A protester in Paris on May Day. Photo: Olly Haynes
On the Boulevard Voltaire on 1 May, International Workers Day, Jérôme Rodrigues, a fierce-looking figure with a large salt and pepper beard, had the aura of a celebrity as members of the yellow vest movement came up to hug and take selfies with him. Rodrigues became a hero of the movement after he lost an eye to a rubber bullet at a protest in January 2019. He has remained active, and was rallying yellow vests to protest President Emmanuel Macron’s controversial pension reforms.
As International Workers Day protests go, 2023 was big. The CGT union counted 550,000 protesters in Paris, though the interior ministry counted 120,000. Clashes between black bloc anarchists and police were intense, resulting in a building being set on fire as well as a policeman who was hit by a molotov cocktail. According to the Observatory of Street Medics – an activist group which liaises with the volunteers that provide medical assistance to injured protesters in order to keep track of police violence – 118 protesters were severely injured across France.
The atmosphere was carnivalesque, with some of the younger activists dancing in the rain as the march progressed. “We are here, we are here, even if Macron doesn’t want us, we are here” – the melodic chant popularised by the yellow vests movement of 2018 rang out across Paris.
At the front of the march as people began spilling into Place de La Nation, the conflict between the black bloc and the police intensified, with riot police firing hails of gas canisters and flashball rubber bullets that filled the square with tear gas and smoke. The less conflict-ready members of the crowd dispersed. Clouds of tear gas wafted down the side streets, burning eyes and nostrils.
Opposition to the reform is widespread and the protests are huge and lively, in contrast to the relatively tame resistance to the cost of living crisis in the UK. However, as the protests continue, activists are beginning to raise questions about the overall direction of the movement and its prospects for success. Asked about the strategy going forward, Rodrigues said: “There is none, it’s over”.
“The strategy of the unions in France today is the same as the one my grandfather followed in his time. I’m sorry, but singing, dancing – that doesn’t do anything. I’m not saying to be violent and to break everything. But to dance and sing for three months? Macron is laughing his head off.
“There is a methodological problem with the small march, always in the same street with the same people that’s produced nothing but losses for 50 years.”
The pension reform raises the retirement age from 62 to 64. There are also concerns about the state of French democracy, following a stunning spike in police violence at protests and preventative arrests of activists. Macron has bulldozed the reform into law without a parliamentary vote, using the controversial article 49.3 of the French constitution.
On May Day, some protesters were calling for a referendum on the reform, more in hope than expectation. Two days later, as was widely expected, the Constitutional Counsel ruled this out, leaving the movement with limited procedural means for overturning the reform.
The Intersyndicale, the coalition of union leaders at the head of the movement that call the days of action, has not directly responded to the decision of the Counsel, but issued a communique the day before the ruling in which they denounced “the authoritarian decisions that have led to this social and democratic crisis” and called another day of action for 6 June.
However, opinions on where to go next are diverging, with some trade unionists becoming increasingly critical of the Intersyndicale, for being too timid and lacking in a longer view as its calls for single days of action at a time.
“Trade unionists at the base are getting fed up of the ‘union elite’ and the strategy of the Intersyndicale which is not getting the goods,” said Rodrigues.
Rodrigues is not the only person wondering if the movement should change direction.
Novara Media spoke to Laurent Mervaille, a CGT representative and worker at the EDF nuclear plant in Chooz, in the Ardennes region of northern France, as he stood in front of a trade union van blasting techno music as protesters gathered in Place de la Republique.
He said, “there’s not a government minister that can go outside without a welcome committee of saucepan [protests] and whenever they speak to the public, they are asked about the pension reform, or salaries, or purchasing power. There is a deep, deep discontent.”
However, if the government remains intransigent, trade unions may have to change their tactics, he said. “The discontent is so widespread that as trade unionists, we do not have a choice. We will have to return to the negotiating table and seek advances within our workplaces.”
“The movement will continue, but under another form, that’s clear enough. In my view it will be more concentrated on businesses, with more hardline actions, rather than protests.”
Baptiste, a tech-worker and member of the Solidaires union and campaigner against mega-basin reservoirs who gave only his first name, said, “the level of people mobilising in the streets [near Brest where he is from] has hit historical record [highs], but there is a huge frustration that even if we are so numerous, nothing changes.
“We have massive popular support, even for more radical actions like sabotage and we will have to create a dialectic between direct actions and mass demonstrations ahead of 6 June, and from the black bloc to the reformist unions, we have to all be able to work together.”
Baptiste said that the movement could also shame the government on the international stage. “We have got the Olympic Games coming up in 2024, and other big sports events like the Rugby World Cup in September this year, and we are going to make noise,” he said. “Noise big enough to shame the French government.”
Laura Varlet, a railway signaller and activist with the union Sud Rail, is part of the Network for a General Strike, a small collective of trade unionists and Trotskyist activists aiming to spread the strike to industries that it has not currently reached.
She said that no “leaders of unions had organised any attempt to challenge the requisition orders [legal directives that forces striking workers to return to work] and were happy coordinating their individual days of action […] for us that seemed like a huge problem.”
The Network has suggested widening the demands of the strikes beyond pensions to include, among other things, pay demands. “Even if the Network is modest in size, it is a way for us to propose an alternative to the strategy of the Intersyndicale with isolated days of action once a week, or this time [once a month]”, said Varlet. “It’s 1 May, the next date of action is on 6 June.”
Sylvain, a bookseller and member of the Solidaires union who gave only his first name, suggested that overturning the reforms through procedural wrangling would be evidence of weakness. “The solution isn’t institutional, anyone can see that the constitutional counsel doesn’t want to take a position against the government,” he said.
Asked about the strategy of the Intersyndicale, Sylvain drew a comparison to 1995 when general assemblies, or “interpros”, saw public sector workers across different sectors coordinating together to exercise maximum leverage. For three weeks France entered a period of paralysis, eventually forcing the government to withdraw Prime Minister Alain Juppe’s reforms.
“The Intersyndicale does set the rhythm of action and there has been no organisation into general assemblies like the  strikes, comrades don’t seem to be able to articulate why.
“That being said, I don’t know if that’s because of the Intersyndicale or because of structural changes.  years ago, all workers on the railway worked for SNCF and were all considered public functionaries, that is no longer the case. In 2023 in a railway station, many of the workers are precarious, not everyone, like the people who sweep the station for example, has the status of railway functionary.”
After the march Novara Media spoke over the phone to Rachel Keke, a former hotel cleaner who rose to prominence by organising a strike and becoming an MP for leftwing party La France Insoumise. She said that although “there are legislative and judicial options, the best method [for victory] is mobilising through strikes.”
Keke offered a word of advice to the striking workers; “During the struggle there will be highs and lows, you must not feel discouraged if we enter a slower moment.”
Olly Haynes is a freelance journalist covering politics, culture and social movements.