadership” is thought of as the product of the self-centered work of micro-organizations). Of course, one can think that a more combative policy from the intersyndicale — a clearer call to keep the strike going from one day to the next and to participate in the general assemblies, etc. — would have unblocked certain things. But we are touching on the limits of the framework of the current mobilization, which is also one of its strong points: the unity maintained by the trade union front, without which it is doubtful that the movement would have gained this magnitude and received this popular support.

In the present and future period, there instead seem to be rather different challenges for those activists who do not want to give up either a revolutionary perspective or work within the real movement. That means extending union implantation beyond the sectors currently mobilized, strengthening the “left-wings” within union organizations (“class struggle” unions or sensibilities), contributing to the rise of new radical currents or movements (outside of the traditional organizations but in articulation with, not in opposition to, them), deepening the politico-cultural work that takes us from hatred of Macron to criticism of the system as a whole, and finally to the necessity of an anti-capitalist rupture to build a completely different society.

Political Consciousness

One of the key points in grasping the current situation is the extremely varied political consciousness among workers and youth. The perspective of an anti-capitalist rupture and building another society has certainly progressed among the population in the sequence from 2016 to 2023, but it is not growing at the same speed as the visceral hatred toward the political authorities and, in particular, toward Macron. So much so that anti-Macron sentiment in general, and hostility to his pension counterreform in particular, surely can benefit the far right.

A fairly recent poll (at the end of February) cast Marine Le Pen as the main opponent of Macron’s counterreform project (slightly ahead of Jean-Luc Mélenchon), particularly among the popular classes, even though Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN, ex-Front National) does not propose a return to the previous sixty-year retirement age and is opposed to rolling strikes.

Another poll that has just been published confirms this by suggesting that the RN could be the political force that benefits most from the rejection of the pension counterreform. This is linked to deep-rooted causes and to an already long history of electoral implantation and ideological impregnation. But we have to take seriously the way in which the political and media elites have in recent years constantly lent respectability to the far right and trivialized its “ideas,” while also demonizing the Left and France Insoumise in particular.

Partial shifts have taken place in some movements, but they only very partially affect the classes and class fractions that constitute their center of gravity. The Yellow Vests movement was thus the scene of a process of clarification and political radicalization; however, this has only permeated a limited fringe of the working classes, including within those segments that were the most favorable to the movement, in rural or semirural areas as well as in small towns.

This even truer given that there is a big gap between passive sympathy toward a movement (which can be extremely broad, as in the current case, and to a lesser degree at the beginning of the Yellow Vests) and actual participation (especially when this participation stops at going along to one or more demonstrations, whose politicizing effect is much less than a strike, and even more so when the latter lasts and relies on large-scale participation in general assemblies).

One of the serious problems facing the social and political left, therefore, is that of managing to maintain and deepen the movement where it has developed, while extending it to sectors or elements of the youth where the level of class consciousness — marked by collectively organizing, in particular in unions, and mobilizing for one’s interests, on the basis of a more or less clear and coherent representation of these interests — is at a much lower level.

In these last sectors and in these large parts of the population, the stakes are far from grandiose proclamations on the “prerevolutionary moment”: succeeding in drawing workers en masse toward a first day of strike and demonstration, getting them to participate in a general assembly to decide collectively on the means of action, etc. In this perspective, the mechanical and abstract slogan of denouncing “treacherous leaderships” is not only a false turn, but most often itself an obstacle.

Political Outcome

The question of the political outcome of the movement is obviously raised. Social mobilizations — no matter how massive and radical they may be — do not spontaneously generate political perspectives, especially when they willingly dodge the question of power and the necessary political confrontation (what Daniel Bensaïd called the “social illusion”).

This is all the truer in the present case where the movement has thus far been characterized by a low level of self-organization and coordination. However, this is not to say that social movements should be content with a subordinate role vis-à-vis political forces, which alone would be able to put forward perspectives. It is more in the framework of a dialectic of collaboration-confrontation between the social movement and the Left, of a unity that does not prevent the most open debate on orientations and perspectives, that we must imagine a political proposal of rupture.

Let’s start by saying how much the perspective of a “joint initiative referendum” on the pension reform — defended in particular by the PCF — falls well short of the possibilities opened up by the movement. It does not respond in any way to the imperative for the Left to advance a solution to the political crisis. It would, moreover, demand the collection of 4.8 million signatures, which would demand a great deal of militant work for nine months.

This would divert energies to a purely petitionary terrain, where what is now needed is to extend the mobilization — as Macron’s camp is already announcing new deadly projects (not only Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin’s law but also a law on labor and employment). Moreover, even if the 4.8 million signatures were collected, the proposal for a referendum would still have to be examined by both houses of parliament within six months. The situation will have largely changed by then, perhaps to the movement’s disadvantage, and such a proposal in no way helps to push the advantages that the mobilization has currently: a strike rooted in several key sectors, a multifaceted mobilization that has now become hard to control, and a public opinion that is largely won to its side.

Sometimes we see the idea that this movement should be a “May ’68 that goes all the way.” The slogan is attractive, especially because May ’68 remains a positive (though undoubtedly nonspecific) reference for large sections of the population — especially those who are currently mobilized. As mentioned above, however, it is not certain that the analogy with May ’68 is functional here, beyond the agitational effects that a slogan can have. But especially the idea of “all the way” seems unclear. If this means all the hopes of emancipation and rupture with capitalism raised by the May–June ’68 movement, then that is self-evidently desirable. But this does not answer the immediate strategic questions facing the movement and the Left.

With the politicization of the struggle and the enormous distrust of the political authorities, only a proposal combining the immediate withdrawal of the counterreform, the dissolution of the National Assembly, and the holding of new elections seems to be up to the present moment, without falling into mere verbal maximalism or fetishizing past formulas. The political rupture obviously does not come down to the electoral scene. Yet, as Bensaïd reminded us: “It is quite obvious, even more so in countries with a more than century-long parliamentary tradition, where the principle of universal suffrage is solidly established, that one cannot imagine a revolutionary process other than as a transfer of legitimacy giving preponderance to ‘socialism from below,’ but with a mutual connection with representative forms” (emphasis added).

Doubtless, it is necessary to add to these slogans the fight for a left-wing government oriented toward rupture. This demands specifying elements of program, in particular around central, immediate issues for the various parts of the popular classes and wage earners: retirement at sixty with full pay for all (at fifty-five for physically demanding jobs), immediate increase in wages and indexation to inflation (sliding scale of wages), the freezing of prices and rents, proper employment for precarious workers in the public sector and passage to permanent contracts in the private sector, proactive measures against systemic gender and racial discrimination in employment, wages, and pensions, massive recruitment in the public service, immediate renationalization of key public services and goods (transport, energy, health, highways, etc.), as well as ecological planning.

The question would necessarily arise of the relationship of social movements and in particular of the trade unions — especially those where a class-struggle unionism continues to exist: the CGT, Solidaires, and the FSU — with such a government, generally taking forward their demands. Any left-wing government with a program of rupture would find itself under enormous pressure from the ruling class (blackmail on investment, pressure from the European institutions, etc.).

Only a vast popular mobilization would make it possible to counterbalance and impose the proposals mentioned above, within the framework of a social confrontation whose dynamic is fundamentally anti-capitalist, insofar as it inevitably leads to asking the question of the power of capital over the whole of society, over our lives and over the environment, and thus of the private property of the means of production, exchange, and communication.

In case of new elections, a new political battle would get underway. But a victory for the movement against the counterreform of pensions would put the left-wing alliance New Ecological and Social Popular Union (NUPES) — in particular the dominant force within it, doubtless the most combative against Macron and his project, i.e., France Insoumise — in a position of strength. This does not mean an easy ride to success; social mobilizations never have any automatic effect on electoral power dynamics (think of May–June ’68, which was followed only a few weeks later by the election of the most right-wing parliament of the Fifth Republic’s history).

Moreover, we have noted above that Le Pen’s party currently seems to be benefiting most from the broad popular rejection of the counterreform, for deep reasons that the real parliamentary practices of the far right are not enough to counterbalance. Let us note, however, that the polls currently being conducted are made under the defeatist assumption (widely accepted by respondents at this stage) that Macron will not back down. If the movement did prove victorious, the hypothesis of a political-electoral surge by the Left would not be unrealistic, even if there is nothing to indicate that it would purely cancel out that of the far right, given the banalization of this latter in the media landscape and the political field.

The mobilization has undeniably created a new situation and the possibility of a change of path, in the sense of a dynamic of rupture with the established order. It is not that everything is easily within reach. Yet openings that seemed out of the question just a few months ago are today in view. There will be no truce in the next days and weeks of struggle; we have to push back not only the political authorities, but also the limits of the possible.