French Unions Take to the Streets

During our two-month visit to Paris to see friends and family, Judith Rubenstein and I have been watching the very big general strike about pensions. The Macron-government proposes to “reform” the current mixture of 42 different pension plans into a single plan. Because the reforms would increase retirement ages, reduce actual payouts for soon-to-retire workers, and introduce a new system of calculating benefits, the Macron program has been opposed by a coalition of unions and left political groups. 

The strike began on December 5, 2019. Called originally by transportation unions, it shut down all subway lines in Paris and all regional and long-distance rail, along with many bus lines and airline flights. The strike is national, but we see only what’s happening here in Paris. 

The coalition supporting the strike broadened in the weeks leading up to December 5, as the left- led Confédération générale du travail, the Confédération nationale du travail, the Force Ouvrière, and others called out their members. 

On the first day of the strike, Paris felt completely shut down. The unions called for a demonstration. We walked to the starting point at Gare de l”Est through fairly friendly police barricades, where our bags were examined. On the streets surrounding Magenta Boulevard, police vehicles cut off all traffic as hundreds of vans and thousands of cops filled side streets. Once at the starting point, we saw no cops at all. The largest contingents were from the CGT, CNT, and FOSolidaire had fewer folk marching with them.

The gilets jaunes (yellow vests; more light green than yellow) had started charcoal fires around and were present in moderate numbers. The yellow-vest protests, by mostly nonunion workers, began about a year ago, and mobilized some 400,000 supporters at their height.  They forced government concessions and still bring out perhaps 40,000 each Saturday, Le Monde reported. Paris people we talked to say the yellow-vest protests, which have been met by severe police repression, likely end in violence.  As a result, many people try to avoid them. (Here is a link to a report of police attack on the November 16th first anniversary demonstration. I passed by part of it. Tear gas was in the air; riot police were everywhere. 

By contrast, on December 5, the demonstrators young and old, very peaceful. There was, as far as we could see, no hint of Black Bloc folk that we’d been warned could attempt to engage the police. (Banks and some shops put wood on their window fronts and cash machines. We didn’t see anyone try to smash windows or even withdraw cash.)  As at demonstrations in the United States, smaller leftist groups set up literature tables and hoisted signs. There were police attacks on the demonstrators at the more or less halfway mark at Place de la République and toward the end at Place de la Nation. We saw huge pillars of smoke but missed the tear gas that, other people told us, was fired into the packed crowd. The riot police, deployed with helmets, body armor, shields, batons, automatic weapons, and laser sights, were aggressive. They shut off exit routes, which made it hard to evade them. We did evade them, though, and missed the gas and the press of the crowd. 

The biggest surprise was how white the marchers were. Paris is a multicolored city. North Africans and sub-Saharan Africans are present in large numbers in many neighborhoods (including the march start) but were not in the demonstration in any numbers. African guys walked forcefully against the line of march, pushing the other way as though this had nothing to do with them. While some demonstrators carried placards raising broader issues (unemployment, poverty, bad housing), the main focus of the march was not on those issues. There are a few signs that some recognize this division. For example, the Communist Party has called meetings in the now largely immigrant suburbs to try to engage the residents. The Socialist Party has been missing in action. 

Off-duty firefighters in turnout gear wore signs saying, “Pompiers en colère,” (Furious firefighters) and carried brightly burning (and smelly) flares. In theory, police unions are on strike, but we didn’t see off-duty cops identifying as such.. 

How many people turned out? We can’t say. The entire route from Gare du Nord to Place de la Nation was packed. It felt to be about as large as a demonstration against domestic violence a few weeks prior, which the newspapers variously guesstimated at between 250,000 and 500,000. 

There was a second demonstration on December 10 on the left bank. It was at least as large but this time much more dominated by students with some Black Bloc folk.   Again, the entire march route from Les Invalides to Montmartre was packed shoulder to shoulder. 

Not all of Paris is on strike. Our local cafe, our language school, museums, open-air markets and regular supermarkets, bakeries bookstores, and shops are open. Still, signs of the strike are everywhere in the curtailed office hours and sparsely attended museums and galleries. Deliveries and garbage collection continue. Many workers who stay on the job, we are told, are contributing earnings to strike funds. People still working seem in good humor; many support the strike (they say quietly so the boss doesn’t hear) .Some deny the strike exists as a factor in their lives. We’re doing a lot of walking. Two metro lines (1 & 4) and some bus lines are sort of back in operation. They are jammed, skip stops, and don’t go where you need them to. Taxi drivers are making money. 

On Wednesday, the government announced some changes to its pension proposal. As I read it, the new parts of the government proposal will not stop the strike. The last big general strike in France, in 1995, lasted three weeks. We are just entering week two during a major tourist season. More is planned for the coming week. Stay tuned. 

Photos by Judith Rubenstein and Daniel Millstone


A minor leftist pop-up serves the strikers.
A minor leftist pop-up serves the strikers. (Photos by Daniel Millstone and Judith Rubinstein)
A CGT van.
A van from the CGT.