France’s public sector strike against pension reform is in its seventh week, the most serious such strike in French history. It fits very well in the context of the global revolt against neoliberalism, says Prof. Gabriel Rockhill.
This is a rough transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Greg Wilpert: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Arlington, Virginia. The public sector strike in France is entering its seventh week now. The longest such strike in French history. The strike has been affecting public transportation, especially France’s rail system, but has also involved workers in the education, healthcare, law, sanitation, culture, and energy sectors. While public support for the strike is said to have declined recently, opinion polls indicate that a majority of the French still approve of the action.
The strike is about a pension reform plan that the government of President Emmanuel Macron is pushing, which would consolidate 42 public sector pension plans into a single point-based system. According to one analysis, the plan could cost workers as much as 30% in benefits once they retire. Over the last weekend, Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced that the government will withdraw the proposal to increase the retirement age by two years. However, now the government wants the unions to come up with a counter proposal on how to save money in the pension system. The more moderate CFDT Union Federation has accepted the proposal, but the more radical CGT Federation has not and is calling for renewed demonstrations on Thursday.
Joining me now to discuss France’s public sector strike and how it fits into the larger global context is Gabriel Rockhill. He is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Villanova University and is the founding director of the Critical Theory Workshop that takes place in Paris, France annually. Thanks for joining us today, Gabriel.
Gabriel R.: Thanks for having me on.
Greg Wilpert: So you recently published an article on the strike for the website CounterPunch, in which you say that the strikes need to be seen in the context of the yellow vest movement which took place last year. Give us a brief idea as to what that movement was about and how it is connected to the public sector strike that’s going on in France right now.
Gabriel R.: So the movement of the yellow vests began in earnest in the Fall of 2018, and was an uprising that took place outside of the traditional forms of political representation, meaning unions and political parties. And was largely mobilized against the continued immiseration of the general population within France. And introduced a series of new and interesting tactics, including the tactic of having planned days of actions once a week.
Each act would be a Saturday. So once a week there’d be a planned day of action and that it would escalate in order to push the Macron regime into… Originally it was around proposed fuel tax, so into abolishing the fuel tax. But then has since developed into broader [French 00:00:02:49]. So broader demands on the part of the movement in order to address what is a really crucial problem in the recent history of France, and for matter not only the recent history, that is the ways in which the Macron regime is labeled as the government of the rich. Meaning that a lot of his policies are ones that benefit the most wealthy and have an enormous impact on the daily lives of those who are in the poor and middle classes.
In many ways then, the most recent strike that began on December 5th… Although it didn’t grow directly out of the yellow vest movement, it can be seen as a kind of renewed moment of class struggle in which the unions, beginning with the train unions and the [French 00:03:53], which is our subway system union, they have taken up certain elements from the yellow vest struggles, certain tactics, etc. in order to try to force the hand of Macron government to make it not so much aligned on the rich and the wealthy. And instead take into account the life of those who are at the bottom, or even in the middle tiers of the socioeconomic standing within France.
Greg Wilpert: Now I was in Paris, actually, over the holidays and got to experience the strike firsthand, which meant a lot of walking and taking of overcrowded buses. Now two things stood out for me. First, the extent to which the working class Parisians took the strike in stride, often blaming President Macron for the inconvenience. And second, those who questioned the strike argued that France has a better welfare state and less inequality than most countries in the world, and that France needs to adapt to a global context in which everyone else has basically weaker welfare states and more inequality. What do you make of such arguments which seem to have caught on among those who are opposing the strike in France?
Gabriel R.: Well, regarding your first point, one of the most recent polls done by Harris Interactive for RTL and AEF Info in France, finds that 60% of the population supports the strikes at the current moment. And so I think it’s still a majority of French people who are supportive. Regarding the argument that the French system is somehow better when compared to the general neoliberal assault on social services globally is trying to set the bar too low. And it’s an argument that is in many ways plays to the favor of those neoliberal technocrats who are now imposing the agenda of neoliberal globalization. Have been, of course, for decades now. Which consists, of course, of distributing wealth upwards and putting the burden of social services on the backs of workers.
So instead of identifying France as somehow an exception that should be ratcheted down in order to accord with the global neoliberal assault on social services, I think that we should do the contrary. And that is that we should question the ways in which neoliberal globalization has really orchestrated a top-down form of class warfare that has had enormous consequences. I know that one of the most recent studies has shown that eight men, eight individual men, own 50% of global wealth. In a system like this, I think that it’s important to think about and to implement economic, socioeconomic redistribution.
Greg Wilpert: Now actually this relates to another point that you made in your CounterPunch article, which is that one should also see the strike as a symptom of neoliberalism’s global credibility crisis. Talk to us about what you mean by that.
Gabriel R.: Well, the credibility crisis needs to be understood in terms of the way in which neoliberal globalization, of course, going back to the 70’s, but really taking on full force in the 80’s and 90’s has been a project of globalizing production, financializing the economy, and using what are referred to as austerity measures. But what would be better qualified, because austerity is a euphemism, as a form of top-down class warfare. And that this assault has led to the consequences that we currently know globally. Meaning that the capitalist system now… And this is according to an Oxfam study. One percent of the global population controls over half of the wealth. And so it’s within this context that I think that we have to understand both the yellow vest movement and the most recent mobilization within France. Because what’s going on in France is part of a larger transnational problem. And that is the disconnect between the attempt to justify the legitimacy of these neoliberal governments while at the same time destroying the material conditions of possibility for that legitimacy among the general population.
Greg Wilpert: Now I mean, there’s clearly this credibility issue. I mean, just by the fact that people are going out to the streets and striking. But I think it also raises the question though, whether such a credibility crisis is sufficient to challenge neoliberalism when neoliberalism is so deeply institutionalized. I mean, I’ve mentioned this also in some other interviews that I’ve made. A book by Colin Crouch called The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism in which he basically makes the argument that it’s institutionalized and that it doesn’t depend on legitimacy. That it’s been institutionalized in the World Bank, the IMF, the WTO, and even to a certain extent in popular culture, and then the way people think on an everyday level about how they interact with each other. So if it doesn’t need that kind of legitimacy, what do you think? I mean, will these strikes actually have an effect in the longterm?
Gabriel R.: I think that’s a good question, because I agree that neoliberalism has been institutionalized globally and what some people refer to as a transnational state. Right? And these organizations that really govern the economies of local nation states. At the same time, within a country like France, there is the liberal facade of maintaining something like a representative democracy, and the desire on the part of the technocrats who are governing for global capital to at least create the appearance that what they’re doing is in the best interest of the majority. Now, while that legitimacy I would agree, is not an absolute requirement for them to push through their policies and plans, as we’ve seen repeatedly in the past, and we see currently as well in France. There is nonetheless a minimal level of credibility and a material base for the support of the general population that is required so that we don’t have a global shutdown of the economy.
And that’s one of the most interesting things about what’s going on in France right now, is that there’s been a real escalation in the nature of the struggles. And what’s being demonstrated is that workers still do control the economy within France, the transportation networks, etc. And that if there’s not a minimum material basis for their wellbeing, then they can take to the streets and they can shut the country down. And so they do have real power.
Greg Wilpert: What you’re saying actually also raises the question… If legitimacy is certainly needed, it also raises the question as to how is the government actually dealing with this particular problem. And I’m thinking particularly of how it’s reacting, not only in terms of these minute concessions, but also in terms of the police reaction to the protests and the strikes. What can you tell us about how that’s going in France at the moment?
Gabriel R.: Well, I think that France is really at the cutting edge of a particular form of governance under global capitalism, neoliberal capitalism. And that is to combine, at one in the same time, a liberal political theater that tries to dupe the general population into believing that the government has their best interest in mind and a kind of authoritarian fascistic use of extreme violence against protestors in order to scare them, debilitate them, and destroy the possibility of collective organizing. And so Debbie Gouffran, who’s one journalist amongst others who have studied the levels of police violence, has found that there were 4,000 injured people during 2019. And 2,500 of them were protesters. Which gives you some sense of the scale. But then this includes 318 head injuries. Twenty-five people have lost eyes. At least five people have lost hands. And one person died. And so you see this combination of creating a political feeder, while at the same time releasing the full force of the repressive state apparatus on the protesters in order to try to destroy popular power and social movements from below.
Greg Wilpert: Well on that note, we’re going to leave it there for now. I was speaking to Gabriel Rockhill, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Villanova University and founder of the Critical Theory Workshop in Paris. Thanks, Gabriel, for having joined us today.
Gabriel R.: Thank you for having me on.
Greg Wilpert: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.