‘Pension reform is an insult’: More than a million protesters take to streets in France

More than a million people took to the streets of France on Thursday, on the first day of what unions have claimed will be the 'mother of all battles' against pension reform. The Local spoke to the demonstrators about their demands and how long they think the strikes will last.

'Pension reform is an insult': More than a million protesters take to streets in France
A demonstrator holds a sign reading 'Don't touch my pension' during a protest Clermont-Ferrand - one of dozens that took place across France on Thursday. Photo by THIERRY ZOCCOLAN / AFP

Thursday marked the “first day of mobilisation” in the battle against Emmanuel Macron’s planned reform of the French pension system, with strikes that brought large parts of the national rail network and city public transport to a halt.

In addition to the strikes, demonstrations took place in towns and cities around France, as people marched declaring their opposition to the proposed changes, which includes raising the pension age from 62 to 64. 

5 minutes to understand French pension reform

Early estimates of turnout were 36,000 people in Toulouse, 26,000 in Marseille, 25,000 in Nantes, 19,000 in Clermont-Ferrand, 15,000 in Montpellier, 14,000 in Tours, 12,000 in Perpignan and Orléans, 6,500 in Mulhouse and Périgueux, 13,600 in Pau, 9,000 in Angoulême and 8,000 in Châteauroux.

In total, the interior ministry said there were around 1.1 people on the street across France, although the hardline CGT union claimed over 2 million demonstrators had turned up. Unions had called for 1 million people to protest on Thursday.

READ ALSO Do French unions still have the power to force a government U-turn?

In Paris, tens of thousands of protesters met at Place de la République before marching to Nation.

Civil servant Sarah, 28, told us: “I think the pension reform is profoundly unjust – it is a political choice to favour the big businesses and make the employees work more.

“I think that the French really suffered during the pandemic, and to put this reform back on the table is an insult to the French people. I think the French are angry. I hope people will protest the same as in 2019.”

However she added that there was a generational divide in views about pension reform, saying: “The people under 50 are very against the reform, but the over 50s just repeat the government’s talking points. They say that there is not enough money for everyone without actually questioning and reflecting about the budget of the country.”

Listen to the team at The Local discussing the next steps of the pension protests on our Talking France podcast. Listen on the link below or download HERE.

School teacher Charles, who also described himself as a “revolutionary and anarchist” said: “I will certainly continue to strike, and to turn up at demos, but the strike is the important thing. In France we have had many major strikes – such as those in 1968 – which have allowed us to advance social reforms.

“This demo is the biggest I have been to in the last two years. I think that people are fed up with inflation and they are turning out because they think we have a chance of winning.”

Marc, who has worked as a haulier for 25 years, said the changes were particularly dangerous for his industry, as “our reflexes diminish as we get older”.

“I have a 44-tonne truck that goes at 80km/h – Emmanuel Macron wants to put, on the French roads, people who are older than 60 in charge of trucks knowing that our reflexes diminish significantly at a certain age.

He added: “We will need a general mobilisation, of all generations, the young and the non-young, workers and the retired. There is a bit of support, but not enough. We hope that students will join us, because there will definitely be another reform, and they will go higher than 65.”

Didier, 68, is already retired so won’t be directly touched by the reform, but the former ‘yellow vest’ said he had come to the protest to support the next generation.

He said: “I have been protesting for the last four years, and I will continue until Macron and others leave.”

But he bemoaned the apathy of a younger generation saying: “For many people their priority is just to stay home and watch the football. It’s sad but that’s how it is. 

“I don’t think the unions will win this fight, they will sit down with the government and sell out. It’s sad to say but that is what will happen.”

Police officer Christophe, currently working in an administrative role for the Police nationale, was among the protesters.

He said: “We do not have the right to strike as police, but if we are not heard today then yes we will protest and maybe take other actions in the future.

“As police, what is happening on the street is more difficult than ever and for sure we cannot work past the age of 60, it is not possible to be on the beat after that age.

“At the moment I think there is strong support for the protests, but once the daily life of French people is impacted, it’s true there might not be support – you know, no trains, no people to watch the kids – but we have to see things as a whole. After all, everyone is impacted by the pension reform.”

Student Léo, from Toulouse, said: “For the moment I think the majority of people support this action. And many people support us “blocking the country” – we’re all going to be touched by Macron’s reforms, except for the big bosses.

“The government defends only the interests of the bosses and we are tens of thousand here to fight against this together.

“We need a strong strike to combat this,” he added calling for a ‘grève generale‘ or general strike continuing indefinitely.”

Around the Bastille area of Paris, radical demonstrators hurled bottles, bins and smoke grenades at police who responded with tear gas and charged to disperse the troublemakers, according to AFP journalists at the scene.

Some 30 people were arrested, mostly members of the Black Blocs, who wore masks, helmets and black clothes, police said, adding they had managed to split off the group from the main demonstration.

No major violent incidents were reported elsewhere in France.

On Thursday evening, unions announced that a second day of mass strikes would take place on Tuesday, January 31st.

Member comments

  1. Hard to feel any sympathy for the unions when the UK retirement age is moving towards 67. They have to get real and acknowledge that the population is living longer and the pensions actually need to be paid for. The alternative is massive tax increases and I think we know how that would go down…

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Rugby tickets, coffee and stickers – French presidential candidates chastised over expenses claims

From coffee runs to rugby tickets and professional photos - France's election financing body has revealed some of the items it has refused to reimburse from the 2022 presidential race.

Rugby tickets, coffee and stickers - French presidential candidates chastised over expenses claims

Spending on the election trail is tightly regulated in France, with maximum campaign spends per candidate as well as a list of acceptable expenses that can be reimbursed.

In France the State pays at least some of the election campaign costs, with the budget calculated according to how many votes the candidate ends up getting. 

READ MORE: 5 things to know about French election campaign financing

On Friday, the government body (la Commission nationale des comptes de campagne et des financements politiques – or CNCCFP) released its findings for the 12 candidates who ran in the April 2022 presidential campaign. 

All of the candidates had their accounts approved, but 11 out of the 12 were refused reimbursement on certain items. Here are some of the items that did not get CNCCFP approval;

Rugby tickets 

Jean Lassalle – the wildcard ‘pro farmer’ candidate who received about three percent of votes cast in the first round of the 2022 election – bought “19 tickets to attend a rugby match” according to the CNCCFP’s findings. The organisation said it would not be reimbursing the tickets and questioned “the electoral nature of the event”. 

The total cost of the tickets was €465 (or €24.50 each).

Too many coffees

Socialist candidate, and current mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo reportedly spent at least €1,600 on coffee for her team during the campaign.

According to the CNCCFP, however, the caffeine needed to keep a presidential campaign running did not qualify under the country’s strict campaign financing rules.

Too many stickers

Hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s was told that the 1.2 million stickers that were bought – to the tune of €28,875 – to advertise the campaign would not be reimbursed. Mélenchon justified the purchasing of the stickers – saying that in the vast majority of cases they were used to build up visibility for campaign events, but CNCCFP ruled that “such a large number” was not justified. 

Mélenchon was not the only one to get in trouble for his signage. Extreme-right candidate Éric Zemmour was accused of having put up over 10,000 posters outside official places reserved for signage. The same went for the far-right’s Marine Le Pen, who decided to appeal the CNCCFP’s decision not to reimburse €300,000 spent on putting posters of her face with the phrase “M la France” on 12 campaign buses.

Poster pictures

Emmanuel Macron – who won re-election in 2022 – will not be reimbursed for the €30,000 spent on a professional photographer Soazig de la Moissonière, who works as his official photographer and took the picture for his campaign poster. 

The CNCCFP said that Macron’s team had “not sufficiently justified” the expenditure.

Expensive Airbnbs

Green party member Yannick Jadot reportedly spent €6,048 on Airbnbs in the city of Paris for some of his campaign employees – an expense that the CNCCFP said that public funds would not cover.

Translating posters

The campaign finance body also refused to reimburse the Mélenchon campaign’s decision to translate its programme into several foreign languages at a cost of €5,398.

The CNCCFP said that they did not consider the translations to be “an expense specifically intended to obtain votes” in a French election.

Best and worst in class

The extreme-right pundit Zemmour had the largest amount of money not reimbursed. Zemmour created a campaign video that used film clips and historic news footage without permission and also appeared on CNews without declaring his candidacy – because of these two offences, CNCCFP has reduced his reimbursement by €200,000. He has been hit with a separate bill of €70,000 after he was found guilty of copyright infringement over the campaign video. 

The star pupil was Nathalie Arthaud, high-school teacher and candidate for the far-left Lutte Ouvriere party, who apparently had “completely clean accounts”. A CNCCFP spokesperson told Le Parisien that if all candidate accounts were like Arthauds’, then “we would be unemployed”.