Below, we have translated a longer interview about the historical context of the current pension reform strikes in France. This interview can help us sharpen our own debate about the ‘strike wave’ in the UK. The two interviewed comrades ask strategic questions regarding the relation between strikes in the so-called ‘essential’ sectors and the wider world of precarious labour, partly represented by the waged parts of the Yellow Vest movement. They also express the justified hope that the struggle around the pension issue can pose wider political questions about the conditions of wage work today, in particular against the backdrop of the pandemic, during which millions made the experience of a temporary interruption to the normal work routine.
The comrades are part of the left Trotskyite milieu around Revolution Permanente (RP), which expresses itself in a certain tautological circle when they explain the limitations of the movement with the absence of a leading political party of the class. Instead, we think we have to dig deeper and see whether the experiences of struggle themselves raise the question of how to generalise the struggle politically, how to reappropriate productive capacities and how to organise the military confrontation with state power. Perhaps time to re-read some of our thoughts on the role of a working class program.
In the coming weeks we will try and get more first-hand accounts from comrades on the ground. So far we have heard about interesting local events, such as nuclear power workers who have reduced the energy output for the wider industry, energy workers who have provided free energy to schools and hospitals while cutting energy supplies to Amazon or politicians’ offices, larger general assemblies of social workers in Montpellier and joint blockades by truck drivers and yellow vests of central industrial sites, such as the Peugeot Sochaux automobile plant. Watch this space!
In terms of translation, the French comrades use the term ‘social movement’ a lot, which in English has a more ‘political’ connotation, e.g. of environmentalist or ‘rights-based’ movements, rather than ‘popular’ mobilisations, such as the Yellow Vests. They also speak about the ‘radicalisation’ of the bourgeoisie in France, which in English might indicate more of a left-wing turn, while the French comrades mean that the bourgeoisie defends their privileges and power more uncompromisingly against the working class.
On the eve of the strikes on the 7th of March, Juan Chingo and Romaric Godin look at the configuration of the current confrontation, its potential and weaknesses, but also at several strategic problems posed by the situation.
One is a journalist in the economics department of Mediapart and author of ‘La Guerre sociale en France’. The other is an editor at Révolution Permanente, author of ‘Gilets jaunes, le soulèvement’ and a member of Révolution Permanente’s leadership. Both have been closely following the political situation and class struggle in France in recent years.
RP Dimanche: What explains Macron’s stubbornness when it comes to this pension reform? Should we see it as the ‘going to the bitter end’ of a president who knows that he cannot be re-elected anyway, or are there more structural reasons?
Romaric Godin: I am not sure that the fact that he is not running for re-election is a determining factor. What is at stake is what he has built over the past six years, which goes beyond him as a person at the head of the Elysée Palace. For my part, I see two issues.
The first is economic. In my book ‘La guerre sociale en France’, I try to explain precisely why there has been a hardening of social movements since 2010. In 1986 and 1995, there were setbacks for the government.  The pension reform in 2003 was relatively moderate. In 2010, the social movement was very similar to the one today, with 1.3 million people in the streets and blockades in transport – but the Fillon-Sarkozy government forced their project through. Between 1995 and 2010, what was at stake was an evolution of French capitalism.
If we study the development of neoliberalism in France, we can distinguish two stages in its evolution. From 1983 onwards, known as the ‘austerity turn’, we had reforms that focused on the financial sphere and on privatisation, but which did not directly affect the world of work. From 2010 onwards, the attack on the world of work was direct, through pension reforms that were being pushed through, and through labour market reforms in 2015, 2016 and 2017. This was done despite strong social mobilisation with massive demonstrations and transport blockades. After the crisis of 2008, French and global capitalism are entering a structural crisis. For those who defend the capitalist camp, it is more difficult to allow concessions. Let’s be clear: the capitalists have not made any fundamental retreats when confronted with workers’ mobilisations in the previous decades! But when faced with a movement, they found different ways of acting to support the rate of profit, which for fifty years has been under very strong negative pressure linked to the structural fall in productivity.
The fall in productivity gains over the last fifty years is a fact. Faced with this type of situation, capitalists do not have unlimited solutions. Firstly, there is fictitious capital, financialisation and debt, but the system itself reminded us in 2008 that it could not go any further. The growth of the financial sphere is independent from the productive sphere and depends on monetary policies: this is an additional pressure on capital. There was also globalisation, which is now running out of steam. China is trying to get out of the role that the international division of labour gave it in the 1980s and 1990s, and there are also the difficulties linked to Covid. Increasing working hours is the third solution: it can be an increase in daily working hours, an increase in lifetime working hours, an increase in the employment rate etc. All this affects the structure and regulation of the French labour market and it is this that was under attack in 1993, with the Balladur reform. But it’s especially from 2010 onwards that things are getting tough and that they no longer want to make any concessions to the social movement.
Secondly, why did the governments of 1986 and 1995 have more political scope to compromise and accept defeats in the face of the social movement? Even if it was largely fictitious, the fact that right-wing and left-wing parties were in electoral competition exerted pressure on the government in place and forced them to consider the social movement as a threat to a future re-election- even if, most of the time, these concessions did not prevent electoral defeats.
Today, what gives the Macron government its confidence after fifteen years of crises and when the country is exhausted? In the camp of capital, which is increasingly unified politically, there is the idea, to use Edouard Philippe’s words, that whatever reform they want to get through, “it’s going to pass”. And why will it pass? Because at every election, the face-off with the extreme right leads to the ‘defence of democracy’ being brandished against it. The camp of capital prevails by default, because they can instrumentalise the principle of the lesser evil. This doesn’t explain 2010, but it does change the situation in 1986, 1995 and 2003: the risk of a change in government, admittedly fictitious, put the position of the people on top at stake. This is no longer the case.
Today, when you are in the opposition, you can easily recycle yourself into a centrist majority, which is, to put it simply, Macronism. It is not a coincidence that Olivier Dussopt, Minister of Labour,  is the one who is carrying the pension reform project. He comes from a camp that was heavily defeated in 2012 and he recycled himself into the camp of victory. This sort of centrality gives the assurance that it will always pass, while playing with the risk, which is no longer minor, that the extreme right will come to power. One of the novelties is that they use the social movement to demonise everything to the left of Olivier Dussopt – it’s quite broad. Even the most reformist left-wing has abandoned the so-called ‘republican field’ , which allows the Macronists to come face to face with the far right. This is the perfect situation for them. Every five years, all they have to do is present themselves for a fortnight as a republican bulwark and the affair goes on like that ad infinitum. Of course, there is a risk that it will go wrong, but that is their strategy.
Juan Chingo: I share Romaric’s structural explanation. This is also my analysis. With the crisis of 2008 we are witnessing a radicalisation of the bourgeois class in France. Whereas Chiraquism was synonymous with standing still and the absence of reforms for the most greedy sectors of the bourgeoisie, we can consider that the first moment of this economic rupture and of the turn towards a more Bonapartist regime was Nicolas Sarkozy. This is what Stathis Kouvelakis shows in his book ‘La France en révolte, mouvements sociaux et cycles politiques’. This is where the rupture was created.
Despite this radicalisation of the bourgeoisie, it should be noted that it has still not managed to impose its neoliberal plan in its entirety. The French bourgeoisie would like more, and sees itself as lagging behind the other imperialist countries, especially Germany. In the context of a Bonapartist regime, it is no coincidence that one of Nicolas Sarkozy’s first measures was to ‘regulate’ the right to strike with the minimum service law. At the time of Chirac, in addition to the fact that there was still a left/right alternation in government, the potential of social disputes to go beyond their usual limitations that we saw at work in 1995 or in 2006 with the CPE , acted as a sort of reminder of the trauma of 1968. With the hardening of its camp, the bourgeoisie is not only taking the risk of the extreme right, but also that of greater violence between the classes. It’s no coincidence that there were the Yellow Vests, their radicalisation and repression. If we look at 1968, there was still a fear of ‘the street’. This was no longer the case in 2003, because the CFDT trade union stopped the movement. This defeat cost the teachers a lot, and they still talk about it. It’s fascinating to see that when Chirac died, everyone mourned this ‘sympathetic figure’ of French capitalism. Even if he was corrupt and openly neoliberal, he still tended to keep social conflicts from getting out of hand. With Sarkozy, the neoliberal turn is harder and more thorough. Raymond Soubie’s  advice to Macron, based on his successful experience in 2010, is clear: you have to stand up to the street.
As far as the current crisis is concerned, it is taking place in an international context of greater competition that is putting French capitalism in difficulty. In this respect, I think that the war in Ukraine also plays a role in the hardening of the French bourgeoisie. Contrary to a previous period when there was the illusion of a peaceful development between imperialist powers, the increase in the defence budget shows that this is no longer the case. This can be seen everywhere in Europe, including Germany, and it increases the pressure on France. Thus, we are heading towards a capitalism that reinforces the already strong militarisation in France, as shown for example by the project of compulsory SNU, a national military service. 
The economic and geopolitical context is changing: this is obviously present in the strategic thinking of the State, including from a financial point of view (it should be remembered that France is a country with a lot of debt). France’s international status is linked to the question of whether or not it will reform. At a time of increased competition with Germany, which has recently also taken a military turn, the French bourgeoisie is destabilised internationally. These elements are important because they show that the radicalisation of Macronism is not just an ideological issue. If it were, then there would be a possible compromise. Moreover, the trade union leaders think that it is still possible to negotiate in depth on an issue like pensions, which is what justifies their pressure strategy from their point of view. For my part, and I think that on this point we agree, I consider that the radicalisation of power has structural causes and that we must draw the consequences from a strategic point of view.
Romaric Godin: Yes, if power is radicalised, it’s not because we have a madman at its head. That’s not the question. You have to know why the government is radicalised and why it refuses any form of compromise or defeat. That’s the difference with 1986 and 1995: at that time in France’s economic and social history, compromises were still possible.
In your respective articles, you both talk about a strategic impasse to characterise where the movement is now. Can you explain what you mean by this? And what do you think differentiates the current movement from the last experiences of the class struggle?
Juan Chingo: If we zoom out, we have to remember that, since 1995, France has always been in the vanguard of resistance to the neoliberal Thatcherite and Reaganite offensive. To this specificity of the French class struggle, we must add the recent radicalisation of the bourgeoisie that we have just mentioned and that makes the new cycle of class struggles opened by 2016 particularly interesting. From 2016 to today, there has been a very interesting combination of different forms and instruments of class struggle in France, which transforms it into a laboratory of class struggle, as it was in the 19th century and later. We can thus briefly trace the stages of this new cycle to understand how we arrive at the current situation:
– In 2016 we see the development of the ‘cortèges de tête’ (more militant leading block) and a feeling of being fed up with the ‘A to B’ marches from Bastille-Nation. Nuit Debout  expresses a desire “not to go home” and we see a kind of diffuse anti-capitalism taking shape. The rank-and-file railway union militant and PR member Anasse Kazib  often talks about how he became radicalised at that time, for example.
– In 2018, it’s the great battle of the railways. I remember that there was an enormous energy and determination among the railway workers, but the ‘go slow’ – not a continuous strike – a strategy proposed by the union leaderships and carried by Laurent Brun of the CGT Cheminots – led to defeat.
– In 2018-2019 we witnessed the uprising of the Yellow Vests. It was not a majority movement and the main battalions of the labour movement, the CGT and CFDT, positioned themselves against this mobilisation to the point of supporting the state against the Yellow Vests. The Yellow Vests movement was a spontaneous and unframed movement. The state responded to it in an ultra-violent manner, which led to a radicalisation of the Gilets Jaunes, not only in their political consciousness but also in their methods of action. This spectre is still present today, not only for the masses but also for the power that was seriously afraid of this uprising, to use the term in the title of my book.
– In 2019 we can see some evidence of gilet-jaunisation’ (meaning, an influence of the yellow vest movement) of the working class: for example at the RATP (public transport in Paris region). It should be remembered that it was the rank and file of the RATP that imposed the 5th of December 2019 as the beginning of a permanent strike that lasted several weeks. In this winter 2019-2020 pension battle, we saw some elements of self-organisation such as the RATP/SNCF coordination, which notably allowed the movement to spend the Christmas holidays against the ‘truce’ defended by the union leaderships. But in spite of an historic ‘grève reconductible’ (strike whose continuation is voted for by strikers, without having to serve a new strike notice to the employer) – historic in terms of its duration and its massiveness in the transport sectors – the movement could not be generalised to other significant sectors.
– More recently, we have seen a series of strikes over wages. These phenomena are important, continue to exist and could be mixed with the ongoing pension battle.
By tracing the thread of this cycle of struggles in this way, we highlight a process of sedimentation and construction of a new working class subjectivity, at least as far as the methods of struggle are concerned. This is of enormous significance for understanding the determination that exists today and the awareness that, in order to win, we will have to ‘go for it’. The current mass movement draws in a more or less conscious manner from the lessons of the movements of recent years. Moreover, it’s interesting to note that even if the government remains intransigent after four historic days of mobilisation, there is no demoralisation expressed, but rather the awareness that we have to crank it up a notch. And from this point of view, the 7th of March is developing to be a historic day.
The article you wrote on Mediapart is interesting from this point of view because it shows that the perspective of the general strike is not only the subject of a discussion between intellectuals or between journalists, but that it emanates first of all from the movement itself. In a tortuous way and despite the weakness of the revolutionary left, the mass movement draws lessons from the experiences of struggles of the last years. This is surprising and full of potential. After the 7th of March, we’ll see if the movement takes another step forward and if a new dynamic is set in motion.
Romaric Godin: I find it interesting to underline this evolution of mass movements, as you do. Regarding the novelty of this movement compared to past experiences, I think that the first element is the radicalisation of power, as we said. In 2010 there were big demonstrations, but there was not sufficient strength, it didn’t move, the reform passed and the movement stopped. Now we feel that there is something a bit different. We can imagine that we are still hoping for a form of compromise as long as the reform has not been adopted by Parliament. But we can see that there is a natural hardening after a phase of massive mobilisation. Moreover, I believe that we should not belittle this first phase which was undoubtedly necessary to take note of the mobilisation of opinion and to communicate this general opposition. Now, the feeling we have is that people have come to the conclusion that it wasn’t enough, and that something else had to be done. That’s something quite new which fits in with what you’re saying Juan, that since 2016 we’ve been in this movement of mass struggle, as Rosa Luxemburg would say.
One of the interesting points is the organisation of the social movement, i.e. the unions. They are the ones who have called for these mobilisations and the social movement responds to these calls. And on this level, the great novelty is this very strong trade union unity. Until now, when there was trade union unity, it wasn’t very clear. Now we can see that unions like the CFDT, but also the CGC, the CFTC, are taking part in the social movement and defend themselves, a form of hardening of their stance. We can interpret their line in different ways, and consider, for example, that they don’t have a choice, because if they didn’t do it, they would be overrun by their base. From this point of view, we can’t help but remember what happened during the last Christmas holidays: a wildcat strike by SNCF controllers that overwhelmed the trade unions, and that the latter are bearing in mind.
In other words, there is a dynamic specific to this movement, which means that the trade union organisations cannot just abandon it, but are forced to go further. This is important enough to be noticed. I’m not sure that the leadership of the CFDT agreed to call for the blocking of the country at the beginning of the movement, but it was forced to do so by the internal dynamics of the movement. And as the authorities won’t compromise on anything, if you want to make them give in, you have to go up a notch. That doesn’t predetermine what will happen in the end, but it’s a particularity of this movement. And this is also understandable in the light of what you said, particularly with regard to the Yellow Vests movement. It wasn’t a movement about the organisation of work, about the wage earner, but it marked a point in the class struggle in France by the repression it underwent, by its organisation, by the fact that people became politicised in the movement, by the fact that this movement had its own dynamic and that scared the authorities. The social movement is always a somewhat complex alchemy: people are marked by all the defeats of the past but at the same time the experience of the Yellow Vests shows that something is possible if we raise our voices.
The last point of specificity of the movement concerns the question of work. In 2019, it was against a broader pension reform, in some ways almost more violent than the current project. The difference today is that with two more years for the retirement age, people say: “Why?” This immediately leads to a reflection of the type: “Why am I working, what is the meaning of my work, how can I continue to work, how am I going to do it, I am suffering at the moment at my job, will I be able to bear it for two more years?” And, immediately, there is a contagion that takes place. This reform sets off a fire by asking a question about the global nature of paid work, which had completely disappeared. And behind this question, if we push it a bit, it’s “how do we produce, why, for whom?” And behind that, other questions arise. The climate crisis, for example, is also a question of production. So this movement has the capacity to lead a much broader critique than a simple defensive movement against an attack on the welfare state. What I find interesting today is this potential for broadening the movement. This alchemy can take place with all the surprises that social movements can hold.
Juan Chingo: In fact, it’s important to see that the radicalisation of the bourgeoisie and of the authorities is being met by a radicalisation of the demonstrators. To pick up on what you said about the unions: it’s certainly not the first time that the CFDT has been in an ‘intersyndicale’ (cross-union mobilisation or structure), but what’s new is its centrality and its role as a sort of ‘kingmaker’. This is revealing of the sequence: the fact that a character like Laurent Berger, the general secretary of the CFDT, who is inclined to social dialogue, could be obliged to call for France to be shut down, even for only 24 hours, says something about the situation. We have to take this situation seriously, especially with regard to certain sectors of workers which have fought in the past and which can today be legitimately distrustful. I’m thinking of the railway workers, the RATP or the refinery workers, for example, who have been at the forefront of movements in recent years. The positive side is that they don’t want to be the only ones to go on strike. The negative side is that you have to have the determination to go. But the fact is that Berger and the Intersyndicale are obliged to call for paralysis, obliged from above because of the radicalisation of Macron and the bourgeoisie, but also obliged from below, by the pressure of the mass movement. This is the strongest point and at the same time the weakest point of the movement. The fact is that a general strike requires, more than any other form of class struggle, a clear and determined leadership, or, to put it simply, a revolutionary leadership. For the moment there is no trace of such a leadership in the French working class, and such a leadership will not be formed overnight.
After the 7th of March there will be strong pressure from the Intersyndicale, and in particular from Berger and the most conciliatory sectors, to slow down the current dynamic, which is to politicise the issue of the reform beyond its immediate formal boundaries. They will push the movement not to broaden the demands, but to confine itself to the demand of withdrawing the reform. The challenge will be to see if it is possible to overcome this situation. If we go back to Luxemburg, the general strike cannot be decreed. It’s a historical moment and an explosion of the mass movement which doesn’t wait for anyone. In this sense, the situation and the subjectivity suggest that we could go towards a mass strike. But we have to see that there are elements that work against this dynamic. As the social movement is more constituted, as civil society plays a more important role, the bureaucracy of the trade union organisations, despite the neoliberal offensive and the crisis of the intermediary bodies, can be an obstacle to this dynamic.
Can you elaborate on what you mean by the ‘politicisation’ of the current movement? And what conclusion do you draw from this from a strategic point of view?
Juan Chingo: This is indeed a specificity of the current movement. In the first article I wrote with Paul Morao on the movement, I underlined this character of the movement that is more political than protesting, which I believe offers great potential.
One of the limits of the 2019-2020 pensions battle was the difficulty of the mobilised sectors – that managed to hold the strike for almost two months – to broaden the fight to those who were not directly impacted by the abolition of the pension statutes. This is in fact a crucial question, which a certain number of movements have come up against until now: how to build, from the strategic sectors, a wider front in terms of demands and mobilised sectors. It’s no coincidence that the Yellow Vests had lists of grievances, for example.
Today, when we talk to the most precarious sectors, we realise that these workers are against the increase in the retirement age, but they also talk about inflation, poverty wages, working conditions, etc. These issues are part and parcel of what many sectors within the working class are discussing. In this respect, it is interesting to see what political treatment is given to them by the Intersyndicale. The union leaders of the Intersyndicale use inflation as a pretext to say that the poorest sectors can’t strike, and instead they propose demonstrations on Saturdays. I think that this strategy is a mistake and that the question should rather be how to broaden the demands and prepare for a mass strike, by reaching out to everyone. If the current movement broadened to the question of wages, the proletarian front would be stronger. Why confine yourself to the question of reform, and not take up the question of pay slips, which is the subject of many current wage conflicts? We can see that this dynamic of broadening the movement exists and that some people are preparing to go on strike on the 7th of March by demanding retirement at 60 for all, 55 for the hardest jobs, and by adding sectoral demands on wages. This is, for example, what the refuse collectors of Sète or the workers of Roissy airport are saying.
For the movement to get out of a defensive position requires posing a plan of struggle and broader demands to unify the class. This is what the union leaderships want to avoid at all costs. Contrary to what Berger says, I think that the most impoverished sectors of our class can go on strike provided that they see something at stake and common perspectives. If they see that there is even the beginning of a dynamic to change the situation, they could enter the battle, including with the method of the strike. The low-paid, the hard-working are not going to get involved in timid movements, but they can enter into a big fight and if they see a determination to go for real. The strategic logic that I defend is therefore the opposite of that advocated by Berger and the Intersyndicale.
Romaric Godin: Indeed, this politicisation is already there. I think that today the question is not really limited to this reform, but how this movement will evolve and what we will do with it afterwards. From this point of view, I tend to agree with you: the trade unions, for one reason or another – because some want to maintain trade union unity, because others are attached to the separation between the social movement and politics – are in a logic of non-politicisation. They concentrate on the pension reform alone. But they will have to be held accountable. If the demand remains that the reform be withdrawn and the reform is not withdrawn, they will have to explain how with such a strong social movement, with a dynamic that is widening, as you just explained, how with a movement that is mixed with the memories of the Yellow Vests, coupled with that of wages, how with all that, we get nothing. They are the ones who lead this strategy. So at some point, the balance sheet should be drawn.
The difficulty of the current movement, unlike other great moments in the history of the workers’ movement, is that there is no party to organise the movement, to lead the masses politically, to force its expansion. In a sense, the social movement is left to itself, which can be a weakness. We know that we won’t get the withdrawal of this reform by simply demanding the withdrawal of this reform. The bourgeoisie is so radicalised that it won’t give in because there will be a loss of 0.2 points of GDP in the first quarter of 2023. That’s not how it happens, or that’s not how it happens anymore. The stakes are so high that the bourgeoisie is ready to lose these 0.2 points of GDP, even 0.3 or 0.5. Because there’s a higher stake: that of breaking down all forms of resistance and disciplining the world of work and, behind that, to gain much more and maintain their power. That’s what we have to identify, and I think that today a growing number of people are starting to do so.
But if we are faced with a power issue, it’s because we are faced with a political issue. The Intersyndicale is going to find itself faced with this contradiction: we fight on a political issue without wanting to politicise the movement. So either we accept defeat, because we don’t want to go there, or we play the game, which doesn’t mean that we can’t lose, but in any case that we can win, but above all that we can build something. The big difficulty is that this construction of the social movement must be done within the social movement itself. And we’ve come a long way: many of those who are ready to go on strike on the 7th of March were not in the previous social movements, or had come out disillusioned. Some may have believed in François Hollande, Emmanuel Macron, or even Nicolas Sarkozy. These people can learn on the ground and in the struggle, and it is in this sense that the movement has a lot of potential. But we have to give this struggle a place. Because if there is just one day on the 7th of March, it will be limited. The challenge is to keep it going.
Both of you defend the general strike as a strategic hypothesis for winning. How does this perspective differ from proposals such as the ’’renewable strike’ (grève reconductible) or calls for “blocking the economy”?
Romaric Godin: I think we need to put an end to the logic of strikes by proxy, i.e. a logic where it’s up to the blocking sectors to strike while the others support them, watch them on TV or pay into their strike fund. Our starting point is that of a population that starts from almost nothing in terms of the feeling of demands before this reform and where everything has to be built. The worst pitfall would be to keep this part of the workforce in a passive position where they would just watch others strike for them. We support the strikers in the opinion polls, but at some point, ‘they piss us off’: because we have no electricity, no petrol, no trains, we can’t go on holiday or take the metro. That’s the strategy of the old world.
Now the question is: how do we build this subjectivity that Juan talks about, a large scale social movement that is not purely defensive? It’s by getting out of passivity, by being an actor in the social movement and the strike and by thinking about what each of us does on a daily basis. We can denigrate part of the workforce, thinking that they are ‘bullshit jobs’ that serve no purpose. Maybe, but these jobs have a value-producing function in the current capitalist system. If people stop working, they will think about this: what is their function in the global economy? So we realise that it’s not just the refinery or railway workers who have weight in the economy. Especially since the so-called essential sectors have an economic impact that can be overcome by the system. So we have to broaden the movement within the workforce, to broaden the demands. We can’t afford the luxury of a strike by substitution.
What puts the system in danger is the question of power, not money. This is something we often tell ourselves stories in the social movement. We ourselves are in this kind of economic fetishism which consists of saying: “we’re going to stop the economy, and everything will stop”. But in March 2020, we stopped the economy, and nothing stopped. And when it started up again, everything started up again as before. Workers’ power is only a reality if it becomes effective, and therefore free of the power of capital. Otherwise, we remain producers alienated from our own production. In doing so, we move towards fundamental questions: the separation between the producers and their product. What does a strike allow? It allows a reflection on the fundamental question of this separation.
This movement is great because it allows us to respond to the radicalism of the other side. I think that at the beginning of our discussion, you pointed to this very well: the general strike, the mass strike, is not the result of a whim. It starts from an objective reality, from a general discontent. The objective conditions of this social movement today have interesting potentialities for the construction of something wider. Maybe this potential will not be realised in the current movement. In that case, the current movement can be a first stepping stone for the future. But only on the condition that we stop accepting this strategy of passivity, that was the strategy of previous social movements.
Juan Chingo: I agree with you that we shouldn’t have a binary vision of the ‘all or nothing’ type. With the current direction of the movement, we can’t bet on the fact that we’re going to solve the contradictions of the mass movement at once. But even in the context of a defeat of the demands, this movement can play a role for the future, and that’s where we can play a role – I’m speaking from my position as a militant in a revolutionary political organisation. We can play a role in the sense of developing the most determined elements of subjectivity as much as possible, so that they become concrete, even if this is only done in a few places. For example, organising real general assemblies on the 7th of March, so that the workers take over the strike and take back the decisions from the union leaders. This can be a determining factor, especially as the lack of self-organisation is one of the main weaknesses of the movement.
It’s also for these reasons that I’m against the perspectives of ‘strike by proxy’: in reality, the day when these impoverished sectors start moving, that is to say those who are most affected, oppressed by the capitalist system, then the political and even potentially revolutionary energy of the movement will necessarily be multiplied tenfold, by their rage and their creativity. This is a strategic problem for this strike, but also for thinking about the revolution in France. The very fact of the neoliberal reforms and the hardening of the last thirty years means we have to ‘decompartmentalise’ our approach. Today, railway workers represent, for example, 10% of freight transport. From this point of view, it’s impossible to blockade the country without addressing the truckers. Similarly, we talk a lot about the refinery workers, about their strategic role, which is real, but this is not enough, neither from a political point of view, nor from a purely tactical and pragmatic point of view, if we really want to block the economy. Certain key sectors, moreover, such as the telecoms and the post office, which played key roles in 1995, are conspicuous by their absence today. It is a challenge to involve them again.
For all these reasons, the ‘tactic’ of the strike by proxy is dangerous for the future of the movement, because not only is it insufficient to really block the country, insofar as it is satisfied with the so-called ‘traditional’ sectors and ignores others, but it is also insufficient in the perspective of mobilising en masse and above all in an explosive way. To change the routine dynamics of the unions, we have to go and find new battalions of the working class, and in particular those who are the most exploited, thus going against the watchwords of the union leaderships. There is a stake for the most concentrated sectors of the proletariat to try to create links with these sectors. If they understand the importance of these links, the potentialities are enormous. On the contrary, a general strike which does not go all the way and confines itself to a few sectors, even if it disturbs the normal functioning of the economy and has an impact on daily life, will not be able to achieve victory. Let’s not forget that in 2010 the Intersyndicale was not opposed to ‘renewable strikes’ by sector, but that it let them take place without trying to strengthen them, until, deprived of an alternative, they ended up running out of steam.
Consequently, the issue at stake goes beyond the question of the mere ‘efficiency’ of the strike: how, in terms of political strategy, do we get the masses to impose their will onto the state and the bosses? The general strike cannot rely on a few battalions alone, especially when you are confronting a radicalised bourgeoisie. In class warfare, it is the mass that counts, and this mass is won by showing that this struggle can profoundly change the living and working conditions of all. Today, the conditions are right for a big movement to take place. The question remains to know how far this potential can be deployed with the current leadership, and given the weakness of the alternative leadership.
Romaric Godin: Indeed, the situation seems to me particularly interesting precisely because the so-called strategic sectors don’t want to go out on their own, and the others, those who are subjected to the most increased capitalist exploitation, can’t go out on their own. In a way, this is an opportunity. In this context, the best way to break the movement would be to say that we only need a handful of sectors. Moreover, we must bear in mind that the French economy is largely tertiary and that the majority of these services are business services, i.e. those that correspond to what are generally denigrated as bullshit jobs. However, this sector, which is generally ignored when it comes to strikes, in fact participates massively and even mainly in the production of market value. So we can’t pretend it doesn’t exist, and we have to take into account these modifications in the contemporary organisation of French capitalism. I believe that it is by understanding the specificities of this organisation that we will be able to confront capitalism in the most effective way.
Juan Chingo: I agree with you, but that shouldn’t make us forget that a certain number of eminently strategic and industrial sectors have yet to be won through the struggle, like Airbus, for example, and all the subcontractors of the big (automobile) groups. It is undoubtedly not Renault in the 1960s, but nevertheless, these sectors have a considerable weight that should not be neglected. Currently, the aeronautics sector is led by FO (Force Ouvriere trade union), which is, in this case, almost an employers’ union. But if we could involve such sectors in the struggle, it would be another story. If Dassaut, Safran and the whole French aeronautical sector, the military complex, entered the battle, it would mean that the situation is changing profoundly. I insist on this to show that what we usually call the strategic sectors are in fact only two or three sectors (the refinery workers, the railway workers and, less frequently but particularly strong in the current movement, the energy workers) among many others which are neglected and whose entry on the scene would nevertheless constitute a real upheaval.
The refinery strike last autumn highlighted some limitations that need to be understood. Not all subcontractors, for example, went on strike, even though they are organically part of the oil sector. The demands that emerged outside the refineries, but that were part of the productive machine that is the Total company, for example in the commercial and trading departments, were not associated with the strike either. However, in order to make Total give in, it is necessary to unify all the subcontractors, internal and external to the refineries. It’s exactly the same problem at the SNCF where only the ‘railway workers’ are generally called to strike but not the hundreds and thousands of subcontracted workers who work in the stations and on the rail network. But the strength of the proletariat always emerges when it manifests itself in its totality and in a non-corporate way.
How far do you think a mass strike dynamic could go?
Romaric Godin: I consider that what we are building today is above all a first moment of reconstruction after decades of systematic destruction. The situation should inspire us with a certain kind of humility. I do not consider mass insurrection to be the most likely hypothesis, even if the movement will necessarily bring out its own potentialities that may surprise us. I believe that what is at stake is the construction of a sustainable and established social movement, which comes out of its defensive posture. And that’s why it’s not so much the stopping of the economy as such that counts, but the construction of a movement that raises the question of economic power. From this point of view, I don’t share the anarcho-syndicalist referential according to which the general strike would immediately lead to revolution in a relatively magical way insofar as it is supposed to dispossess in one fell swoop the power of the bourgeoisie, which would ‘fall’ following the universal stoppage of work.
Juan Chingo: The situation is not revolutionary, I agree with this observation. However, we are on the eve of a potential mass strike. If it happens, despite the contradictions we’ve mentioned, I think it would open up unprecedented revolutionary potential that we’ll have to take very seriously. Contrary to the conception drawn from revolutionary trade unionism, or the memory of the general strike of 1968 which, in view of its scale, did not give such a significant result, a mass strike would be one of the most violent forms of class struggle. I don’t know what the day of the 7th of March will bring, but if we enter a moment of generalisation of the strike, we should seriously think about holding mass militant picket lines, for example. That’s why we need to instill the idea of an active strike, and not of a ‘France at a standstill’, as Laurent Berger insists. For the moment, the government is not afraid, but this could be reversed. If the general strike starts, we will have to be up to the task of not letting the opportunity pass and going on the offensive. In any case, the potential exists, and as such we must try to deploy it to the full.
Finally, a word about the way you think about the articulation between the mass movement and parliamentary action? What did the debates in the National Assembly inspire you to do?
Romaric Godin: What the debates in the first reading showed in the Assembly is that nothing happens in the Hemicycle.  This is why the National Assembly has become, strictly speaking, a circus, insofar as what takes place there is largely a spectacle without substance. The left should reflect on the fact that Parliament has no power under this system. Even without an absolute majority, this does not change anything given the role of various constitutional articles such as 49.3, which is used even in the context of an amending social security finance bill, and this without any political consequences. Parliament is thus largely disqualified. Without going so far as to adopt a radical anti-parliamentary position, it can be said that parliament can only be useful by echoing the social movement. But even in this respect, we can see that it has a very demobilising aspect insofar as it continues to make people believe that something is at stake. The government, in any case, only really discusses with the Republicans. Besides, the blocking amendments serve no purpose and even end up diverting attention from the real movement. Once again, that’s not where it’s at.
There is something interesting in the sense that it allows us to ask the question of the articulation between the parliamentary left and the social movement, but I’m quite surprised to see that in such a deep and vast movement, we remain in a logic of parliamentary guerrilla warfare. From the beginning, the game is set, it will be a vote with LR (Les Republicains, liberal conservative party) or a 49.3. So what game is the parliamentary left playing with the social movement, when from the start the deal is done? The vacuity of the parliamentary spectacle seems to me to be a characteristic feature of the Fifth Republic, which insists on always pretending that something is happening there, whereas the main thing is played out in the office at 55 Boulevard Saint Honoré, where one guy alone decides everything. That’s how it is, and the parliamentary left can tell itself stories, since 1958, nobody is unaware that France is not a ‘great parliamentary democracy’. On the other hand, we have to realise that, in the strongest sense of the word, something is happening in the street. It is therefore not with amendments that we will make progress in this area, pretending the contrary is a diversion.
Juan Chingo: I agree with what Romaric just said. It is obvious that the Parliament is not the place for contestation. The situation that is described is an opportunity to take up certain elements of a radical democratic programme, such as the abolition of the Senate, or the abolition of the presidential office and, more broadly, the overcoming of the Fifth Republic, not in the restrictive perspectives of the Melenchonist project of a Sixth Republic, but in a much more radical way, like the Paris Commune, for example. French history has shown forms of parliament that reflect the state of mind of the masses, like the early days of the Convention or, as I said, the Paris Commune, where parliamentarians were subject to a salary equivalent to that of a worker and to control by the population.
In this respect, the sincere comrades of France Insoumise (a left wing party) would benefit from reconnecting with the best of the Jacobin revolutionary tradition or, better still, the Commune, to develop elements of such a democratic programme, such as the creation of a single Assembly, both legislative and executive, rather than wasting this perspective on a republican re-foundation from above. All this would greatly help the mass movement to experiment with bourgeois representative democracy and develop the consciousness of self-organisation, which I believe is the only viable democratic perspective. The social movement must express itself by and for itself, in its own organisations, and not seek to exist in the Assembly through a representative and disarming voice, nor seek a political but institutional outlet as Mélenchon proposes. The development of the general strike and the development of the self-organisation of the masses thus draw the same horizon: that of the development of an authentic counter-power to the power of the bourgeoisie.
 1986 saw a major strike movement in the railways and 1995 witnessed a large industrial action in the public sector
 The republican field refers to the centrist ‘democratic forces’ that oppose the far-right (and the far-left)