‘We should work less, France produces enough’

As the government prepares to put its controversial reform of France's heavily-indebted pensions system to parliament, hundreds of thousands protested against the changes on Tuesday. Marchers at Place de la Republique shared their grievances with The Local.

'We should work less, France produces enough'
Some of the many thousands of workers and members of unions and left-wing political parties who marched against pensions reform in Paris on September 10th. Photo: D Meyer/AFP

Pension overhauls are highly contentious in France – with previous efforts in 1995 and 2010 unleashing mass protests and damaging strikes. Although the Socialist government's latest reform has not yet met with the same level of resistance, just yet, Tuesday marked a day of action that organisers promise will just be the first of many.

France is under pressure from the European Union, looking to plug a gaping hole in its pensions piggy bank, which is predicted to be €20 billion ($26.5 billion) into the red by 2020.

However, protesters who took to the streets of Paris on Tuesday were defiant, calling on the Socialist goverment, which will put forward the full package of reforms on September 18th, to go back to the drawing board and come up with a better plan. Protesters were also demanding a greater effort to create more jobs.

Here's what a few of them had  to say on the matter of pensions and jobs to The Local.

Emma, Paris area, 18, law student.

“I’m 18 years old, so the €20 billion debt we keep hearing about will be my problem. But what we really need now are jobs, and for me the solution to unemployment can be found on the European level.

"There are a few things we can do:  for example, we have to create a Europe-wide minimum wage, we should also tax financial transactions more, which will give us a fairer tax system and help with the debt.

"Yes, pensions are an issue, but any reform of pensions, which will ultimately affect young people most, must be done in a fair way.

"Why are we out here protesting? Because it’s part of French history and tradition. Every change that’s come in French history has come from people fighting for it.

"We had the revolution, of course, but also the struggle for women’s rights, the fight to free French education, and now we have a similar struggle to protect pensions.

"So protesting like this today is just a tool, like any other, to show the government and our fellow citizens what we think.”

"As a socialist, I have a lot more faith in this government than I did the last one. I voted for Hollande in both rounds of the election, but I’m disappointed. I still have hope that they can show themselves to be more left-wing, and defeat the Right, but I’m disappointed.”

Jean-Marc, union representative, Paris region

"At the very least our pensions system protects retired people, and these days the government would be better off worrying about creating jobs, instead of plotting against workers with Medef and other employers’ unions.

"And I simply don’t believe the government when it talks about this €20 billion debt.

"So that’s why we’re fighting. Yes, it’s a French tradition to demonstrate when we have a social or economic problem, but these days, we wouldn’t gain a single thing if we didn’t struggle for it.

"If we fight, we might well lose, but if we don’t fight at all, we’re guaranteed to lose."

Maximilien, 19, 7th arrondissement of Paris

"The pensions problem is simple – what pays for pensions is work. And what we need now is to get people working again, but the government has failed on that count.

"And the French government is contradicting itself when it comes to the debt in the pensions system. On the one hand they can protect the incomes of millionaires, but they can’t finance pensions.

"Something like 70 percent of people want to defend the pensions system as it is, but the reason we’re here today is to convince the French people to get involved in a campaign to protect it.

"And protesting isn’t exclusive to the French. I lived in Oxford during the fees protests, and I saw that the British, for example, aren’t exactly incapable of protesting themselves."

Aurianne, union representative, from the suburbs of Paris.

“This €20 billion debt they talk about isn’t a problem. We can simply cancel it. And then we can go on to create a country where there’s a proper distribution of wealth between employers and workers.

"The real problem is that this government hasn’t fought back against the pressure it’s getting from Europe. Paris is the same as Brussels, and every other European capital.

"I know the age of retirement is higher in other countries, but that just means it should be lower there, too.

"This isn’t so much even a question of age. The point is – we produce enough, collectively, that we can afford to work less, individually.

"It’s great to see so many people out here who want to change things in France, and who are demanding to express themselves.”

Others in Paris on Tuesday, however, preferred to express their anger and frustration through the time-honoured tradition of creative signs.

One demonstrator slammed what he saw as too many similarities between Socialist President François Hollande, and his conservative predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy. 

Parodying Hollande's campaign slogan "Le changement c'est maintenant" (Change is Now), this sign says simply "Sarko-Hollande: Change is up your ass."

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Pension reform, investment, new jobs – Macron unveils France’s post-Covid recovery plan

French President Emmanuel Macron has announced a series of economic measures, looking beyond the pandemic, although the much-anticipated pensions reform will be delayed until Covid is "under control".

Pension reform, investment, new jobs - Macron unveils France's post-Covid recovery plan
A nurse watches Macron's TV address on Monday. Photo: JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER / AFP.

Obligatory vaccines and the extension of the health pass made the headlines following Macron’s live TV address on Monday evening, but the President also sketched out his vision for France’s post-Covid economy.

Some of the measures he announced represent a return to the priorities he set at the beginning of his tenure, while others have been shaped by the pandemic.

Pension reform

There had been much speculation about a return of controversial plans to reform France’s retirement system, which were shelved at the start of the pandemic.

Macron confirmed that he planned to raise the retirement age – most people can currently retire at 62, but a number of ministers have been pushing to raise the legal minimum to 64.

READ ALSO France to tackle fourth Covid wave with stricter border controls, health passports and compulsory vaccines

“Because we are living longer, we will have to work longer, and retire later,” Macron said. “Not tomorrow, not brutally, and not in a uniform way because we will take the difficulty of a job into consideration.”

The government will begin consultations with workers and employers in September, but “will not undertake the reform so long as the epidemic is not under control and the recovery guaranteed,” Macron said.

This could mean his plans are not implemented before the presidential election in April 2022.

Macron also returned to a controversial point from the 2019 reform plan which lead to widespread protests: the abolition of the country’s 42 different pension regimes, which currently mean many public-sector workers can retire early. Under the new plans, these special regimes will be abolished for new employees, but people currently employed can keep the generous exceptions.

EXPLAINED: What are France’s special pension regimes?

The plan also includes a minimum pension of €1,000 per month after a full career. “A life of work must offer a dignified pension,” Macron said.

Unemployment reform

Changes to unemployment benefits will be “fully implemented” on October 1st. The reform was supposed to come into effect on July 1st, but in June, France’s Council of State decided to suspend certain elements regarding the way benefits are calculated.

“Uncertainties around the economic situation do not allow for implementing, at this moment, these new rules which are meant to support job stability by making benefits less attractive for workers alternating between short contracts and inactivity,” that decision stated.

“In France, you must earn a better living by working than by staying at home, which is currently not always the case,” Macron said on Tuesday.

From September, the government will also launch “a massive plan for the training and retraining of the long-term unemployed”.

“We have seen during this crisis the strength of our social model,” Macron said. “It’s a jewel we need to preserve. This social model rests on one foundation: work.”

Investment plan

During his address, Macron also emphasised the importance of economic sovereignty, and said an investment plan would be unveiled in the autumn following consultations this summer. The objective is “to build the France of 2030”, and to “reindustrialise, reconcile growth with ecological production”.

“We saw during this crisis the consequences of dependence,” Macron said, calling for French and European independence with regards to technology and primary resources.

Last month, the President announced a series of measures designed to stimulate French innovation in healthcare technology.

Support for young and old

Finally, Macron announced additional support for those who have been hardest hit by the pandemic – young people “who sacrificed so much even though there was little risk for themselves”, and elderly people “who more than others feared for their lives”.

In September, the government will unveil a new revenu d’engagement (commitment-based income) for young people not in education, employment or training. This “will be founded on rights and responsibilities”. This could resemble the garantie jeunes, a monthly benefit for 16 to 25-year-olds not in employment or training, created under François Hollande’s government.

For the older generation, Macron avoided specifics. “We owe them a great humanist ambition for independence, strengthened home care, modernised retirement homes,” he said.