state repression in france’s pensions struggle

Millions in France have marched and struck against a two-year increase in the retirement age. Nicolas Dessaux looks at the repression of the movement.

Since the start of the movement over pensions, the state has reacted in a highly repressive manner. From the fist demonstrations, the slightest stepping-out-of-line, a single bottle thrown, has led to offensives by CRS (riot cops), tear gas, arrests, fast-track trials and sentences.

First, on 23rd September, workers were arrested in Saint-Nazaire, since when court sentences, dismissals, penalties and threats have rained down on workers who took part in blockade actions. From the start of the movement in the lycées (of high school students), there has been a hail of arrests and punitivemeasures, and many have already been injured.

This is a deliberate strategy of repression. Whoever has any experience of demonstrations knows that CRS can withstand hours of a storm of projectiles without blinking, as long as they have not received orders otherwise. Their current methods are the fruit of a determined strategy, implemented by professionals and decided upon at the highest level of the state.

Of course, they are confronted with a new phenomenon, which is the radicalisation of the lycée student movement. In poor working-class areas, faced with massive unemployment, the lycée students’ demonstrations are very strong, almost at the level of rioting. They have joined the movement as future precarious workers, as part of the working class, and not at all over questions of education, as in the past. But that is not enough to explain the repression, which is not simply an excessive reaction to something new. It is the normal mode of functioning of a police force trained with generalised rioting and urban guerrillas in mind.

This repression has also struck against striking workplaces. The CRS have on numerous occasions entered the oil refineries to break up railway blockades, and there is the threat we will see them in action again, with their ever-more efficient equipment, breaking up pickets. The problem, from workers’ point of view, is the disproportion between the means at the disposal of the police and those of striking workers and demonstrating lycée students. A few cans and bolts and improvised projectiles, up against men wearing armour… This is even more true in the blockade actions which we stage almost every morning: the police face us, armed to the hilt, and there is nothing to do but pack up and leave if we want to avoid arrests or police violence.

The movement considers itself a legitimate one, even as it radicalises, and moreover, as the real expression of democracy – as expressed in the slogan “this is what democracy looks like”, which you often hear on demos.

Worse, it tends to believe that the state is an expression of the collective will, even if every pronouncement and each act of the government daily demonstrate the opposite is the case. Society is disarmed – in every sense of the word – faced with the state’s repressive force.

People want to believe in democracy, but they find nothing but class war in all its cruel force. For the social movement this represents a significant weakness, since it is not at all prepared to deal with repression. There are means of solidarity with imprisoned people, news sources challenging repression, and independent advice and legal support.

But there is no generalised culture, within the social movement, of resistance to repression, not to mention the capability to resist effectively when faced with hard blows (for instance protecting an oil refinery on strike) or to go on the offensive (occupying a building, staging a surprise action without unnecessary risk for the people involved). The result is that when such actions are decided upon, the participants are endangered, or else they are condemned to failure if the state adopts a repressive stance and no longer tolerates them.

Given these conditions, the social movement is fated to lose as soon as it is confronted with a determined government, standing firm and ready to break the working class by any means: as is the case today.

Creating and spreading this culture of well organised defence and action, capable of protecting and leading the decided-upon course of action to success without fear of the police, is part of the task of communists. Our objective, and we are not afraid to say it, is the overthrow of the capitalist state and the seizure of power by the working class. We do not think a general strike is enough to achieve that, even though it could contribute to it.

We often hear talk of revolution, but it is used as a hollow slogan, a far-away dream, something with no roots in reality. But on the contrary we believe a revolution is something possible and concrete, which is developed and succeeds via armed confrontation with the authorities – because this will not do us the pleasure of collapsing of its own accord. Today the state is developing its police and its army for civil war. We cannot escape that. That is the lesson of the revolutions of the past, the everyday experience of social struggles. Putting this question at the heart of the debate, without sweetening the pill or passing over in silence the real questions this poses, is the only clear and responsible attitude, and at that is just the first step.

« First appeared in Communisme ouvrier issue 3, see