In France, a powerful movement has erupted in response to an attempt to raise the retirement age. While millions have gone on strike and poured into the streets, President Emmanuel Macron and his henchmen have attempted to crush this movement by escalating police violence to lethal extremes. In the following report, we offer a chronology of the events of the past week, including a translation of an account by one participant in the movement and a statement from the parents of another who remains in a coma. You can read an overview the first phase of the movement and an analysis of the issues at stake here.
When French president Emmanuel Macron ran for office last year, part of his platform was an unpopular pension reform that would force workers to work several years more before retirement. Forced to choose between outright fascists and neoliberals, French voters grudgingly elected Macron, but a showdown has been brewing ever since.
The movement against the pension reform got underway with a strike on January 16, 2023. Polite protests gave way to generalized unrest on March 16 when prime minister Élisabeth Borne used article 49.3 of the Constitution to bypass a vote in the National Assembly, implementing the new law by force. As the revolt gathered steam, it expanded beyond opposing the pension reform to rejecting neoliberalism as a whole. The protests, strikes, and blockades became gestures of resistance against the arbitrary power of the executive office as well as against Macron and his cronies (“Macron et son monde”), reminiscent of the Yellow Vests movement in 2018.
Today, the movement has reached another stage. In response to the intensification of the struggle and the diversification of tactics and battlefronts, police have dramatically escalated the violence with which they are targeting demonstrators. Even corporate business media like the The Financial Times are criticizing Macron’s repressive and authoritarian handling of the movement.
The General Strike of March 23
On March 22, the day before a general strike called by the unions, Macron stoked the fires of resentment. He showed up to address corporate media wearing a watch worth 80,000 euros, which he attempted to subtly remove during the interview. In that media appearance, Macron presented an authoritarian and disdainful figure, lying about the movement and the repression that the police had meted out. Effectively, he told the unions and the people that he cared neither about what they had to say nor about their lives in general.
On Thursday, March 23, about 3.5 million people took the streets, including more than 800,000 in Paris alone. The blockades and strikes were successful all over the country, impacting high schools, universities, city transit, garbage collection garages, refineries, harbors, airports, trains, highways, and other institutions. The day ended with numerous “manifs sauvages” (wildcat marches) in the streets of Paris and fires all around the country—some at symbols of the executive and the government, including county offices, town halls, and police stations.
While it felt like a victory and a sort of coming together, Thursday also revealed that Macron and his police aimed to crush the budding uprising at any cost. Police targeted everyone without exception—for example, they usually abstain from hitting the security line that protects the unions, but in this case, they did not hesitate to. Images circulated widely showing police charging protestors indiscriminately, shooting military-grade GM2L grenades upwards and into the crowd, knocking people unconscious. While French police have never shied from using military weapons to subdue rebellious crowds—for example, during the Yellow Vest movement and the eviction of the ZAD in Notre-Dame-des-Landes in 2018—it is unusual for them to target elected officials, unions, students, and children as well as the black bloc. In many cases, the entire crowd responded with collective anger, which is also unusual.
Compared to the tremendous number of people in the streets, there were very few arrests. This was for two reasons. First, people were well organized, outnumbered the cops, and protected each other as much as they could. Second, the cops were not trying to grab people, but to inflict physical and emotional damage, in hopes of dissuading the many people who were taking to the streets for the first time from returning. Whether they succeeded or not remains to be seen.
The Strike Continues
Friday, March 24 opened with a strong presence on the picket lines, in particular at the refinery Total Normandy (close to Le Havre). People came from Paris and neighboring regions to support the blockade throughout the night and early in the morning. Comrades who appreciate French pop culture will be happy to know that rapper Medine and actress Adèle Haenel were on the picket line.
A part of supporting the strike is resisting “réquisitions.” Despite the right to strike being written into the French Constitution, there is a legal provision that allows the local government (la Préfecture) to force strikers back to work if the strike puts the economy at risk. In Le Havre, the blockade remained strong, but the state has been carrying out réquisitions across the country, especially in the field of energy. This confirms that the strike is working, as there is usually a delay between refineries shutting down and fuel shortages beginning, but it also indicates that the government is prepared to send the cops to people’s houses in order to force them back to work.
March 25: Bloodbath in Sainte-Soline
On Saturday March 25, 30,000 people assembled in Sainte-Soline, a small town near Poitiers, to protest the privatization of water and the excavation of the biggest of the industrial “mega-basins” in France. Announced by the Confédération Paysanne (the largest and most historic union of farmworkers in France), the collective Bassines Non Merci! (BNM), Les Soulèvements de la Terre (literally, “Earth Uprisings”), and more than a hundred other associations and unions, the demonstration had the same objective as the previous protest at that same location: to set foot in the empty crater where the basin is supposed to be built.
The previous mobilization in Sainte-Soline had been a success. On Saturday, October 30, 2022, some 7000 people marched on the basin and managed to breach the massive police lines (1700 police backed by helicopters). Three groups walked in teams, with separate trajectories and strategies, targeting three different access points with scaled levels of risk tolerance; it was all framed as a big game in the style of capture-the-flag. Police did their best to retaliate, but they were overwhelmed.
On March 25, at first, the atmosphere was merry and determined, continuing the tone of October. Many signs were encouraging. The number of participants had more than tripled since the previous demonstration, likely benefitting from the fact that a powerful movement was in full swing throughout the country. Farmers from the Confédération Paysanne driving tractors had evaded police lines to reach the camp, which was established quite close to the site of the intended mega-basin.
However, things got nasty very fast. The police, determined to get revenge for the setbacks they had experienced in the streets elsewhere in France, set out to make an example of the protesters in this big open area that afforded very little shelter or protection.
“The objective of the protesters at Sainte-Soline was to skirt the police and reach the crater, and to plant their flags as a way of thumbing their nose at power and at these absurd reservoirs. The goal of the police was to deploy the full range of their force and brutality against unprotected (or poorly protected) protesters in order to traumatize, maim, and demoralize them.”
Once again, three groups formed, but when they reached the edges of the basin, police quickly forced them to converge into one procession, mixing them all together. The police attacked first with tear gas and shrapnel grenades, to which the front line replied with fireworks and stones. Under police fire, with over 5000 grenades falling from the sky—some of them tear gas grenades, some of them the extremely dangerous GM2L grenades—any distinction between the black bloc, the union leaders, politicians, and the rest of the people in the march evaporated. More than two hundred people were injured, many of them severely.
The police intentionally fired at the part of the field where the wounded were being treated. They blocked the ambulances and did their best to make it impossible to take the injured to the hospital in time to treat their injuries. As a consequence of this intentionally murderous strategy, as of now, two people remain in critical condition, in grave danger of death. Many more have been permanently mutilated, some losing eyes.
Despite spectacular images of a huge protest bloc walking in the field among deer and tear gas and of police wagons burning, despite the brief incursion into the perimeter of the basin, it’s impossible to consider the day a success. Now is the time to heal and take stock of the situation. It is clearer than ever that the state is ready to kill to maintain control and protect the interests of the capitalists who rule the agro-industry at the expense of a sustainable future. Likewise, the authorities used the protest in Sainte-Soline as an opportunity to do as much harm as possible to many of those who had been outmaneuvering them in the streets.
March 26, Back from Poitou
This is a translation of an anonymous report-back describing the protest that took place in Sainte-Soline against the construction of the mega-basins and the privatization of water on March 25.
Shit, what the hell are we doing here? Yes, yes, we fight for water, we fight against the privatization of life, we fight against the state that protects the interests of the few instead of defending the lives of the many.
Medic, medic! Here, here! And while we yell and point to the wounded, we need to keep an eye on what’s falling from the sky. Other hands point to a projectile right above our heads. What is it? Tear gas, sting-ball grenade? Identify it, evaluate the trajectory, the risk, run a little, feel our eardrums burst from the nearby explosion. Ears ringing for a couple of minutes.
Shit, what the hell are we doing here again? Yes, yes, crossing the blue barrier to get to the basin. Ha, no, not a blue barrier but two, it’s not only blue but khaki green, and it has wire fencing, and barbed wire, and there’s the embankment to climb. What’s hidden behind all of this? A lake, water that belongs to everyone pumped and stored for the few. Medic, medic! Fuck, where are the medics, things are pretty urgent right now. Shit is falling left, right, in front of us, behind us. Hey, comrade, need some saline? Hey, did you notice, your head is bleeding? Careful, grenade!! Fall back, a little, keep calm, forward again.
Shit, what the hell are we doing here again? Yes, yes, we have numbers, we’re the mass. it’s all we have against the military-grade weapons that are raining down on us, that cut our legs off, that tear our limbs apart.
Medic, medic! How long have we been here for? Twenty minutes, perhaps. A group of medics hovers around a body. One of them is already short on supplies. The others don’t have much left, either. What are they going to do? What’s going to happen to me if I fall?
Careful there! Watch out for the grenade a couple of meters away, can’t remember to move, explosion, head banging. Fuck, I’m beat, I forgot to run out of the way. I’m fine, need to keep moving forward. Grab your partner, a quick check to see if they’re fine, too. All good. Let’s go.
There’s fire in front of us, black smoke coming from the flaming vehicles, white smoke from the tear gas, the flash of a flame, the spark of a grenade dying down, we can’t see shit.
How long were we there for? Two, three hours? Less than an hour, in fact. An eternity, or maybe it wasn’t long enough?
Why did we fall back all of a sudden? A guy on the brink of death up front, a line of four-wheelers that tried to surround us, the realization that we didn’t stand a chance, fatigue on the frontline?
Shit, what the hell we were doing there? It’s over.
Evacuating the wounded, reuniting with the crew. Perceiving the shock by the look in the others’ eyes, assessing injuries, attempting a few words. A comrade breaks down in tears, we huddle close. Absurd, uneven, dangerous.
What happens after something like that? Someone must know.
We go home, an endless procession black with anger and rancor, an unwilling army, exhausted. We’re alive, we’re lucky.
Communiqué from the Parents of Serge (S.) on March 29, 2023
This is a translation of a statement from the parents of an activist who remains in a coma five days after the police violence at Sainte-Soline.
Following the injury caused by a GM2L grenade, during the demonstration of March 25, 2023 organized in Sainte-Soline against the irrigation basin projects, our son Serge is currently in a hospital fighting for his life.
We filed a complaint for attempted murder and voluntary obstruction of the arrival of the emergency services; and for violation of professional secrecy within the framework of a police investigation, and misappropriation of information contained in a file for that purpose.
Following the various articles published in the press, many of which are inaccurate or misleading, we would like to make it known that:
- Yes, Serge is on the “S” list (“State Security” watch list)—like thousands of activists in today’s France.
- Yes, Serge has had legal problems—like most people who fight against the established order.
- Yes, Serge has participated in many anti-capitalist demonstrations—like millions of young people around the world who think that a good revolution would not be too much, and like the millions of workers currently struggling against the pension reform in France.
We believe that these are not criminal acts that would sully our son, but on the contrary that these acts are to his credit.
March 29, 2023
The Strike Continues
Back in the city, many people attended a nationwide mobilization against the “Loi Asile et Immigration” (also called the Loi Darmanin, after the Minister of the Interior—the head cop of France, if you will). This law, the next one on Macron’s oppressive agenda, will severely reduce the rights of migrants, facilitating the imprisonment and deportation of exiled and undocumented people on French land. While the number of people who attended that protest was nothing close to the number of people who are protesting against the pension reform, we are slowly building ties connecting anti-racist resistance and solidarity with wider resistance against the government.
From Saturday on, police violence became the chief topic of conversation and media coverage. Gérald Darmanin and Laurent Nuñez (the head cops of France and of Paris, respectively) did their best to spread lies about the events in Sainte-Soline and to try to legitimize the police retaliation in Paris. In the city, the BRAV-M police units—the “mobile” units that chase people around on motorcycles—took center stage in this discussion. There is already a remarkable number of videos of the BRAV-M assaulting isolated individuals, running over people, and verbally and sexually abusing people; this should not be surprising, as their ancestors, the “voltigeurs,” were famous for similar behavior, including the murder of Malek Oussekine in 1986, which inspired the movie La Haine.
Some unions—including the CGT and Solidaires—also spoke out against police brutality, expressing solidarity with those who suffered in Sainte-Soline. The slogan “Ni oubli, ni pardon” (“don’t forget, don’t forgive”) is slowly proliferating among striking workers. Even international media covering the movement and condemning Macron’s autocratic and repressive strategy has begun focusing on police violence rather than the pension reform.
At several work sites, as a consequence of requisitions and fatigue, workers had taken a break from the strike over the weekend. Many resumed striking again on Monday and Tuesday, but there is undoubtedly a certain weariness amongst strikers and supporters doubled with sadness and fear in the face of large-scale military repression. Darmanin and Macron are hoping to sway public opinion by brandishing the specter of violence in front of people’s eyes in the same way that the government did to suppress the Gilets Jaunes movement in December 2018. Whether this strategy will be successful remains to be seen. It will depend, in part, on how successful we are at presenting other narratives.
The general strike of Tuesday, March 28 was relatively successful, depending on who you ask. The number of people in the streets is diminishing, but it was still among the highest recorded over the past two months—about two million. Cities in the west of France (“le Grand-Ouest”), famous for their insurrectionary tendencies, coordinated successful road blockades. A significant number of refineries, fuel storage units, and other logistical centers were blocked or on strike; more than 400 gas stations in France were out of fuel on Wednesday, March 29. Schools and universities remained on strike as well—as did the Eiffel Tower, among other well-known French institutions.
As for the demonstrations themselves, the results were mixed. Fierce gatherings took place in Rennes and Nantes, where the black bloc is always offensive, and in cities like Lyon, St-Etienne, and Toulouse. In Paris, the atmosphere was tense. While some confrontations with police broke out late in the day, they felt more symbolic than strategic. Significantly, the spontaneous night marches have died down. If spontaneous marches and other forms direct action return to the streets despite the government’s show of force over the weekend, that could give the movement a second wind; if they do not, that could determine its fate.
While the government’s perverse rhetoric should not shape our actions, it is important to puncture the narratives that they are trying to propagate. Essentially, Macron is using the same strategy he used to suppress the Yellow Vests. He is blaming the protesters for the injuries that police inflict on them, in order to infantilize and discredit those who defend themselves against the police and to justify the escalation of police repression.
This circular rhetoric is already at play in Darmanin’s lies about the events in Sainte-Soline, as explored in the analysis “The Trap of Sainte-Soline.” Darmanin has initiated a legal process targeting the collective “Les Soulèvements de la Terre” for “dissolution,” equating ecological sabotage with terrorism by claiming that many of the protesters at Sainte-Soline are long-time “A-listed dangerous individuals” (“fichés S” in the French counter-information databases).
The state is attempting to turn the popular outcry about police violence on its head. The goal is not so much to legitimize the use of military force on unarmed protesters—Macron won’t admit to that—but to present it as the unavoidable side-effect of his righteous efforts to protect the French Republic from dangerous and irresponsible individuals who must be stopped for their own sake.
But there is another way to read this whole situation.
If Macron is determined to force his agenda through without a vote regardless of how unpopular it is, and to suppress all protest by means of militarized police violence, then the only way to prevent the arrival of outright autocracy is to establish a rapport de force with the police. In that case, those who take the initiative to experiment with ways to defend themselves from police are neither infantile nor irresponsible. On the contrary, they are the only thing standing between us and tyranny.
In this spirit, many people have called for gatherings across France on Thursday, March 30 to oppose police brutality and stand up for the people who have been wounded, some of whom are still fighting for their lives in the hospital.
Facing down the police is not a matter of bringing symmetrical force to bear against them, but of outflanking them. It requires outsmarting them as they attempt to isolate and corner us, whether physically or discursively. It means escalating all together, uncontrollably, as a network too extensive to surround—moving, merging, branching off, changing course, and innovating more rapidly than they can keep up with, and doing so on every kind of terrain, from the streets themselves to the narrative about what is taking place in them.
For now, the issue of police brutality threatens to supplant all other subjects of public discussion, including the pension reform, work itself, and the power of the state. This may also conceal a trap for the movement. Focusing on the police alone will not necessarily produce a strategy that enables us to overcome them.
The intersyndicale (the coordination of the eight biggest national unions in France) has called for the next nationwide strike to occur on Thursday, April 6. In many people’s eyes, that is too late, as the events that will determine whether the movement lives or dies will have occurred by then. This long gap will give unions time to negotiate with the state: already, some union leaders have been speaking with the government. While a few hardliners inside the CGT and other unions are resisting their leaders’ pressure to concede, the history of union politics is a veritable litany of cautionary tales.
Of course, when the unions announced the general strike for March 23 after the spontaneous protests of Thursday, March 16, many people also believed that the movement would die over the following week. As always, what takes place in the streets will determine everything. Despite fatigue, pain, and grief, French people have yet to give up the fight. Long live the revolution!
Appendix: An Update about Serge
We present a second statement written by Serge’s comrades and close-ones, released on Wednesday, March 29.
While our comrade Serge continues fighting for the life that the state has attempted to take away from him, we are witnessing a new outpouring of violence against him. The media are attempting to depict him as a man who ought to be shot. Today, he is still in a coma, in critical condition. We send our solidarity to Mickaël and to all who felt the brute force of police violence brought down on them.
The bourgeois media continue endlessly parroting words carefully chosen by the state in order to construct, out of thin air, the enemy that it wants to fight. Their false front will crumble in the face of the many narratives that have corrected and and rewritten the course of events. The police used grenades with the specific purpose of inflicting physical and mental harm upon the protesters; they are responsible for preventing emergency responders from evacuating the injured, even if that meant leaving our comrades to die.
Intelligence services have been liberally handing out the information they had collected on Serge to newsrooms across the country. Their objective is to force us to define ourselves in the words used by the police. Here, we will not engage with the deliberately abridged versions of Serge’s identity that the police has been circulating. We don’t believe that any truth about him can be found within the arcana of state and media propaganda. As a revolutionary, Serge has been participating with all his might and for many years in many class struggles against our exploitation, always with a view to the broadening and strengthening of life and victory for the proletariat.
And indeed, we cannot let ourselves be crushed.
We call on all those who know him to tell others around them who he is. Remember: Serge, in struggle, refuses the state’s strategy to separate good and bad protesters. With him and for him, we uphold this line.
On Tuesday, March 28, people everywhere took it upon themselves to show their solidarity with the movement against the pension reform in France. We have also received many messages from international comrades. We warmly thank them, and encourage them to continue and support the movement. More actions are already planned, and we encourage people to join and multiply them without restraint, in France and in the rest of the world.
We want this communiqué to be shared as widely as possible.
PS: There are many rumors about Serge’s medical condition. Don’t share them. We will keep you updated.
To contact us: firstname.lastname@example.org
Comrades of S.