Ahead of France’s national strike day on Tuesday 7 March, unions vowed “to bring France to [a] stop”. Whether or not they succeeded depends on who you ask. According to the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) union, 3.5 million people went on protests in support of the strike. According to the police, it was 1.2 million. Either way, it was the sixth day of strike action this year and had the biggest turnout of the strike support protests so far.
The strikes took place across multiple sectors of the economy from teaching to healthcare, to the ports and oil refineries, to resist the French government’s attempts to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 and reform the pension system.
Among the most militant workers on strike are members of the CGT working in the energy sector, who have promised to “bring the economy to its knees”. One of its tactics is the “Robin Hood strategy” where workers cut the power to the rich, and give it away for free to the poor.
Fabrice Coudour, Federal Secretary in charge of protest action in the CGT Federation for Mines and Energy, told Novara Media that electricians and gas engineers “can perform technical actions that render electricity free or very cheap to public buildings like hospitals, creches and schools”. They can cut the power to “those that we judge to be non-essential, like the offices of officials who do not want to hear what is being said in the streets”. In February, Cyrille Isaac-Sibille, an MP aligned to the presidential majority, who supports the unpopular pension reform, found the power to his offices had been cut, by workers in the local CGT branch in Lyon.
Actions take place outside work hours, at night mostly or with workers not using their own vehicles to avoid identification, as workers could be fired or face charges for the actions.
Each local group votes and then individuals take the actions secretly, outside of the central union bureaucracy.
CGT officials are coy about the Robin Hood actions. They know they occur, and can tell you how they operate, but will not tell you in exact terms where or when they will take place or who is doing them.
Victor Cachard, author of A History of Sabotage, says “sabotage is illegal, so it is always difficult for an organisation like the CGT which collaborates with public powers, and receives funds from the state to openly declare that it is involved in illegality.” He traces the tactics back to those used by striking syndicalist workers in 1907.
The workers take Robin Hood actions because they are “fighting in the general interest [… ] we are fighting for everyone affected by this reform,” says Coudour. “It is for this reason that we decided to alternate between hard actions, such as power cuts, and positive actions”.
Mathieu Trenel, an electrician and secretary general of CGT Energy in Essonne said the energy is supplied for free or cheap by workers tampering with the meters of certain premises so as to undercount their usage.
Trenel said that in order to “balance public opinion in favour of the energy workers” they offer it cheaply or free “to people in precarious situations such as isolated parents in poor areas or small businesses who are finding it harder and harder to pay their bills due to the rising cost of energy.”
CGT workers undertaking Robin Hood actions in Marseille told French investigative website Mediapart in February that they had managed to make electricity half-price to some areas of Marseille by cutting off communication between the gas meter and the central distribution point.
Renaud Henry of CGT Energy Marseille estimated that they had also removed smart meters from the buildings of 60,000 Marseille residents meaning there was no way of cutting them off if they could not pay.
Trenel says the CGT also works with small business groups and artisan federations to help ease the cost of energy to them.
The CGT began undertaking the modern version of Robin Hood actions around 2004, though they have ramped up recently, with Coudour saying that there will be several over the days following the 7 March, particularly aiming to cut power to speed cameras. Coudour says “they will retain road safety but cancel the government’s means of sanction.”
Energy workers are among the more militant in part because they have slightly more to protect than workers whose jobs use the general pension regime. Energy workers have a special pension regime that among other things takes into account the punishing nature of the work. Workers who have served a certain amount of time in jobs that are “unsanitary”, “active” or “military” can retire earlier on full pensions.
As well as electricity and gas workers defending their special regime, petrochemical workers – who do not benefit from the regime – have come out on strike in massive numbers against the wider reform, with every Total Energies refinery being blocked from operating on 7 march.
Paul Feltmann spoke to Novara Media from the strike in Paris where he marched in the boilersuit that he wears for his work in a Total oil refinery. He said, “We have already experienced a deep crisis, and so what we are saying is that we are defending the retirement age and also we want a pay rise because the cost of a food shop has increased in France by 10%. We have seen an explosion in prices in every sector and we don’t want to work more and more in punishing working conditions with poverty wages.
“We work all the time, weekends, bank holidays. We are often at work before six in the morning and we are faced with toxic products that are carcinogenic, and often extremely noxious.”
The government claims that raising the retirement age and increasing pension contributions is necessary, in order to create an egalitarian system, and maintain the social aspects of the model. They consider the special regimes to be outdated privileges and the unions defending them to be vested interests. However, according to Coudour, the position of the CGT is that the special regime does not cost the general pension pot anything and that in fact the energy workers special regime is in surplus, so it actually feeds the general pot. The CCAS works council also maintains that this is the case.
France’s energy workers have made it clear that their special regime is something that they are willing to continue defending with tactics that extend beyond the strike. On 9 March, CGT workers cut the power to the Stade de France, and clandestine actions will presumably continue. As Fabrice Coudour told Novara “Robin Hood is nowhere, and he is everywhere all at once”.
The French Labour ministry ignored a request for comment. EDF refused to comment.
UPDATE, 14 March: A previous version said 3.5 million people went on strike. In fact this figure refers to the number of people who attended protests in support of the strike.
Olly Haynes is a freelance journalist covering politics, culture and social movements.