The people are angry with their government. Where? Just about everywhere…
So what makes ongoing strikes in France so special? Nothing, perhaps, except a certain expectation based on history that French uprisings can produce important changes – or if not, can at least help clarify the issues in contemporary social conflicts.
The current ongoing social unrest in France appears to pit a majority of working people against President Emmanuel Macron. But since Macron is merely a technocratic tool of global financial governance, the conflict is essentially an uprising against policies that put the avaricious demands of financial markets ahead of the needs of the people. This basic conflict is at the root of the weekly demonstrations of Yellow Vest protesters who have been demonstrating every Saturday for well over a year, despite brutal police repression. Now trade unionists, public sector workers and Yellow Vests demonstrate together, as partial work stoppages continue to perturb public transportation.
In the latest developments, teachers in Paris schools are joining the revolt. Even the prestigious prep school, the Lycée Louis le Grand, went on strike. This is significant because even a government that shows no qualms in smashing the heads of working class malcontents can hesitate before bashing the brains of the future elite.
However general the discontent, the direct cause for what has become the longest period of unrest in memory is a single issue: the government’s determination to overhaul the national social security pension system. This is just one aspect of Macron’s anti-social program, but no other aspect touches just about everybody’s lives as much as this one.
French retirement is financed in the same way as U.S. Social Security. Employees and employers pay a proportion of wages into a fund that pays current pensions, in the expectation that tomorrow’s workers will pay for the pensions of those working today.
The existing system is complex, with particular regimes for 42 different professions, but it works well enough. As things are, despite the growing gap between the ultra-rich and those of modest means, there is less dire poverty among the elderly in France than, for example, in Germany.
The Macron plan to unify and simplify the system by a universal point system claims to improve “equality”, but it is a downward, not an upward leveling. The general thrust of the reform is clearly to make people work longer for smaller pensions. Bit by bit, the input and output of the social security system are being squeezed. This would further reduce the percentage of GDP going into wages and pensions.
The calculated result: as people fear the prospect of a penniless old age, they will feel obliged to put their savings into private pension schemes.
In a rare display of old-fashioned working-class international solidarity, Belgian trade unions have spoken out in strong support of French unions’ opposition to Macron’s reforms, even offering to contribute to a strike fund for French workers. Support by workers of one country for the struggle of workers in another country is what international solidarity used to mean. It is largely forgotten by the contemporary left, which tends to see it in terms of opening national borders. This perfectly reflects the aspirations of global capitalism.
The Macron economic reform policy was essentially defined in Brussels.
But Wall Street is interested too. The team of experts assigned by Prime Minister Edouard Philippe to devise the administration’s economic reforms includes Jean-François Cirelli, head of the French branch of Black Rock, the seven trillion-dollar New York-based investment manager. About two thirds of Black Rock’s capital comes from pension funds all over the world.
Larry Fink, the American CEO of this monstrous heap of money, was a welcome visitor at the Elysée Palace in June 2017, shortly after Macron’s election. Two weeks later, economics minister Bruno Le Maire was in New York consulting with Larry Fink. Then, in October 2017, Fink led a Wall Street delegation to Paris for a confidential meeting (leaked to Le Canard Enchaîné) with Macron and five top cabinet ministers to discuss how to make France especially attractive to foreign investment.
Larry Fink has an obvious interest in Macron’s reforms. By gradually impoverishing social security, the new system is designed to spur a boom in private pension schemes, a field dominated by Black Rock. These schemes lack the guarantee of government social security. Private pensions depend on stock market performance, and if there is a crash, there goes your retirement. Meanwhile, the money managers play with your savings, taking their cut whatever happens.