Thursday, January 19th was marked in France by a strong social mobilisation against the pension reform project proposed by Emmanuel Macron’s government. Strikes and large-scale demonstrations followed one another throughout the country.
The pension reform project was presented by Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne to the National Assembly on January 10th. It provides for the extension of the retirement age to 64 years for all working people—whether employees, self-employed, or civil servants. The length of the contribution period is also to be extended from 42 to 43 years to be able to benefit from a full pension. The reform also provides for the abolition of all existing special ‘regimes’ for new entrants to the labour market.
The government’s plan is widely disapproved of by the public: 6 out of 10 French people are opposed to it. Opponents are to be found on both the Left and the Right, and the criticisms levelled against the bill are numerous. On the Left, the unions and the extreme Left reject the disappearance of special regimes and the extension of working time. On the Right, the Rassemblement national criticises a “useless and unfair reform” which does not take into account the birth rate and which places the burden of contributions on the most modest.
Many non-party observers believe that the deficit attributed to pensions and the risk of the system going bankrupt are overestimated, and that the extension of working hours will only partially provide solutions to structural problems that the reform does not address, such as the excessive weight of civil service pensions in the state budget. “This reform does not deal with the fundamental issue, which is the consequences of the decline in the birth rate in a country that finances its pensions on a day-to-day basis,” explained economist Nicolas Marques, director general of the liberal think-tank Institut Molinari, to the newspaper Ouest-France in December. “Working a few more quarters is anecdotal compared to the problems we face. It will not significantly reduce public deficits.”
Thursday’s strikes affected many sectors, foremost among them transport—the national railway company (SNCF), but also local transport companies such as the RATP in Paris. The capital was paralyzed with several metro lines completely closed and many other lines with reduced operation. In education, 65% of secondary school teachers went on strike, according to the SNES-FSU, the leading secondary school union. The energy sector was also hit hard: in the refineries of the TotalEnergie group, between 70 and 100% of strikers have been on strike, and fuel shipments have been blocked, yet, unlike in October, no shortage has been detected yet. The major national energy companies—gas (GRDF or Engie) and electricity (EDF or Enedis)—concerned by the disappearance of special schemes, have also reported significant rates of employees on strike. Voluntary power cuts, claimed by the far-left CGT union, have even been noted in two departments. The Post Office, the state civil service, and public television and radio stations also joined the protesters.
In total, the ministry of interior counted about 1.2 million demonstrators throughout the country; Philippe Martinez, secretary general of the CGT, mentioned the figure of 2 million demonstrators. In Paris, about 40 people were arrested on the sidelines of the march, according to the police headquarters, for “carrying a prohibited weapon,” “insult and rebellion,” and “throwing projectiles and damage.” Labor Minister Olivier Dussopt acknowledged “a significant mobilisation,” but President Emmanuel Macron, on a trip to Spain, sent a clear signal of his willingness to see the project through to the end: “with respect, spirit of dialogue, but determination and spirit of responsibility.” The pension reform has been “democratically presented, validated” and it is “above all fair and responsible,” said the head of state.
In response, the eight main French trade unions have called for a new day of strikes and demonstrations on Tuesday, January 31st, knowing that other episodes of social mobilisation are already planned. On Saturday, January 21st, the militants of La France Insoumise will march in Paris, and on Monday, January 23rd, the bakers are planning to demonstrate in the capital—this time against the rise in electricity prices, not against pension reform.