France: A wave of strikes and demonstrations

Fuel shortages, long queues and incidents at service stations, Macron’s intimation of oil refinery workers in struggle, the social cauldron in France accumulates pressure. In addition to the conflict there are, among other protests, a mobilization this Sunday, October 16 against expensive life and a national march with a strike by the railway workers on Tuesday 18, both in Paris. It’s the class struggle, they say…

Pablo Vasco

The climate of strikes is spreading across the country like an oil spill. Several thousand refinery workers from Exxon Mobil (Esso) and TotalEnergies have been on strike for a wage increase for more than three weeks and for two weeks respectively. President Emmanuel Macron accused them of depriving supplies and taking the population “hostage,” while his prime minister Élisabeth Borne launched a direct attack on Tuesday the 11th against the constitutional right to strike: she initiated the intimation procedure to force workers to reestablish a minimum service and thus unblock the operation of the Exxon deposits of Fos-sur-Mer and Notre-Dame-de-Gravenchon.

The government is sending notices to other refineries. In case of refusal to comply, workers are exposed to a prison sentence of six months and a fine of 10,000 euros. At the time of closing this article, a partial release has been agreed in Fos-sur-Mer but the Notre-Dame-de-Gravenchon depot remains blocked. By the way, if the conflict worsens, the government is considering resorting to police repression.

Faced with the workers’ demand, which is not for one-time bonuses but for a 10% wage increase, since annual inflation is expected to be around that figure, the employers of the multinational Total offer no more than a meager 6%. The CFDT and CGC unions, opposed to the strike, agreed to an average 7% raise for 2023 and a premium, while the CGT has not accepted so far. Total obtained 13,600 million euros of net profits last year, another more than 10,000 million in the first half of this year “thanks” to the war in Ukraine, and is preparing to transfer 2,600 million to its shareholders. Last year, Patrick Pouyanné, its president-general manager (PDG), increased his salary by 52%. Such a privilege caused so much indignation that legislator Patrick Vignal (Renaissance, Macronist) accused him of “taking the political class for idiots” and legislator Hadrien Clouet (NUPES, reformist) said that “he is the only person in the country who should be intimated.”

The government’s threats fail to intimidate the strikers, but instead generate signs of solidarity from other union sectors. Numerous unions have announced that they will go on strike if sanctions are applied, such as the CGT Federation of Mines and Energy and its chemical counterpart. And the employees of the Argedis service stations, a subsidiary of the Total Group, have joined the strike since Tuesday the 11th.

Likewise, this Sunday the 16th, the LFI-NUPES led by Mélenchon calls for a demonstration “against expensive life and climate inaction,” whose demands are: an increase in wages and social assistance, taxes on super-profits, no increase in the retirement age, youth autonomy subsidy, freezing of electricity rates and massive investments in energy and ecological measures. However, it is not an anti-capitalist program at heart, they are just emergency demands. The problem is that NUPES focuses on electoral and parliamentary action instead of promoting a real plan of struggle together with militant unions and social movements. For example, on the tax on superprofits, they propose to call a referendum, whose approval procedures in Parliament, regulation and subsequent call could take almost two years… until the next elections.

In turn, in the nuclear energy sector -which in France provides more than 70% of total energy- there were also partial stoppages in Gravelines, the country’s main plant, and in other plants. And organized with important rank-and-file assemblies in railway and bus stations and depots in Paris and other cities, the strike on Tuesday the 18th for a wage increase could become a national day of action for wages and in repudiation of the injunctions against the oil companies. On the same 18th, there will be a strike and march to the Ministry of Education of the teachers of the professional (technical) schools, against the government reform that seeks to subordinate them to the interests of the capitalist market.

Already the national day of strikes and marches on September 29, though partial, showed in the streets the strong will of the working class, youth and people’s struggle. In the midst of growing social conflict, unfortunately the main Trotskyist parties are at the rear of the situation. Lutte Ouvrière speaks of “a situation of regression and growth of the extreme right,” while the NPA in its December congress intends to expel militant internal tendencies and its spokesman Philippe Poutou proposes that the party be the “combat” wing of the institutionalist left of LFI-NUPES. In this context, the ISL and our militants in France maintain that the regrouping of the consistent forces of the extreme left in the same political space, based on a revolutionary socialist program of rupture with capitalism, is the challenge that remains open.