When the pension reform was announced in September 2019, the RATP flexed their pinkies and responded with a one day strike which shut down all metros except the automated ones. This was a way of counting how many cheminot.e.s [train drivers] would be willing to go on strike in December, as well as being an act of menace toward the government, positioning the unions for a fight for repeal or perhaps reform of the reform. The reform, drafted by an old politician of the Chirac era, would put everyone on the same pensions scheme. State functionaries— such as underground train drivers, emergency service workers, police — previously benefited from special pensions. This included lower ages of retirement than“general regime” workers. This was reflective of the status of such jobs, and also of their exposure to dangerous conditions or risks. Train drivers, for example, have one of the lowest ages of retirement (57) because of the night work, physical exertion and pollution that they are exposed to, whereas for other workers it is 64. For ballerinas, the retirement age is 42, but this dates from an earlier time when life expectancy was really low. The only special regime workers who would remain on the old regime were the police, the very people needed to suppress resistance to the reforms.
As well as putting special regime workers on universal regimes so they’ll have to work much longer to attain full pensions, and probably suffer reduced life expectancy. The pensions reform will suppress spending on all pensions to 14% of the state budget, and replace a contributions system with a “points” system, although no-one yet knows what a point corresponds to. There is no guarantee that points will be tied to living costs, or rise with inflation. Therefore the points (and the money you get) are relative to 14% of whatever the state budget is. The former pension system calculated a monthly average based on either the last six months of your career (public sector), or 25 best earning years (private), and then divided it in two. The new one will make a monthly average of the whole of someone’s career — taking in precarious or unemployed moments, maternity leave. The average will be lower. Women will be more impacted than men. Outside of France, the pensions reform has been understood as a fight over retirement age. It is not that exactly, it’s more backdoor than that: it is rather that people will be losing so much money (primary school teachers €450/month, teachers €650/month) that they will have to work longer. Special regime workers will have a higher official retirement age in being moved to the general regime.
At the same time, Macron is slashing unemployment and housing benefits. This is perhaps the mirror in strategy to keeping police on the old regime. Besides the obvious question of cost and state budgets, this is also a question of discipline: as George Chamayou writes in his book, Societe Ungouvernable: “As long as the situation of social protection exists, the threat of unemployment cannot play its role to its fullest, the existence of unemployment benefits reduces the penalisation associated with getting fired” [my translation]. The social security system in France is not like the philanthropic model of somewhere like the UK. To caricature wildly, when the second world war and the Nazi occupied Vichy regime ended, armed communist resistants pointed the finger at the state, corporations and industrialists who had all collaborated with the Nazis, and refused to disarm until a universal health care system and welfare state was instituted for all. These social benefits and worker rights have been more or less maintained for years through labour movements, against Left and Right wing governments, who have slowly chipped away at them. The last five years has seen an extraordinary wave of resistance, union and otherwise, to government reforms and austerity measures, as well as an extraordinary, accelerating and highly militarised police repression. This text covers only a few things as part of a violent and continuing liberalisation of the economy under Hollande and Macron.
November 18th saw the one year anniversary of the gilets jaunes, institutionalised now as Saturday protests. The protest was explosive, dispersed across Paris and heavily beaten and tear-gassed by cops on motorcycles, whirling round corners with batons drawn and taking apart barricades.
Place d’Italie was kettled at the order of the new high chief of police, Didier Lallemand. Petrol was poured into the gutters around the park in the centre of the place, making for a ring of fire. There was a six hour battle with police and with firemen who were trying to put out the fires and the whole zone was impossible to get to. Fires were set elsewhere in the centre of town and boulevards blocked. A cat and mouse with police ensued at the shopping centre of Les Halles after a call out circulated on Twitter from gilets jaunes, Extinction Rebellion and other eco-groups, and police descended on protesters and shoppers, unable to tell the difference, fired tear gas up into the roof of the mall. The place was invested with the kind of magic that the Champs Elysées had been over the course of the past year. A police car was turned upside down. Manifs sauvages [wild demos] continued to leave and return to Les Halles and the neighbouring Fontaine des Innocents over the course of the evening. This went on for a few more Saturdays, with impressive night runs around town, which on the whole elided police. Plain clothes police even ended up beating each other on one occasion.
A few weeks before this Extinction Rebellion, along with other groups including gilets jaunes and anti-racist community groups such as Comité Adama, had occupied a huge shopping centre, Italie 2, but Extinction Rebellion, without consulting with the others, had “decided to leave” at 2am, because it was a “symbolic” occupation. Likewise, they had blocked all the bridges in the centre of town and Chatelet as well for a week. However, as it turns out, Extinction Rebellion always collaborate with mayors’ offices: they decide with them when they are going to leave. They have an extremely hierarchical structure, and so not everyone knows the plan. They leave people to be arrested, as well as relying on foot soldiers, who they call “arrestables”. They spent most of their time erasing tags made in tribute to black and brown people killed by the police, in the interests of “cleaning up” the “environment”. I saw them as the restoration period of the gilets jaunes — they pretended to be them and borrowed some appearances and tactics, but in reality they were part of the repression of the movement.
On November 8th, a 22 year old Franco-Algerian student called Anas K. had set himself on fire in front of the CROUS (the state student bursary and housing office) in Lyon, in a suicide attempt intended as a political act. He had failed his second year of undergraduate education for the second time, meaning that he had lost his modest €450 living allowance. In his letter, he accused Macron, Hollande (the last president of France, a “socialist”) and Marine Le Pen (the head of the fascist opposition party, the Rassemblement Nationale, formerly called the Front National) of having killed him. He denounces neoliberalism for propagating inequality, and growing fascism in Europe for spreading fear. He asked his comrades in the union he was part of to keep struggling. However, although his body was 90% badly burned, he did not die.
Anas K.’s suicide attempt sent waves of shock around the national student body, comprising many youth facing extreme precariousness and poverty. A hashtag and campaign, #LaPrecaritéTue [precariousness kills], was launched. There were demonstrations, property damaging and otherwise, by students in different cities in solidarity with Anas K.
At one #LaPrecaritéTue demonstration in Paris, a crowd gathered in the dark, freezing night outside the CROUS building and union members, students, migrant-students, and mothers of students who had killed themselves made discursive links between the reforms which have happened under Macron — restructuring in the high school and university applications systems, the rise in fees last year by 1000% for non-EU students — as well as students’ working conditions, and the fact that some students have been killed doing gig-economy jobs such as Deliveroo to support themselves through studies. The crowd then moved off with pink flares screaming accusations of assassination at cops, ran around the Latin quarter, and tried to storm the Sorbonne campus but it’s heavy, giant doors were very closed.
Around this time universities began to slip into a chaotic flurry of reshuffling dates in anticipation of the apocalyptically named “Black December.” This “General and Unlimited” strike called for by the transport and education unions would comprise a total shutdown of public transport: metro and national rail services. In Parisian universities, exams were moved forward and concentrated into the last few weeks of November, some students even having to sit ten mid-terms in the space of one week, amounting sometimes to several a day with no breaks. The exams were early, unwelcome and stressful, and should have been cancelled. Other teachers gave students ways of doing the exams without doing them — one maths professor at the Sorbonne university for example asked that his students should answer the question 4 times 5, and then gave them 20/20 for the semester.
The strike in Paris began on the night of December 4th, with wildcat shutdowns of key metro lines. I walked across Paris in a chill fog with two of my colleagues, trying to persuade them not to go in the next day. The next day, twelve out of fourteen metro lines in Paris (the other two are automated), as well as national rail (the SNCF) across the whole country, were completely shut down.
Paris was paralysé, although the Uberisation of publicly available transport— the automated metros which run from East to West, Lime and bird scooters, Ubers, rentable bicycles — meant people continued to infringe upon their own rights to miss work. There was of course sabotage of Limes and Uber bikes — all you have to do is efface the barcode, with chewing gum, stickers or paint — and people sometimes used them to burn on barricades or throw at police. The bikes, anyway, were damaged by overuse. On putting one of them back, one was often met by zombielike professionals, dribbling and gasping and asking whether the bike still worked.
Of course, workers in private sector jobs have a harder time going on strike: any work they miss must be caught up on later, waitresses are simply not paid. Some service workers had to pay twice their nightly wages to get to their jobs. Transit depots were blocked by workers every day from about 4am, sometimes with the help of seasonal theatre workers, gilets jaunes and high school students. These pickets were violent, and students and workers were peeled off them by the police. As the strike was reconductible — meaning that it can be voted to be prolonged — there was no way of knowing how long it would last, instead local strike committees would vote it through every day. This represents a huge change in union organisation and base autonomy, and potentially topples the monopoly union bosses have in calling or calling off strikes. Underground railway bosses and administrative workers (white collar) stepped in to break the strike and provide a limited service during rush hour.
Trains were so packed that it looked as if there would be a horrible accident. We walked a lot. Electricity cuts were made by energy workers, intermittently, andthe power was shut off to town halls and presidential buildings. I met a woman in a bar who organises concerts and had spent three hours moving equipment (amps, tubas, other instruments, cables) across Paris by foot because traffic was so bad, so that the concert — with people on tour who had come from abroad — would be maintained. We agreed that this was not breaking the strike.
That month was also peppered with big street demonstrations, about twice a week. The first was the biggest since the strikes of 1995, powerful rail-workers’ strikes over pensions which had succeeded, under Chirac. On December 5th 2020, 1.5 million people from different sectors — ambulance workers, firemen, lawyers, teachers, rail workers — across France, 250,000 in Paris alone, demonstrated against the reforms. Macron blithely called this an “elitist” minority in terms of the population of France, and Martinez, head of the CGT union responded “I challenge you to find a single political party in France that has as many as 1.5 million people in it”. Macron’s party, La République en Marche, which was voted by a minority electorate largely out of the lack of a real left wing alternative and out of fear that Marine Le Pen would get into power, certainly doesn’t have anything like this in terms of numbers.
Although the demonstrations in December were huge, they were not violent, and often did not manage to march anywhere at all because of the unprecedented numbers of protestors and a heavy police presence in the streets. In response to a wild gilets jaunes Saturday in March, when two buildings had burnt down and the mussels restaurant Fouquets had been sacked, Didier Lallemand had been hired as the new chief of police, for Mayday 2019. Policing strategy has since then completely shifted. First, Lallemand has brought back voltigeurs (armed police on motorcycles) — called the Brigade de Repression des Actions Violentes (the BRAV, the most violent brigade in town) — formerly banned after the murder of a young student, Malik Oussekine in the 1980s. Second, whereas before the French police were hugely centralised, Lallemand has brought in an IDF style, decentralised (“Deleuzian”, says a friend) police force, where smaller groups of police are empowered to make their own decisions. This is a direct response or mirror to the unprecedented mobility and force of the gilets jaunes. The cleavage between the movement of gilets jaunes, which raged in the streets from November 2018 onward with little to no union support, and the union movement is visible. The police and the gilets jaunes have been trained by opposition to each other in an impressive escalation of violence, yet the union movement is on the whole far behind. Equipped with extra weapons and Mad Max style motorbike gear, it was as if the police were ahead in 2020, whereas the trade unionists ambled along far before the gilets jaunes in 2018, at the beginning of the movement against Francois Hollande’s work law, in 2016.
Delevoye, the man who had drafted the pensions reform, crawled out from whatever dinner party he’d been at since the Chirac presidency, and had to resign soon into the strike. He was revealed to be a CEO of a significant life insurance company, and as the pension reforms would open up the French market to life insurance claims, this was deemed inappropriate. Another man, Laurent Pietraszewski, an HR of a supermarket chain who once fired a cashier for being 80 centimes short on a till took over. The government, in further display of their weakness, changed strategy and put the prime minister Edouard Philippe up for the job next. This is consistent with French political strategy, in which they put someone, a“fall guy” or scarecrow, on the line to push through reforms. In this case the government’s foot soldiers were so weak that they had to put themselves on the frontline. Black Rock, an American company, with interests in all of the companies that form the CAC40 (France’s benchmark stock index, like the FTSE 100 or NASDAQ), had written a public bulletin to Macron shortly before reforms were announced asking him to suppress pensions to open up the market to life insurance.
The biggest right wing union in France, CFDT, went on strike for about a day. Even Francois Hollande, with his very unpopular work law, had never managed to get the whole alliance of unions against him. However, they completely betrayed the movement yet again: Macron threw out a wildcard thing about retirement age, and then removed it as a “concession”. I saw a lot of people on Facebook applauding the French strikes and saying they’d “won”, they’d “got their demands”. This is absolutely not true and this concession of Macron’s was of no interest to striking workers, except the CFDT.
The other union bosses then wanted to betray the strike, announcing a “compromise” for the Christmas period, so that people could go home and see their families. The RATP and SNCF base refused, and the strike was impressively maintained throughout Christmas.
The ballerinas and orchestra of the Opéra de Paris joined the strike, dancing Swan Lake on the steps of the Opéra picket, frilling and folding their tutu-ed bodies, ravaged by a lifetime of work which often starts at as early as 8 years old, before a strike banner. This was a “historic” moment. Ballerinas have a very particular work status, originally decreed under Louis XVI. They are swept into a life of intensive body-and-foot destruction work and dance conservatories. They are shut up between performances, and they retire at 42 years old. However, this youthful retirement age, the same under Louis XVI, was once reflective of life expectancy being something like 48. During the strike, not working, they were going crazy, completely off the wagon. A friend of mine, J, spent new years eve with some of them, wild eyed and strung out, rejoicing.
Lawyers, over 70,000 across the whole of France, threw off their robes and refused to go to work. Firemen, as they had done since September, fought police wearing their professional masks and uniforms over a specific set of demands not entirely related to the pensions. Other firemen put out fires set by protestors. Other firemen started fires and threw back teargas. This caused confusion about the position of the firemen in relation to the police, but really it is simple: the firemen from central Paris are military firemen and work closely with the CRS (riot cops). The firemen actually fighting the police work in the suburbs, they were on strike because their job forces them to do all kinds of things which fall outside of their contract.
Ballerinas and orchestras kept playing and dancing.
By the beginning of 2020, this was not only the biggest general strike since 1995, but the longest since 1968. Cheminot.e.s kept striking until well into the second week of January. After that the strike began to wane: by now workers had been on strike for 52 days consecutively, and had lost their entire salaries. Families with two striking workers were feeling the pinch. The strike funds were not gathering enough money, despite parties thrown by students, unionists and queers across Paris. A partial strike started: you would be waiting for a 2 minutes away line 7, and it would suddenly disappear. Workers were slowing down service in the autonomist fashion, or doing intermittent, undeclared strikes “grèves du zèle”, “grèves perlées” [work slowdowns, intermittent“beaded” strikes — necklace strikes!]. At the end of January, a further blow of repression was announced: the RATP would be giving €1,500 bonuses to workers who had broken the strikes. Some striking workers were receiving negative salaries because they still had to pay taxes.
The university of Nanterre had expected the transport strike to be over by January, and had scheduled all of its exams in the retakes week, which happens the week before the semester starts. As it wasn’t, the president decreed that students could sleep in the gymnasium, which has no shower facilities, or take out hotel rooms or Ubers at their own expense. Anyone not present at exams would get zero. Several departments went on strike, outraged about the idea of maintaining exams in these conditions, and pitting students against strikers.
Having seen how difficult it was to organise workers who, like me, came from other places with little in the way of striking culture, with my friend Jess, who does the same job at Nanterre, we started a group called LectXs en Lutte. We discussed the ways in which foreigners are precarious (often in exile from more neoliberal countries, visas tied to work contracts), and mobilised against strikes (often getting their information on news or rights from an intermediary, anglophone or otherwise middle manager).
When I went back to work, reluctantly, in January, I was met with classrooms awash with well articulated criticisms of students’ immediate conditions. I urged them to go on strike, and for the days I did go in to work, I only taught classes about strikes, reforms and feminism. I told them that they would have a grade of 20/20 for my class no matter what, and was met with some empty classrooms. Perhaps I got too excited, it is anyway the first time I’ve had a job in which I could go on strike. I want to let my students off bad exam conditions, grade pressures, and also to give them time to organise themselves for their own strike. I do not want them to be queuing for seven hours to speak to the administration about changing the hour of a class because it conflicts with the hour of a waitressing shift, only to be told that their contract means nothing unless it’s a permanent one. One girl even fainted on the 7 hour queue.
It was quite evident at this point that the next sector to get involved should be the university — it had the power to take over the strike while the cheminot.e.s replenished their household resources by earning money fast, and could support the general strike that way. A new reform — the LPPR — was announced, which will privatise funding initiatives, making researchers more precarious, and will also get rid of a sweep of permanent (the equivalent to tenured) staff positions. The university will be underfunded, tied to private interests influencing research, and further casualized and divided.
In Parisian universities, this only revealed what was already the case: 75% of classes are taught by précaires of many different statuses — doctoral students, contractual workers like me, vacataires (who are paid by the hour, and do not get social security or sick pay), researchers, graduate students. Titulaires, comfortable, permanent workers of the university, who would be losing pensions and also be affected by the instability that this neoliberal reform would bring also had enough reason to go on strike. In addition, titulaires do not risk pay cuts or non renewal, which is something preventing non titulaires from open or declared strikes. In addition, these workers had benefited from the transport strike, which had started to slow down, and had not lost pay. They could have donated their salaries to strike funds to help the cheminot.e.s keep striking. But they didn’t, they ummed and aahed about going on strike, voted for strikes and then worked anyway. As total strikes were not led by titulaires, this meant the extent to which precarious workers and students could participate was limited.
Other industries made their entrance. We had hoped that the refineries would keep blocking (they started on the 7th January), but they dropped out of the game again. Without public transport or petrol, this strike would have been incredible. Garbage workers were on strike for several weeks, meaning the street furniture for high school students to use blocking and burning the entrances to their schools against the newly reformed Baccalaureat exams was greatly increased. A waste sorting plant of mainly outsourced workers was even occupied for a week at the end of January in Vitry. But big private industry was severely lacking. On a demonstration late January, there were Peugeot and Renault workers from the famous Flins depot, where cops charged a picket in 1968 and a high school student ran into the Seine and was drowned. The workers at Renault were not many to go on strike, forty out of a thousand, a worker told me. Same as the dockers, who all work different shifts and are in difficult positions, legally, when they do strike. EDF (electricity) workers continued to make flickering electricity cuts and sabotages. Artists made banners “At the next private view, the cocktail will be a molotov”. The January landscape was still peppered with gilets jaunes’ Saturday demonstrations.
January and February left a bad taste in our mouths. Although a greater exposure had been lent to the struggles of temporary workers in the university, titulaires were still not moving on the strike. Extremely peaceful (pacified) union marches were rolling themselves out in Paris every week on days when I wouldn’t have been working anyway. This is a big issue for precarious workers: unless a total strike is called, the extent to which they can participate is limited, because they may have side jobs (nannying and sex work included) falling on the protest days. The marches felt folkloric: although they were very very big, and allowed for teachers, students, lawyers, ballerinas, artists (art en greve), militant queer groups (CLAQ: comité de liberation autonome et queer), car factory workers, precarious workers, gilets noirs, gilets jaunes and otherwise to rub shoulders with bands of lively cheminot.e.s, the march, heavily policed, went from A to B. This becomes a great performance — because it is so hard to get from A to B, because of cops, people begin to think it is enough to get to B. These marches, in bright sunlight, so different from all of the gilets jaunes marches, although we did see gilets jaunes on them, felt like PR for redundant union management — because why weren’t they calling for all out general strike and not grève perlée (beaded strike) — and the “bourgeoisie” (the titulaires, and even other workers we saw on the marches) betraying the cheminot.e.s (who’d gone so all out and lost so much), the base, the précaires, and especially the gilets jaunes (who made more “political” victories in two weeks than the unions did in forty years). This made me sick. It felt almost like a display of contempt for these sections of society. Meanwhile, firemen from the banlieue (non police collaborators) blocked the ring road around Paris, set themselves on fire in their fireproof uniforms, and used the police’s own barricades against them, hurling back gas and grenades. Their demands were immediately met, not all of them relating to the pensions reform, and so unfortunately they dropped out of the game the same night.
That may be my experience of the aesthetics of January, but my questions are the wrong ones and my disgust, I admit, verges on moralism. There is a better explanation for what is going on, and here is a kind of transcript of a conversation I had with someone, called L. In December people asked — how can the insurrectional character of the gilets jaunes be learnt by/lent to the strike? There was lots of respect for the gilets jaunes, and of course this was expressed in chants, conversations. But the strike didn’t assume anything like the gilets jaunes’ insurrectional character, beyond chants and tributes. This is probably not surprising, even if many people in the base of the unions were gilets jaunes and many gilets jaunes came to the marches, and even if the gilets jaunes did more to destitute Macron’s authority and achieved more in terms of socio economic gains. The gilets jaunes have, undeniably, a different class composition, experience (of the state, of class, of work), way of organising, and a different set of investments to the majority of people on strike now. Whereas the union movement is still one indirectly tied to wages, the gilets jaunes started over a dispute about real wages, commodity prices, standard of living.
The strike, I thought, was appearing strong — so strong,so apocalyptic! — in a period in which Macron was so weak, just had to resign — how could he go on? —, the two struggles would help each other. But Macron had also hardened over the gilets jaunes, and it is now clear that no matter the level of public unrest (well, nearly) he is uninterested in discourse or negotiation. It’s no-one’s fault, that’s not the point, and this is certainly not a reason not to strike. But it’s possible that Macron became better at not negotiating through the gilets jaunes, just as the gilets jaunes themselves did. Gilets jaunes got better at hating and fighting police and television, just as police got better at fighting them. The unions are also so weak — years of defeat, mistrust of left politicians, and general cynicism: people in Paris say all the time that they think strikes wont work. University professors make ridiculous “history” arguments, that take no account of specific historical conjunctures or moments: X won’t work in Y date because it didn’t work in Z date before.
The social democratic pact, if you like, has changed. The tacit rules before, were that you had the government, faced with an opposition made up by the unions, who would flex their muscles and bring out people on strike or on the streets in order to challenge laws and reforms and protect the social democratic and work securities long fought for by communist, resistance and union struggle. The numbers on the street would bolster the union’s legitimacy in negotiating with the government. Numbers were important for the negotiations, gains, and betrayals that the unions made for their base. However, during the gilets jaunes movement, as there were no voted-in spokespeople, representatives, unions etc to barter with, this was no longer a question of negotiation, or numbers. Macron scrambled around for about two weeks trying to speak to someone and offered more concessions than any leader had to any union movement, without any negotiation. This did little to dissuade the gilets jaunes from appearing. There were no clear demands, or, there were many clear demands. But there was no negotiation: the year was full frontal violence — an abstract negotiation— of street vs. Macron. Numbers were irrelevant because there was no negotiation on the table. Macron’s side was negotiated by an increasingly empowered police force. Macron stopped addressing the movement.
Even more curious is the question of legitimacy: Macron is head of the weakest party ever to lead in the 5th republic. The unions have never been so weak. The left is almost absent. It’s almost as if nobody is trying to speak to nobody, or as if, in this void, suddenly the workforce came to stand naked before naked Capital in the capital city. But this “unveiling” is deceptive, it is simultaneously a “veiling”, as if by the simple exposure of “politics” we would magically arrive at truth or some result. Macron was elected on nearly nothing except “being quite handsome”, lack of a Left, and out of fear for Le Pen. Macron was elected because of the old fairytale that if you elect a liberal, you fend off fascism, because of the proximity of an explicit fascist party to the gates of power. But once in power he would be obliged to maintain his power using exactly Marine Le Pen’s footsoldiers (the police). Most of the police, gendarmerie and otherwise vote RN (Marine Le Pen), and their unions are explicitly bonded to the party. He needed LePen twice, first to access power through opposition, and second to keep it (through assimilation). Macron’s only legitimacy against the gilets jaunes, and which they challenged, admirably, was his almost-monopoly on violence. Police are bejewelled with more weapons, non lethal and lethal, and have more powers. But this creates a volatile moment in terms of the police, the police presumably understand — or, what we’re seeing is an expression of their understanding — that Macron owes his only legitimacy to them. This is why we’re seeing the fascist radicalisation of policing policy.
The unions however, says L, still address an old board game, the power-balanced, anachronic one that I described before. In the example of the train drivers, they are just as brilliant and potentially obstructive as the gilets jaunes, but the scene that they address themselves to is indifferent to them. There are plenty of Uberised and privatised forms of transport — privatised rail, privatised coaches, limes, citymapper apps even (which provide “Strike safe” options) can be included in this category — that render a transport strike impossible. It is for that that Macron can afford to be indifferent. And while transport and logistics present exciting opportunities for strikes, with a lack of convergence with other industries, they are limited in their potential impact. Were the strikers to begin to behave as gilets jaunes did, it would mean admitting the decrepitude of the union-worker-state symbolic order. Some of these workers cannot — yet — maybe comport themselves like gilets jaunes or resort to violence — yet — not only because of the force of the police on the other side, but also because their status is anchored in this symbolic order, and switching tactics would mean admitting their own disappearance as subjects.
That was January and February. On February 17th, the reform was “debated” by the assemblée, and there was a very weak demonstration, possibly because this was the week of holidays. On February 28th, Roman Polanski was given a Cesar award (the French equivalent of an Oscar) for best director for his film about the Dreyfus affair. Feminists demonstrating outside of the venue where the ceremony was held were severely beaten and gassed by police. Adele Haenel, who has led a brilliant Me Too campaign within the cinema industry, walked out of the ceremony in disgust. The next day, a Saturday, around 5pm, the government announced that they would be using the 49.3 — an “emergency law” once used to impose the work law in 2016 without a parliamentary majority — to push through the pensions reform, and also that all “public gatherings” (i.e. demonstrations) of more than 5000 people would be banned because of Coronavirus (another state of exception measure). So, just to reiterate, in those twenty four hours, the French establishment managed to give an award to a rapist director that they’ve been legally protecting for many years in the con`text of a worldwide feminist movement, ban demonstrations under the auspices of public health and safety, and pledge to push through a much resisted reform using a law of “exception”. People went down to the Assemblée and were kettled and gassed on the bridge, which runs across the Seine. After being held in the cold for several hours they were escorted to nearby metro stations.
The 49.3 law is interesting in and of itself. Article 49.3 of the French constitution is the fundamental law of the French fifth republic, which was brought in by a coup d’état. The fourth republic, created after the war by the conseil de la resistance, is itself a response to the fact that the third republic gave too much power to the Nazi’s — to Pétain — during the occupied government. The fifth republic therefore tries to re-balance power between the executive powers and parliament. Article 49 concerns these relations between parliament and government. Traditionally, parliament must have confidence in government. However, clause 3 allows the government to impose (force) the adoption of a text by the Assembly (parliament), immediately and without vote; this was a response to the Algerian crisis, which we cannot get into here. The assembly cannot oppose the law without a motion of no confidence, which would cause the entire government to topple. While enacting a supreme executive stabilising power over a legislative one — it is a kind of card played by governments that erases all the rules of the game that came before — it is also a card which puts their very position in peril because they would all have to resign (potentially is completely destabilising). A vote of no confidence has, however, only passed once under the fifth republic, at the “end” of the Algerian crisis, in 1962. We have, if you like, currently three forms of states of exception functioning at the moment: the emergency measures related to the coronavirus, the State of Emergency passed in 2015 after the terrorist attacks at the Bataclan and never more than officially dismantled, and this 49.3 law, which was also used to push through the work law in 2016.
Back in January, coronavirus had been evoked in newspaper articles about racism toward Asian-French people on metros, and toward Chinese supermarkets, which were shuttering. By late February there were the first three deaths, Libération ran a special issue on the virus, and students in my classroom said that the construction of the virus echoed the construction of a cold war style enemy. The virus, they said, was being instrumentalized by the state to crush the strike, and was part of a trade war against the Chinese. It was“just a flu”, they said.
At the outset of March, a huge union demonstration went from République to Madeleine. It felt very different to the ones before, the tête de cortege [front of the march] was upbeat, angry. The news about coronavirus had worked its way into crowds of demonstrators in jokes about the fact we might be able to wear masks again — which are banned under the loi anti-casseur (2019). It was wondered whether the outbreak could be used to close the university. The demonstration even had some gilets jaunes spirit as people verbally attacked bankers and bourgeois who stood on balconies, filming the march. Chants of “class war” invoked the virus against those who were thought to carry it: “we hope you get coronavirus and die”, “don’t look at us, throw yourself off that window” (usually it’s “don’t look at us, join us”), and “everyone hates the bourgeoisie/bankers”. It was blocked though at Madeleine, even though it was supposed to go to the Assemblée.
At the time, I was struck by the idea that had this been a gilets jaunes march, people would have found a way, in hordes, down to their destination. The GJ had a completely different relationship to urbanism. It invented a symbolic order: places in the city became invested with significance, the Champs Elysées became a site of battles of the week before, the week before that. People circled these new symbols, changed their meaning, inhabited neighbourhoods they would never have been in, people derived all over Paris with street maps, learnt the names of neighborhoods I knew better than my Parisian friends only because I had once been a nanny in them. Union marches happen anywhere, they accept existing symbols and palaces as their background.
A smaller group went by metro down to the Assemblée, where they were chased off by cops. A group of mainly high-schoolers ran across another bridge, into the garden of the Tuileries, which enfolds the Louvre. The Louvre workers had gone on strike in one way or another that week and had refused to go to work, saying that if demonstrations of more than 5000 people were banned, surely their own workplace — a huge gallery full of paintings and tourists — was unsafe. The high schoolers crossed the park, classical statues of Cesar were decorated with ACABs, the high schoolers tried to close the heavy wrought iron gates on the Voltigeurs. They failed — and so the terrifying spectacle of the mad max thugs spilling into the gardens, hitting anyone in sight with their batons. As they chased a group off to the edges, the security guards beckoned the protesters and got them out safely, on to bright sunshine on the Rue de Rivoli. They blocked the road, an enraged truck driver tried his best to run everyone over. We chased after him only to find a line of CRS like in a Western, advancing toward us. In this moment of confusion, the Voltigeurs struck, pulling young women to the ground and running into crowds of us, batons drawn, parting us like Moses did the sea. There’s no way to communicate to you how terrifying these Voltigeurs are, in their white helmets and uniforms. When they arrive it is as if synchronised or choreographed. They sweep around corners as a troupe, profit cinematically from boulevards and broad roads and perpendicular turns. They are an image of fascism, even if only an aesthetic, this is a serious one. It seems there is no longer any need for gas, or flash balls, or grenades, or water cannons (there was a water cannon there as well), people are terrified.
Following this was a huge demonstration of students in a response for a day of “Dead University” (Université Morte) on March 5th. Universities were blocked by students, picketed by strikers, and thousands came out on the streets. Unfortunately at my university the director had closed the school preemptively to permit “discussions” about the strike, and to stop the students coming in and getting organised.
You know how it is — if I just knew more about it, reason would smash the edifice, be exploded by its internal contradictions, the whole thing would fall down. Or, you know, Kant: “Reason as much as you will, but obey!”
The black bloc broke off at the end in a joyful but short manif sauvage around the latin quarter, smashing up a fascist bar and attacking on-the-back-foot cops. As one kid de- arrested himself after having thrown himself against the closing door of the ministry of Education, he chided the policemen who were grasping into the rainy space he’d just vacated: “guys, guys, you don’t even have your helmets on, be careful guys”. This was so far the biggest mobilisation of students and boded well for a university shut down over the exams and grading period. Although it was raining heavily, it also boded well for Spring, which has now been cancelled. That evening, I received an email from the director of the university: during the day students had turned the rooms upside down, and filled the corridors with chair and table barricades. The “damage” was such that the university would be closed the following day. Furious emails from permanent staff followed “degradation of our workplace”, “we agree with the strike but the methods are not justified” yada yada yada. Within a few days, the impotence of our strike — unable to shut down even a few university buildings — was revealed and batted out of the way by the deus ex machina of the virus which closed everything.
I end this speculatively, with some associative anecdotes — a luxury I have inside of confinement, which provides for a lot of waiting and reflecting. On the 20th of January, Emmanuel Macron and Edouard Philippe ate at a fancy restaurant in Versailles with hundreds of CEOs attending a meeting called ChooseFrance. Despite the fact that Macron’s dinners during the strike had been a target for gilets jaunes during the period of the strike, sometimes prompting violent pickets before restaurants, and that the restaurant had clearly tried to vet the waitresses and waiters in advance, one waiter managed to slip a note under Edouard Philippe’s plate. It said something along the lines of “nous, les gilets jaunes, on est partout, on est dans ta soupe” [we, the gilets jaunes are everywhere, we are in your soup] which made the prime minister recoil and flinch when the plate was taken away. Discussing the failure of the strikes with a friend in February, he recounted this incident to me, and said that what was exciting to him was that a major change had happened in France in 2018-19. Hatred toward the government was now so generalised that every waitress, waiter, uber chauffeur, driver, flexible waiter, had developed, in every thread of their non-unionised, overworked bodies, an unprecedented and deeply political hatred for the government. The strikes were, for him, “an affair of the Left”, but what had happened with the gilets jaunes was much more interesting.
Second, the confinement has been lived disproportionately across France, despite its blanket appearance as a formulation of law. It exposes all the contradictions already existing in our lives and social movements. How can it be possible to impose blanket confinement, in the same breath as demanding that the most disadvantaged workers — key workers — still go to work and get exposed to the virus? How can it be possible to demand confinement when not everyone can be housed, at the best of times. The quartiers populaires — working class neighbourhoods (predominantly in the suburbs) — are the most densely packed, often forcing people into cramped living conditions, and having to depend on much reduced incomes. Meanwhile, bourgeois Parisians flocked to rural areas and infected them in a kind of messed up mirror image revenge for the gilets jaunes’ first arrival in the metropole. Those working class neighbourhoods have responded to the heavy policing of the lockdown, and there have been riots (everywhere: Toulouse, Limoges, Paris-Banlieue...) — some, last week, because police tried to kill a motorcyclist by opening their car door. He lost his leg. There seemed every chance that these riots would continue beyond confinement and that the context into which people were “deconfined” would be much more interesting than the stagnation immediately preceding the lockdown. The lockdown, if anything, has been consciousness-raising and contradiction-exposing. Both of these movements — the movements of the suburbs, and movements of the predominantly peri-urban gilets jaunes — are something the Left has traditionally chosen to wash its hands of.
Finally, new forms of mutual aid and striking also emerged during confinement, whether it be the occupied McDonalds in Marseille (occupied before confinement, by employees) that continued to distribute food to those who couldn’t confine, or the people used to demonstrating in spectacular forms instead turning their attentions to resource distribution, or teachers, simply not responding to calls for grades or Zoom lessons, refusing to give students exams, and even some rent strikes. On the 11th of May France “deconfined”, a measure understood publicly for what it was — a decision to restart the economy and send people back to work. In response to the George Floyd uprising in Minneapolis, there were several large scale demonstrations in Paris called for by the Comité Adama. While France has not seen anything of the corona-skepticism displayed recently in Germany, the post-confinement period has been chaotic, and it seems that we are entering a second wave. Masks are now mandatory in every public space except bars and restaurants across the Ile de France as well as other regions.