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OPINION: Drunk on their own rhetoric, certain French unions resort to guerrilla actions in pensions battle

John Lichfield
John Lichfield - [email protected]
OPINION: Drunk on their own rhetoric, certain French unions resort to guerrilla actions in pensions battle
Illustration photo by LOIC VENANCE / AFP

As France's hardline CGT union threatens to cut the power to events like the Cannes Film Festival and French Open, John Lichfield looks at the history of such protests, and why they might say more about union weakness than about Macron's vulnerability.

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A new word has entered the French lexicon of politics and protest. The energy branch of the CGT trades union federation has declared a “grévilla” against President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform.

 A grévilla is part-strike (grève) and part-guerrilla warfare. The energy workers – a kind of self-appointed provisional wing of the CGT -  threaten to turn out the lights at the Cannes film festival next month. They also plan to disrupt the Monaco Grand Prix, the French tennis open at Roland-Garros and the Avignon theatre festival.

They, and other militants, are menacing the Paris Olympics next year.

FACTCHECK Can French unions really cut the electricity during strikes?

A local branch of CGT-Energie cut the power to a private clinic in Ganges, near Montpellier, last week – possibly by mistake or stupidity - while attempting to disrupt a visit by President Macron. 

Five surgical operations were in progress when the lights went out. The clinic’s back-up generator switched on after 13 seconds. No lives were lost. Five lives were placed in danger.

The president of the clinic has made a criminal complaint against “X” or persons unknown. He speaks of an “act of terrorism”.

He is quite right. The CGT energy branch has invented a kind of “terrorism lite” or maybe that should be “terrorism light”.

The French mainstream media scarcely reacts. The CGT national leadership condones the actions or, in effect, lies about them.

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The newly elected secretary general of the CGT, Sophie Binet, said on TV this week that the power cut at the clinic in Gorges was “not the CGT” – whilst defending her energy section’s campaign of indiscriminate, local power cuts for presidential or ministerial visits.

In truth, she – like her predecessors – has little control over the more aggressive and militant CGT branches, in the energy, oil and railway industries. They have been pushing from the beginning for much more disruptive action against pension reform than occasional marches and 24-hour strikes.

Like the relatively small number of people who bang saucepans to protest against visits by Macron and his ministers, they want the revolt against pension reform to go on indefinitely and become a wider rebellion against “the system”. Banging saucepans is a perfectly legitimate protest: indiscriminate power cuts are not.

This would-be revolutionary saucepan-banging minority has been much noticed in the French and international media. The signs that the wider protests are fading has been comparatively little reported.

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A so-called Railway Workers’ Day of Anger last Thursday was a complete flop. Rail services worked almost normally that day. Maybe the non-militant majority of SNCF workers are not so angry as the minority claims - though no doubt miffed that they will eventually be retiring at 58, instead of 56, on pensions still hugely subsidised by other taxpayers.

(Reminder: the permanently loss-making SNCF pension regime has to be topped up from state coffers by €3bn a year.)

The temporary union of all unions against pension reform survives for the time being. The “intersyndicale” is counting on a massive turn-out for the traditional Mayday labour marches next Monday.

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There probably will be very high numbers. The opposition to a relatively modest pension reform is real – although,  exaggerated to the point of hysteria by a few.

But what then? The more moderate trades union federations have no stomach for continuing the weekly protests.

They are counting on the Constitutional Council approving on May 3rd a second, revised attempt to organise a referendum to fix the minimum French retirement age permanently at 62. They may well be disappointed.

The CFDT and other “reformist” union federations will then gradually fade out of the protest movement but sullenly refuse to cooperate with Macron and the government for many months.

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The CGT and other militant federations – Force Ouvrière and SUD – will be obliged to continue. They are intoxicated by their own rhetoric and trapped by their permanent rivalry to appear more intransigent than one another.

The CGT – Confédération Générale du Travail – is compelled to act tough because it is so weak. It has lost its status of Number One French federation to the hated CFDT. It is riven between modernising and hard-line camps.

The CGT, founded in 1895, has a long and partly honourable history in the struggle for workers’ rights in France.

But its DNA contains darker elements. It was obedient to Moscow and the French Communist Party until the 1970s. The CGT has past (long past) form in terrorism much heavier than switching off lights.

During the great strikes of 1947, its railway members sabotaged the track in several parts of France. On December 3rd 1947 the Paris to Tourcoing night mail train was derailed near Arras in the Pas-de-Calais killing 20 people.

The “grévilla” campaign of CGT-Energies is more likely to embarrass the union and anger public opinion than to force Macron to back down. It is more about internal union politics and delusions of revolutionary power than pension reform.

It baffles me all the same that much of the mainstream French media is so passive – almost neutral - in its reporting and commentary on such pompous mischief.

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Chas MacInnes 2023/04/25 16:31
I see a very strong comparison between the french press regarding the more extremist language and actions of the anti pension/establishment movement and the British press' silence on the catastrophe of brexit. Rather than real social commentary and holding the establishment or anti establishment to account they both seem happy to sit on the fence like the 3 wise monkeys. Is this happening to the press everywhere or just here?

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