- Ryan Servaites
French Union Protests
On January 19, 2023, French streets into mass unrest as labor unions pushed back against President Emmanuel Macron’s new Pension Reform plan. The proposal, Macron’s latest attempt to deliver on controversial campaign promises, would raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 while at the same time extending the amount of time one must contribute to the pension fund in order to receive their benefits. The move from Macron and his government allies serves as a stark evocation of the pension conflict in 2010 when Conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy passed a two year increase on the retirement age in spite of efforts by major unions to reject the austerity measure. Now, as Macron leads France into a similar point of conflict, French workers are fighting to prevent history from repeating itself.
Protests began on January 19, 2023, when calls to strike from every major French Labor Union, including the Confédération française démocratique du travail (CFDT) and the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), were answered by what some organizations are estimating to be over a million workers. The protestors, who represented a diverse coalition of labor sectors ranging from transportation workers to school teachers, reported to French streets en masse to show their disapproval of President Macron’s latest austerity play, reminiscent of the 2018 Yellow Vest Protests.
The controversial proposal is the newest strategy from President Macron and Labor Minister Olivier Dussopt to curb public spending, with the Macron government claiming that the reforms will be key to preserving the pension system. According to the Labor Ministry, the plan would enable the pension system to break even by 2027, raising an estimated 17.7 billion euros to cover costs.
The French retirement age is relatively low compared to its European neighbors, with Spain’s age of retirement being 65 years of age, and Germany’s being recently changed to 67, both higher than France’s comparably low 62 years of age.
However, despite the Macron administration’s insistence that the proposed reforms are necessary to keep the pension system afloat, other government agencies have released information that says otherwise. According to a report by the Pensions Advisory Council released in September of 2022, the pension system reported surpluses in 2021 and 2022. Although the report notes that the system is likely to run a deficit in coming years, the Council also notes that they expect the system to eventually break even again in the 2030s without the proposed reforms.
An additional Stability Program report released by the Macron administration in July of 2022, noted that the reforms may be a component of a greater government effort to continue pro-business tax cuts while still meeting requirements established by the European Union to reduce the deficits of member states to under 3%.
Unions have organized multiple days of protest to voice their collective resistance to the plan. Mr. Macron’s propositions are widely unpopular, and turnout for declared days of action have stayed relatively high.
A myriad of workers from different sectors have shown support for the protests in their own ways; on the week of February 12, 2023, electrical workers lowered overall power outputs, and on February 16, 2023, striking aviation workers caused the cancellation of 30% of flights at Orly airport in the French capital of Paris, and the subsequent announcement by the General Directorate of Civil Aviation (DGAC) to cancel 20% of scheduled airline activity at major French airports in the cities of Lyon, Marseille, Montpellier, Nantes, and Toulouse.
In the streets, over a million people, with potentially over 100,000 in the city of Paris alone, have been clashing with roughly 11,000 police officers. The conflict between the state and protestors has seen many forms- on the streets of Paris, protests faced physical resistance and tear gas, while a group of 20 students were arrested for occupying an academic research building just outside of the city.
The Macron government has taken a hard stance on its proposal, despite the fact that it has faced legislative pressures from across the political spectrum. While the left-wing Nouvelle Union populaire écologique et sociale (NUPES) finds itself in a rare state of agreement with the far-right Marine LePen, the centrist/center-right bloc seems set on this act of what they see as fiscal responsibility.
Critics of this reform to the pension age note that, even if the system needed to be kept afloat, the resources to do so could come from the wealthy rather than what they perceive is an attack on the working class. This is in line with previous decisions by Macron that, to some, portrayed affirmed that he is a “President of the Rich,” like the controversial repeal of a critical wealth tax in 2018.
Jeers erupted when the pension bill, having gone through an arduous amendment consideration process in the General Assembly, was considered during the final allocated day of debate, leading Labor Minister Dussopt to exclaim, “You have insulted me for 15 days. No one cracked though, no one cracked. We are here in front of you to present the reform.”
The bill will now move to the French Senate, where continued legislative conflict is expected. Macron’s Renaissance party and their allies expect to push the bill through with the help of the right-wing Republicans, who have previously advocated for raising the retirement age, and who currently hold 148 of the Senate’s 348 seats.
As the legislative battle continues, the united French Unions do not plan on standing down. The Unions are planning for March 7, 2023, to be the date of their next action: a general strike aimed at disrupting the country to the point of legislative response in their favor, and according to CGT head Philippe Martinez, “keep up pressure on lawmakers.” Additionally, various student unions have planned their own set of protests both on the date of the General Strike and later on March 9, 2023.
Prominent French politicians have come out in favor of these actions. Former left-wing Presidential Candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon tweeted on February 19: “The 7th of March will be blocked, all together,” while praising legislators who opposed the reform.
If the bill is not voted upon directly within a 50 day deadline, the Government may be able to enact Mr. Macron’s proposals by decree. Some analysts have noted this may lead to more resistance in the streets as such an action may appear to subvert the democratic process. Additionally, if the bill passes, it may be subject to the scrutiny of the Constitutional Committee, which may pose restrictions on the legislation based on its adherence to the state budget.
Although French lawmakers like Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne have claimed that the issue is non-negotiable, resistance continues in the streets, and March 7 looms over France. Until the bill is shot down or sufficiently amended, it appears that the European state will have to face the full force of its working class.