“The Right to Be Lazy” With One Foot in the Grave: On the French Anti-Retirement-Reform Movement

By comrade W. Muncer

March 21, 2023

For nearly three months now, France has been shaken by one of the largest labor movements in
recent history. While unions continue to lose both their fighting spirit and their members, and new,
less structured types of social movements—such as the Yellow Vests in 2018-2019—have emerged,
the unions have attempted several intense strike movements since the beginning of Macron’s first
term to restore the image of union organizations. First in 2018 against the dismantling of the railway
workers’ special labor code, then the following year from December 2019 onwards against the first
draft of the bill aimed at tearing down the public retirement system, which was temporarily repealed
because of the COVID-19 epidemic. Since the protest movement against the proposed bill “Contrat
première embauche” (“First Employment Contract”) in 2006—to create a work contract for people
under 26 that would allow employers to dismiss the workers without compensation and exempt
them from paying social security contributions—no large-scale, national trade union movement has
succeeded in opposing the neoliberal reforms put forward by successive right-wing and “left-wing”
governments—from Jacques Chirac (center-right) to Emmanuel Macron (center), not to mention
Nicolas Sarkozy (right) and Franç ois Hollande (left).

This year, demonstrations that the unions called on January 19 and 31 had record numbers of people
in the streets to protest the government’s plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. This is in
the midst of a crisis of inflation, after the largest French companies made more than 152 billion
euros in profits in 2022.

However, these demos have obscured the real rate of participation in the actual strikes, which has
been declining since the beginning of the protests. Moreover, the gamble taken by the main
“militant” union, the CGT, to compromise with the more moderate CFDT in order to reach an
agreement and present a united union front against the government, resulted in a certain loss of
momentum on the part of the rank-and-file militants, and spread out the strike days over several
weeks. Instead of a strong continuous strike, workers have been called to do a “beaded” strike—with
strike days appearing like beads on a necklace, leaving space or time between each bead.

The movement really started to intensify only with the approach of the vote on the bill in the
National Assembly and then in the Senate—the two legislative houses of the French parliamentary
system. The March 7 rally was a success, with a large number of strikers and more media coverage,
all set against a backdrop of blunders made by government representatives covered by the press. A
notable example was the claim made by the Minister of Labor, Olivier Dussopt, about a proposed
increase in the retirement pension to 1,200 euros a month for workers who have spent over 40 years
working at the minimum wage. Dussopt and his colleagues claimed that this measure would benefit
40,000 people, but a study showed that it would only positively impact 48 individuals!

In an attempt to put an end to the unrest in the streets as quickly as possible, the government of
Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne1 opted for a blitzkrieg strategy by resorting to the use of article 47.1 of the Constitution and article 38 of the Senate’s rules of procedure, which allow for the reduction
of debate time and the censorship of proposed amendments to the law. This authoritarian method
pushed a number of deputies who had expressed doubts about the pension bill into the opposition
camp. This was particularly the case for parliamentarians belonging to the Republican group, usually
allies of Macron’s liberal reforms. The president’s refusal to meet with representatives of the main
trade unions to “negotiate” the terms of the reform, an unusual refusal in the French tradition of
bargaining labor deals, further strengthened the fear of the legislative and trade union bodies that the
executive branch was governing without the involvement of the “corps intermédiaires, literally
meaning “intermediary bodies” (in French political jargon, the political representatives of different
interest groups in society, such as unions, associations, etc.). Seeing their own power threatened by
the government’s extremely aggressive and authoritarian approach, a relative majority in parliament
—from the far right to the far left, including “rebels” from the center and the traditional right—
became hostile to the reform. On the eve of the final vote on the text in the lower house on March
16, one of the leading figures in the right-wing Republican party advised Ms. Borne to use the
constitutional “nuclear weapon,” Article 49.3, to pass the text into law in order to avoid the need for
a parliamentary vote. Article 49.3 of the current Constitution allows the government to “engage its
responsibility”—in a way, requiring the legislative body to “trust” the government to do what’s good
for the Republic—to pass a bill without a vote.

On Thursday, March 16, at 3:00 p.m., the Prime Minister, following the decision of the Council of
Ministers and the President of the Republic Emmanuel Macron, suspended the parliamentary
session—in the presence of members of parliament booing loudly, chanting “resign!” and singing the
national anthem—by using Article 49.3. Increasingly isolated, Macron’s administration was forced
to resort to this emergency measure, which had the immediate effect of aggravating tensions even
further. As it “engages the responsibility of the government,” the use of Article 49.3 exposes it to a
vote of no confidence by parliament. That is, parliament can vote that they do not have confidence
in the government to engage its responsibility on this particular bill, and beyond that to continue
ruling the country. If a majority of deputies approve a “motion of no-confidence,” which has to be
submitted within 24 hours of the application of the 49.3 article, there then is the possibility of
overthrowing the government: new parliamentary elections and the “firing” of the Prime Minister.
Article 49.3 was inscribed in the constitution at the time of the Algerian Wara period of great
instability in French society, which led to the launching of a failed coup by far-right officers in 1958.
One of several articles included in the Constitution giving the government powers to overcome
future crises, Article 49.3 has become less and less controversial in its application outside of crisis
situations. While the last ten instances in which the current government made use of this
constitutional article only invoked “symbolic” motions of no-confidence that had no chance of
passing and were only raised by the extreme right or left-wing oppositions to express their
disapproval of the trivialization of this authoritarian method of governing, in the context of the
pension reform, the use of Article 49.3 has taken on a different meaning. From an increasingly common legislative procedure, 49.3 has again come to represent an authoritarian means of exercising
power. As a result, the opposition to the pension reform—economic opposition organized around
the unions—has evolved into a broader political opposition, encompassing political actors from
different sides.

For the first time, a motion of no-confidence was been proposed by a centrist deputy—i.e., from the
same political faction as the government itself. In the days leading up to the vote on the motion of
no-confidence in the National Assembly on Monday, more and more deputies from the Republican
group came forward to express their support for voting the government out of power, despite their
party’s official position of “not being for the retirement reform nor the vote no-confidence.” In the
country’s medium and large cities, spontaneous rallies were organized in the evenings leading to
unmitigated repression, with between 50 and 300 arrests every night in Paris. Despite the massive
support of about 70% of the people for the vote of no confidence, the unions, after gaining the
appearance of stability and renewed strength and legitimacy, began to show signs of internal
division. This division formed between those at the top of the big confederations (such as the CGT
and the CFDT) who feared the return of the Yellow Vests and the loss of union control over the
movement, and those who supported its broadening and radicalization (like the general secretary of
the Bouches du Rhone local union and member of the pro-Cuban World Federation of Trade
Unions (WFTU), Olivier Mateu).

On Monday, March 20, the day of the decisive vote in the National Assembly, all eyes were on the
still hesitant Republican deputies. At 18:45, after more than two hours of debate and a half-hour
vote, the cross-party motion of no confidence submitted by the centrist LIOT group, was brought to
the ballots and defeated by 9 votes out of a total of 573… a Phyrrus-like victory2 for the
government. Prior to this motion of no-confidence, the one closest to passing was over 50 votes
short! As such, the outcome of the vote on March 20 shows a quantitative advance in the direction
of a real crisis of authority of the current government, almost entirely brought about by the
movement in the streets, which forced parliamentarians to pick a side.

One thing is certain: France is on the verge of an institutional crisis of a magnitude not seen in 50
years, with a class divide that that becomes clearer and more acute every day. It indicates that we are
entering a period of crisis, as Gramsci said, which is “a crisis of hegemony of the ruling class, [and]
which comes about either because the ruling class has failed in some big political undertaking for which it asked, or imposed by force, the consent of the broad masses, or because vast masses have passed suddenly from political passivity to a certain activity and put forward aims which in their disorganic complex constitute a revolution. One speaks of a ‘crisis of authority’ and this in fact is the crisis of hegemony, or crisis of the State […].” (Antonio Gramsci, The Modern Prince, Foreign Languages Press, Paris, 2021, p.165.)

During the movement against the project of neoliberal overhaul of the French labor law in 2016,
which was proposed by the government of “socialist” president François Hollande, a large number of
young people, both students and workers, became radicalized to the left. The possibility that a so-
called left-wing government could not only pass a bill on the revoking of citizenship following the
2015 terrorist attacks—clearly targeting immigrant populations—but also dismantle the labor code
and its protections for the working people, which was something that previous right-wing
governments never dreamed of doing, was a major factor in causing many people to break with the
institutional left. Today we are witnessing a new instance of radicalization. Today more than ever, the revolting youth and workers need an authentically revolutionary organization that can give a
coherent political outlet to the popular aspirations for a break with the status quo of the
“dictatorship of Capital” (an expression that is gaining ground among the French proletarians in
struggle!). On the mainstream Left, the spontaneity fetishizing spirit of movementism is slowly being
overcome, and the necessity of creating a mass proletarian party has been called for by some
previously “radical-reformist” intellectuals such as Nicolas Framont and Frederic Lordon. Such calls
should be understood as the desire to transcend the current domination on the Left of the big tent
election-platform “party” called La France InsoumiseFrance Unbowedby former presidential
candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. As such, what these intellectuals as well as part of the radical left
youth are demanding is not yet a communist vanguard party of the Leninist or Maoist type, but a
far-left and combative party structure made up of democratic instances: a mixture of the 2 nd
International-type of mass party and the programmatically and verbally radical spirit of left-populist

The weeks and months ahead are uncertain. In terms of the unions, a highly polarized CGT congress
is scheduled to take place, during which three candidates, two reformists and a more radical
Olivier Mateuwill run against each other for the top leadership position. On the legal side appeals
side, a group of deputies has submitted the pension reform bill for judgement by the Constitutional
Court. Although Article 49.3 is an actual constitutional amendment, this usage makes its legality
rather ambiguous, as the legislators are claiming the abusive use of emergency measures. This creates
some possibility for it to be overturned. The left-wing party La France Insoumise (“France
Unbowed”) and some of its allies in the NUPES coalition (Nouvelle Union Populaire écologique et
solidaire), has also initiated a procedure for a referendum for the people to vote on the pension
reform, which, if it gathers enough signatures, may prolong the movement for quite some time.
Today, we are both participants and spectators of what has become the last gasp of the institutions of
the Fifth Republic. Dura lex, sed lex (“the law is hard, but it is the law”) the Romans used to say as long as law prevails, that is!


The Fifth French Republicnamed after the fifth republican constitution in French history, that was
promulgated in 1958—is a presidential system, with broad executive powers and a diminished influence of parliament over the government. Every five years, the people vote for the next president, elected by universal suffrage in a two-round ballot. Following this election, a second one is held, deciding on the composition of parliament. It is up to the president, head of state, to appoint a prime minister—the head of government. The prime minister is the head of the council of ministers, the executive branch together with the president, but requires the support of parliament to enact new laws. The president does not require the support of the legislative body to stay in office. As such, twice in recent history a left-leaning president (François Mitterrand from 1986 to 1988 and from 1993 to 1995) had a right-wing prime minister—as parliament was dominated by the right—and that a right-wing president (Chirac between 1997 to 2002) worked together with a center-left prime minister. This phenomenon is called “cohabitation.”

A victory of which the consequences are so devastating to the victor that it can almost be considered of a defeat.