The paths of anger
The last months of 2022 may see social anger take centre stage in France.
Inflation and price rises are hitting hard at the living standards of the working classes, whose daily lives and living standards have already been severely affected by the Covid years in 2020 and 2021. The reasons for anger, for social reaction are building up, even if there is no automaticity in terms of strikes and mobilization. But Macron and Elisabeth Borne’s minority government are likely to have a difficult few weeks on the institutional terrain as well as on that of the social struggle. Two dates are already coming up: an inter-union day on 29 September and a national march against the high cost of living on 16 October.
Like in the rest of Europe, the working classes’ standard of living has been eroded in recent years by rising food and energy prices, in particular. Inflation and rising energy prices, although less violent than in, for example, Britain and Germany, have nevertheless hit France hard. Since January 2022, in the face of the wage freeze and price rises, two cross-sectoral days of action have been organized (in January and March). Each time, the CGT, SUD-Solidaires and the FSU (the main teachers’ union), FO or UNSA were mobilized, never the CFDT. This partial trade union front nevertheless testified to the strong discontent in health, education, the post office, commerce and transport in particular, with sectoral movements in all these branches. Several important strikes took place in the spring, for example in urban transport, at Total Energies, Paris Airports, SNCF, Thalès and Airbus. This effervescence did not cease despite the electoral context, often with immediate results in terms of wage increases. In the face of this social anger, after a 12 per cent increase in electricity and more than 40% increase in gas prices in 2021 (before the invasion of Ukraine...) the previous government had put in place a “tariff shield", limiting to 4% the tariffs of individual electricity and natural gas contracts in 2022. And for fuels, a 15 cent reduction in taxes levied on a litre at the pump. All these measures did not prevent the price of fuel from soaring above €2 per litre during the first half of 2022, nor did they prevent the price of domestic fuel from rising, nor did they prevent the price of non-regulated energy contracts taken out with private operators (35% of contracts) or collective contracts from rising by 45% in 2022.
After the installation of the new government, the decisions taken to “support purchasing power” were to maintain the freeze on regulated gas and electricity tariffs and the discount on fuel taxes at the pump.
But the real problem is of course that of income, of wages, faced with an increase in the HICP (Harmonized Index of Consumer Prices) of over 6 per cent in the autumn of 2022, and a much higher increase for the working classes due to the share of food and energy.
In 2020 and 2021, the employers managed to increase the margin rate to over 3 per cent. Their fear is that, with high inflation, wage increases will reduce this margin in 2022 and 2023. During the previous period of high inflation in the mid-1970s, the mark-up fell to 26 per cent under the pressure of social struggles, when the share of wages in value added was over 70 per cent.
The stakes are high, of course, as in many strikes employees put forward demands for a 10 per cent or 400 euro increase. To counter this pressure, the government is obviously pushing for bonuses. The plan adopted in July “for purchasing power” provides for the possibility of granting, in companies, a bonus of up to 6,000 euros without social contributions. This has a double interest: it further weakens the social wage share and curbs the catching up of wages to the margin rate of companies.
Macron, whose last term as president is over, also wants to push further liberal reforms and increase employers’ profits. In recent years, he has already contributed to lowering compulsory levies, thus contributing to the dismantling of the social state, particularly social protection and what remains of public services. This has been done in particular by lowering employers’ social security contributions, production taxes and corporation tax. For these three levies, France is clearly above the European average and Macron wants to prove within the EU that he can finally change this situation. He has already succeeded in reducing the burden of social contributions by 2 points of GDP. Corporate tax (calculated on declared profits) has been reduced from 33.33 per cent in 2018 to 25 per cent in 2022. Finally, the total abolition of the CVAE is planned for 2023 (contribution on the value added of companies, the main production tax which has already fallen from 19.7 billion in 2021 to 9.7 billion in 2022).
Macron’s two new objectives are on the one hand to further challenge the right to unemployment benefits with a “flexibility” of rights, inspired by the Canadian system, linking the duration and amount of rights to the employment and unemployment situation. The aim is obviously to globally reduce the rights of the unemployed, to further reduce the “cost of labour” and to further reduce the share of social contributions. On the other hand, Macron wants to restart a pension reform, again to lower the share of pensions in GDP. Even though the official Conseil d’orientation des retraites (COR) predicts that this share will remain stable in the coming years and that the pension system has been profitable for the past two years, the stated aim is that the resources released will contribute to balancing the state budget, which has been undermined by all the tax breaks for companies. There is also a political stake for Macron to “mark” his term in office and to solidify his political weight in the EU.
The effects of the policy of deep cuts in public budgets have been evident again in recent months. This summer’s heatwave and fires have highlighted the urgency of fighting for emergency measures to combat global warming. They have also shown the lack of resources in public services: the situation in hospitals is still dramatic, with a significant increase in mortality (higher than during the 2003 heatwave), there is a lack of firefighters and Canadairs to deal with the fires, and a lack of teachers for the start of the 2022 school year. The erosion of public service resources as a result of the budgetary choices made by the classes has an impact on daily life.
Faced with the high cost of living, the attacks on salaries and living conditions, the trade union and political front is for the moment fragmented.
At the trade union level, a day of mobilization and strike action has been called by the CGT, Solidaires and the FSU on 29 September. The CFDT consistently refuses to join any inter-union mobilization targeting Macron’s policies. For Force Ouvrière, the refusal to participate in the strike on 29 September comes from “the confusion of genres” between trade unions and political parties. FO is clearly opposed to the convergence that occurred for the call for the 29th in a joint communiqué bringing together the NUPES (PS, FI, PC, EELV) and the NPA and on the trade union side CGT, Solidaires and FSU. Nevertheless, FO proposes a meeting for a common action .... after 29 September. Moreover, the proximity of the professional elections of the whole civil service in November, is as always a weight hamperingtrade union action.
After two days in January and March, the 29th was decided at the beginning of July, when many partial strikes were putting a centralization of the struggles for wages on the agenda. Today, it also echoes many local strikes, putting forward demands at a high level: for example PSA/Stellantis, notably in Hordain in the North, demanding 400 euros, TotalEnergies for a 10% increase, Carrefour in several supermarkets of the Group. Even the industry employers expect to have to give up an average of 6% increase by the end of the year.
The stakes are therefore high and will not be limited to the day of 29 September.
Faced with the splintering of the cross-sectoral trade unions, there is still a difficult convergence between political parties and the trade union movement. La France insoumise was keen to make its mark on social questions by unilaterally proposing, before the summer, a big march against the high cost of living in October, explicitly saying that the trade union movement was not in a position to ensure this. Such a method was bound to meet with a cool reception from the trade unions. Particularly as since the summer Mélenchon has again presented this march as an initiative of the France insoumise, calling on others to join it. Several joint meetings have taken place since then, but from what came out from this is that Solidaires, the FSU and the CGT have refused any commitment, before 29 September, to a joint call for this march, now set for 16 October. The same goes for the PCF. The initiative is therefore for the moment around France insoumise, EELV, PS, and then NPA, POI, Ensemble!, Générations, among others.
Nevertheless, everything could change after 29 September, both in terms of trade union convergences and party/trade union convergences. In the same way, the anger can also extend to local popular mobilizations to block prices and paying bills. For the moment, this is not the case in France, unlike in Great Britain, Italy and Germany, for example.
The situation will be one of social unrest in the days to come. This is particularly the case as Macron, since his failure in the legislative elections, institutional instability with the lack of a majority for the parties supporting his action (Renaissance-his own party, the MODEM led by François Bayrou and Horizons of his former Prime Minister Edouard Philippe). Any law must obtain not only an agreement of these three components, but also at least the absence of opposition from the Republicans (Gaullist right) and the National Rally (extreme right). This unstable situation puts the government in the hands of its allies and parties that are even more reactionary than Macron. The difficulty has become apparent in the last few days as the government would like to impose its pension reform by force without a vote, as allowed by Article 49.3 of the Constitution, because no party would support Macron in this.
In any case, in the camp of the working classes, the problem remains of how to converge the aspirations, hopes and demands that have emerged around the NUPES.
For the moment, the NUPES is not a unitary militant framework, even on a local scale. Nevertheless, it is likely that, at least until the EELV and PS congresses, which are scheduled to take place soon, these two forces and the France Insoumise will present at least a common political front in the National Assembly. This is no longer the case for the PC, which thinks it can play its own role on dubious ground, treading on reactionary ground, particularly on the question of denigrating “welfare” in opposition to the “value of work”.
For the moment, the leaderships of the NUPES parties are not pushing to create unitary militant frameworks. The France Insoumise is ready to maintain or create local popular parliaments, but this does not represent militant cadres and the leading group prioritizes its parliamentary appearance as “the first opposition to Macron” wanting to play the card of a parliamentary crisis and dissolution of the National Assembly.
Certainly the NUPES and the France Insoumise have created and will maintain a political climate of anti-liberal opposition, notably with the preparation of 16 October, which is positive, but the challenge in the coming months will be not only to create the conditions for effective social mobilizations but also to build unitary militant frameworks on all the urgent questions.
25 September 2022
Translated by fourth.international.
Leon Crémieux, SUD Aviation trade unionist and NPA activist