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“Either We Defend Social Solidarity, or French Society Will Break Down”

André Chassaigne

This winter France has seen the biggest strike wave in decades, as workers resist planned pension reforms. As Communist MP André Chassaigne told us, the strikers aren’t just opposing Emmanuel Macron’s neoliberal policies — they’re fighting to save the French social model itself.

Protesters at a rally against Emmanuel Macron and his proposed pension reform, on December 10, 2019 in Paris, France. (Kiran Ridley / Getty Images)

Interview by
Ethan Earle

For over two months France has been ablaze, as workers across the country revolt against Emmanuel Macron’s reforms to the pension system. Public transport networks ground to a standstill over Christmas and the New Year period as workers stayed out on strike. While these actions have now dimmed, unions have called a fresh strike day for February 17.

For many, the response to Macron’s reform isn’t just about pensions — it unites a wider movement seeking to defend the French social model. Footage of ballet dancers going out on strike, or of police beating striking firefighters in the streets of Paris, illustrated a broad opposition to the increasingly unpopular president.

André Chassaigne is a Communist Party member of parliament representing the Puy-de-Dôme department in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region. In an interview in mid-January he sat down with “A Season in Hell” editor Ethan Earle. They discussed Macron’s proposed pension reform, the movements seeking to block it — and the possibilities of rapprochement on the French left.


EE

A few weeks ago, as part of our “A Season In Hell” series, we published an article by Catherine Perret from the trade union CGT in which she outlined exactly what the pension reform set out to do. Could you tell us a little more about the proposal from a political perspective? Why are Macron and his government so set on this reform?

AC

I believe that Emmanuel Macron’s primary political ambition is to break the French social welfare system, which was built up over decades and especially in the aftermath of World War II. Our pension system dates back to the National Council of the Resistance’s Les jours heureux (The Happy Days) program. Macron’s actions are driven by an ideological approach, a sort of French-style liberalism, that is evident in so many laws, and by a brutality reminiscent of Thatcher’s Britain.

Secondly, Macron’s policy consists of lavishing ever more advantages on the privileged. This comes from his “trickle-down” understanding of the economy. In his view, if even more is given to those who are already in a comfortable financial position — “the people leading the climb,” to use his expression — then they will spread the benefits across the whole of society. But that theory has never been proven! His policy choices serve the world of finance, and money has to be diverted from social security and pensions to fund them. For every euro used for finance, there is one less euro available for meeting social needs.

And that brings me to the third factor: Macron’s desire to slash social spending while at the same time fueling liberalization, with the prospect of more scope for private pensions.

EE

How would you describe the public response so far?

AC

We’ve never seen anything like this before. For many years, the social movement had a hard time reaching the bulk of the population. Yet one of the key characteristics of the struggles currently sweeping the country is a surge in awareness among ordinary French people. The people and workers of France are increasingly concerned — for they are coming to realize exactly how the reform would affect their day-to-day lives and their retirement income. This is highly significant. Despite the strike’s repercussions on their daily lives, the majority of France’s inhabitants still oppose the reform, which is quite remarkable.

Another extremely important factor is the effort made, at the initiative of the French Communist Party and its national secretary Fabien Roussel, to partner with other leftist and green forces to devise an alternative pension reform proposal. Nobody would have expected all those groups to come together as they have. But we have [together] published our ideas for pension system reform.

A left-wing policy alternative is sorely needed, and we had to make that clear when it came to pensions. I don’t think the current government anticipated this kind of unified front, and that may end up costing it dearly. Although La France Insoumise is not really involved in our joint platform for the time being, we have good relations with them, especially in parliament, and we could open up our joint platform to more groups.

EE

Do you think that there is a direct or indirect link between the “yellow vests” and the public response to the strikes and demonstrations?

AC

I’ve always believed that the “yellow vest” movement arose out of dissatisfaction with the current system among groups of the population that could be described as “the people the Republic has left behind.” Many of these people live in suburban areas on the outskirts of large provincial towns and cities — neighborhoods primarily built for housing and nothing more. Many others come from rural communities, which are suffering greatly in the current climate.

The “yellow vest” movement was born of a deep-seated anger and a visceral rejection of the current system, without necessarily being based on any kind of political analysis and without any connection to the trade union movement. It has to be said that trade unionists initially viewed it with some degree of suspicion. They saw people out on the streets who never normally demonstrated and said to themselves, “but we went on strike about this.” Yet the movement triggered a shift in consciousness among the people.

Now, the “yellow vest” movement and the social movement spearheaded by the unions are drawing closer together. This requires mutual respect and awareness of the power balance within society and of the class struggle. I believe that this convergence has made the “yellow vests” more aware, while also lending greater clout to the movement headed by the trade unions. These developments — social and political convergences, and growing awareness in society — are extremely positive: this is a historic opportunity, and may have lasting results.

EE

In recent weeks, you have addressed the National Assembly about the Macron government’s response and especially its violent repression of demonstrations. Could you tell us a little more? How would you describe the crackdown?

AC

The government’s strategy consists, first and foremost, of playing sections of the population against each other. The government is currently seeking to sow discord between people covered by the general pension scheme and people covered by special pension schemes, saying that the latter group is getting special treatment. Just 1.4 percent of the working population, so less than a million people, are insured under special pension schemes, and they are all workers who have done very arduous work.

When the government was taking on the “yellow vests,” it tried to demonize the movement by presenting it as violent. This led to the adoption of a confrontational approach to maintaining public order, the ultimate aim being to ratchet up levels of tension and violence and prevent the movement from gaining the support of the vast majority of citizens. We can see that the exact same strategy is being applied in dealing with the anti-pension-reform movement. However, I made sure to adopt a measured tone when I put a question to the government yesterday, because we are taking the utmost care not to pit the police and the gendarmes against the general population. The actions of the police and the gendarmes are, by definition, dictated by the choices made by the Ministry of the Interior. We want to uphold republican values.

EE

On January 11, the prime minister [Édouard Philippe] announced that the part of the reform that dealt with the “qualifying age” (i.e. the minimum age at which a person becomes entitled to a full pension) would be “temporarily postponed.” At the same time, he said that the reform bill would be reviewed using an expedited procedure. What’s your take on that?

AC

I think the method deserves special attention, as it constitutes an extremely serious form of denial of democracy. On the one hand, the prime minister promises that there will be a conference on pension funding and that the government will continue to negotiate with the trade unions — while also leaving very little room for negotiation.

And on the other hand, there’s the parliamentary review process, which is due to end before the negotiations even conclude because an expedited procedure is being used to rush the bill through the National Assembly and the Senate.

This is hardly the first time that this government has attempted to subvert democracy. The steps it has taken range from the use of ordinances — a technique allowing it to adopt laws directly, bypassing parliament — to a change to the National Assembly’s rules of procedure that leaves less scope for discussing the articles of laws and cuts the amount of speaking time in general. All of this makes parliamentary debate more difficult and weakens parliamentary democracy.

Nonetheless, we’ll very much be going on the offensive. That much is true of the group I head, especially the Communist members of parliament, of La France Insoumise’s group, and of the Socialist group, which has changed its stance on many proposals. The Socialists have turned their backs on points-based pensions, to name but one example.

EE

What about the CFDT trade union confederation, which responded positively to the prime minister’s proposal? Do you think the government spoke to them beforehand? What do you think of this situation as a whole?

AC

Yes, the government has sought to divide the trade union movement by claiming to have reached an agreement with the reformist unions. They wanted to make out that reformism was adopting a progressive, smart, sensible approach. But I don’t think the reformist unions really take account of the realities of the class struggle. That said, they have to answer to their grassroots members, and I know that a lot of them, especially rail workers, don’t agree with the positions adopted by the UNSA and CFDT.

I don’t want to start making assumptions about the CFDT and UNSA’s motives, but from an outsider’s point of view, it certainly looks like they’re up to something. Is this a calculated move on their part? Is it simply an opportunity that the government has seized? Are the reformist unions hoping to push themselves back to prominence by claiming — entirely erroneously — that they got the government to back down? Only time will tell.

EE

What is your group planning to do in the National Assembly in the next few weeks?

AC

Our political activity centers on acting as a mouthpiece of the social movement. In parliament, we pass on the social movement’s demands and tell the truth about the extent of the movement — it’s still very strong, although some people would have us believe otherwise. In everything we do, we fully respect the movement’s choices. It’s up to the trade unions and the workers to decide what struggles they undertake and how they undertake them.

Our work also involves collaborating with all the other progressive organizations to come up with proposals for improving the current system, as I was just describing. There is so much more to us than opposition.

We work with other left-wing parliamentarians within the parliament to this end. Yesterday, La France Insoumise came to us suggesting a motion of no confidence — a motion to bring down the government — and we refused to sign it because we think that now isn’t the right time. We feel that this is the time to fight for the bill’s withdrawal. But we also think that a motion of no confidence could end up strengthening the government, as it has a majority and the motion won’t pass. That doesn’t mean that we can’t, in the coming weeks and months, use parliamentary procedures to force the government to face up to the reality it has created. But we’re not quite at that point yet.

So, my group is currently working on the text that we finally received. We’re starting out by analyzing it, and then we’ll work hard within parliament to extend debates and propose a raft of amendments, even if the new rules of procedure get in our way. We want to put the government on the spot regarding the general direction of its reform: a reform that sets up an individual system, calls solidarity-based distribution into question, and encourages people to take out private pensions. We’re going to table amendments aimed at removing certain articles from the government’s bill, along with proposals to show how France’s pension system could be improved. We’re already gearing up to fight our corner in parliament. It’s going to be a real battle of wills.

EE

Over the course of this interview, you’ve spoken a bit about how leftist forces are unifying in response to what’s happening at the moment. Do you think that opposition to these reforms could be used to forge new alliances in upcoming elections, be it for this year’s municipal elections or for the 2022 presidential elections? What role do you think the French Communist Party could play?

AC

We’re not working on political rapprochement right now — that is, we’re not trying to build a general joint program with an eye to the upcoming elections. That said, what we do now will be important for the future. I think that we, and especially the group I lead, have played a pioneering role in the National Assembly since 2017. Whenever we’ve been able to do so, we’ve sought to establish some form of balance between the Socialist Party and La France Insoumise — two groups that don’t always want to work together. For instance, we’ve already tabled two motions of no confidence, one over the Benalla affair [a scandal over Macron’s bodyguard posing as a policeman and beating up demonstrators] and one over the yellow vests. And we have around fifteen joint actions pending before the Constitutional Council. We’ve already proved that we can work together within the National Assembly.

Little by little, we’re showing that a real political alternative is possible in this country. This political alternative will not be built by one movement or one party alone. Rather, we’ll create it by gradually determining what we hope to achieve as a government, how we’ll meet the expectations of the least well-off in society and what our long-term political aims are. We’ve not yet reached the stage of setting out a “joint program,” as we did before François Mitterrand’s election in 1981, but I think we’ve already made considerable progress by joining forces once more, sharing our experiences, and pooling our intelligence. And that’s a crucial step in the right direction.

EE

It’s often said that France’s social welfare system is something of an outlier in the world. Is pension reform only really a concern for France?

AC

Pension reform is also a European strategy that goes hand in hand with austerity policies and the erosion of social rights. Wherever a government curtails social welfare provision, it sets a precedent that paves the way for more social welfare cuts in other European countries. It’s not just a concern in France. And I would add that the triumph of unchecked liberalism in Europe has made it all the easier for far-right populists to gain ground. Far-right populism is on the rise throughout Europe, fueled by social welfare cutbacks. So, in this respect, we have a responsibility.

EE

We agree on that point, and that’s why we’re so interested in what you’re doing. In Germany, in Belgium, and, indeed, throughout Europe, there is much attention being paid to this struggle against the imposition of an American-style system, this struggle for a solidarity-based system.

AC

Up to now, we’ve seen social achievements being gradually whittled away by successive governments. And we can’t take any more. We’re at a turning point in history: either our society and our civilization will break down, or we’ll manage to hang on to the last vestiges of solidarity.

EE

Let’s go back to the issue of the social struggle in these times of reform with this last, very simple question: Do you really think that you can come out on top?

AC

Yes, I do. I believe that the movement can go the distance. It’s becoming more diverse, and more and more sectors are starting to take action like the ports and the aviation industry. I think that the struggle is going to evolve, that it’s going to take on different forms. We have to understand what the people who are on strike right now are going through. There are families and workers who will experience social hardship because of what they’re doing. There are people who will have trouble repaying their loans. If we want them to emerge victorious, then we need to show our solidarity with them. The movement needs to stand firm.

And I think that if the movement stands firm, the government will have to make concessions, even if it doesn’t back down completely and even if it simply tries to “dress up” its position to make it more palatable. But I think we can get it to back down on a lot of points. I’m very hopeful about our prospects of defeating the reform in parliament, but I think that the main driver of victory will be the workers and the people out demonstrating on the street. It’s by getting more people to stand up and fight that we’ll force the government to cave in.