Workers v. Government: Showdown in France Over Pension Reforms

Striking workers march during a demonstration in Paris on Thursday. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

(CN) – France was seized by a new wave of nationwide strikes on Thursday by a spectrum of workers angry over the government’s plans to overhaul the nation’s public retirement system.

Thursday’s large-scale action marked the 36th day of strikes in France since the beginning of December, making these strikes the country’s longest in decades – even longer than the historic 1968 strikes and protests.

“This is indeed the longest strike observed in France since at least the liberation,” Maxime Quijoux, a sociologist and political scientist at the French National Center for Scientific Research, said in an email to Courthouse News.

In Paris, commuter traffic was brought to a standstill due to subway and train workers going on strike. Throughout the country, oil refineries and ports were affected and tens of thousands of people marched carrying banners calling on the government to back down. By Thursday afternoon and evening, parts of central Paris were transformed into now-familiar smoke-filled scenes of police clashing with protesters.

In recent days, the strikes have seen ballerinas with the Paris Opera walking out; lawyers in the Caen court discarding their black robes and throwing them in a heap to protest a speech by the justice minister; protesters clashing with police and a group of activists storming into the Paris headquarters of BlackRock, the U.S. global asset management company, and lighting smoke bombs in protest of capitalism and the reforms.

This season of strikes began on Dec. 5 when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to voice their outrage at the proposed changes. Since then, besides two other days of mass protest, the strikes have been carried on mostly by a small number of workers, particularly railway and subway workers. In France, about a third of strikes are held by transport workers, Quijoux said.

Thursday’s strikes were led by a hard-line left-wing trade union, the General Confederation of Labor. The CGT is pressuring the French government to scrap its proposals entirely. The CGT is calling on workers to continue striking through Saturday. The union did not return a message Thursday seeking comment.

The strikes still enjoy much of the public’s support. Surveys show more than 60% of French back the strikers’ demands, although most want the strikes to end. Parisians in particular are ready for a return to normalcy, a recent survey found. The strikes are hitting the capital the hardest.

The government’s proposals include raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 and bringing 42 separate retirement schemes into a single system. The government also wants to change the formula for calculating pensions by taking into account a person’s entire working history rather than selected periods.

Under the current system, pensions for those in the private sector are based on their most profitable 25 years of employment and on the last six months of work for employees in the public sector.

“Faced with such a reform, it is difficult to argue, as many ministers are trying to do, that pensions will not fall,” Quijoux said. He said teachers, for example, could lose between $780 and $1,000 a month under the proposed changes.

“Faced with such a loss, the minister of education promises to increase salaries in the future,” Quijoux added. “But without any precise figures or timetables, teachers fear that this is just a smokescreen.”

The changes, however, could help other types of workers, for example those in the private sector and the self-employed, experts say.

The opposition of trade unions and workers has been successful in pushing French President Emmanuel Macron’s government to scale back its proposals.

“The government immediately preserved the special [retirement] regime for a large number of professions as soon as they threatened to go on strike,” Quijoux said.

He said about a quarter of the special retirement regimes – including those for police officers, airplane crews, truck drivers, firefighters and sailors – “were maintained in part or in full.” In France, workers in fields considered physically more difficult often classify for more generous pensions.

Still, it looks unlikely that Macron and Prime Minister Édouard Philippe will scrap their plans altogether. Macron made overhauling France’s pension system a key campaign pledge when he won the presidency in 2017. The president and prime minister insist they will push ahead with the reforms.

On Thursday, tens of thousands of people joined marches in Paris and other cities and towns across the country. The level of support for the strikes was viewed as a key measure to gauge how much longer the strikes may go on. The CGT claimed very large crowds joined marches across the country, but official estimates were much smaller. Still, the turnout was impressive in Paris.

France’s largest trade union, the French Democratic Confederation of Labor, did not call on its members to take part in Thursday’s strikes, even though its leader, Laurent Berger, said the union and the government remained far apart on reaching a deal. Berger’s union has long supported a universal retirement system, but it opposes raising the retirement age.

Thursday’s strikes came ahead of more talks between the government and trade unions over how to restructure the country’s pensions. The French parliament is expected to take up legislation to overhaul pensions in the coming months.

These reforms are part of Macron’s ambitious pro-business agenda to make France more competitive. His policies, though, have become the source of widespread anger in France and led to an outburst of protests in November 2018 by the so-called “yellow vest” protesters.

These strikes and showdown with the government are an important moment for France’s labor unions, which have grown weaker over recent decades. Strikes have become much less frequent too and of shorter duration since the 1970s.

Still, Quijoux said support for strikes and the unions remains strong in France. Even though membership has dropped, he said the unions count more people among their ranks than political parties do. He pointed to the collection of more than $2.2 million by the CGT to help workers on strike as evidence of the strong support.

If the government passes the reforms, it will be a failure for the unions, but not a death sentence, he said.

“This will not mean the end of trade unionism in France, which is regularly declared dead,” he said. “This movement shows that despite the weakness of the trade unions, their determination and know-how to defend employees are still strong.”

He added that these strikes show how attached the French are their social model founded after World War II and that they will not passively allow it to end.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

%d bloggers like this: