OPINION: France is in for a long pensions battle, but Macron cannot afford to back down

After the first day of mass strikes and demos against Emmanuel Macron's planned pension reform - and with more strikes scheduled - John Lichfield looks at whether the strikers can win, and how long the dispute will last.

OPINION: France is in for a long pensions battle, but Macron cannot afford to back down
A demonstrator wears a shirt reading "No to your pension reform plan" as Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech in Barcelona. Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP

When Jean-Paul Sartre died in 1980, a vast crowd of his admirers followed his coffin through the streets of Paris. They included political activists who declared – jokingly, I think – that they were “demonstrating against Sartre’s death”.

The large “manifs” on the streets of Paris and 200 other French towns and cities on Thursday were also protesting against reality (but they were not joking). They assembled in their hundreds of thousands to reject President Emmanuel Macron’s proposal to increase France’s official retirement age (which, at 62, is the joint lowest in the European Union).

‘Pension reform is an insult’ – more than a million people take to the streets of France

A denial of reality? One quarter of France’s population of 68,000,000 is retired.  In 1985, the proportion was 15 percent. In 2013, 20 percent.

Without a change in the state pension system (OK, there are 42 different systems) increased life expectancy will swell the legions of the French retired to the point that, by 2050, every six workers will have to support five pensioners.

Listen to John and The Local team talking about the pension dispute, and strikes in France more generally, on our Talking France podcast. Download HERE or listen on the link below

Almost all other developed countries have responded to this challenge by delaying the minimum retirement age.  In France any such increase is opposed by 60 percent to 70 percent of voters and all eight trades union federations.

Other ways of rescuing France’s generous (to some) pension system may be possible. All have steep downsides –lower pensions, higher monthly contributions, weightier pay-roll taxes which will destroy jobs.

READ ALSO How does France’s pension age compare?

The government has considered and rejected them all. That may or may not be a mistake. This may or may not be a good time – post-Covid, with inflation raging – to confront the French population with reality.

The government has a good case but has failed to make it. Given France’s strangely teenaged relationship with the state – a blend of petulant rejection and needy dependency – that failure may have been inevitable.

On the other hand, there is a disturbing mismatch between the fury, even the hatred, expressed by some protesters and the relatively cautious scope of the proposed reform. The gradual, modest changes proposed by President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne are scarcely the act of great wickedness described by demonstrators and their banners. One read: “Métro, boulot, tombeau.” (Metro, work, grave). The grave at 64?

 France’s attitude to work seems to be unlike that in other countries. One union leader described the reform as a “two year sentence for all French people” – implying that work and jail are identical.

As the pro-Macron parliamentarian Jean-Louis Bourlanges points out there is something irrational about opposition to retirement at 64. The rejection is nevertheless passionate and sincere. “We should never forget that mistaken opinions can be a genuine fact,” he said.

Thursday’s day of action was undoubtedly a success. Another is planned for the last day of January. Could Macron and Borne be forced to back down, as Jacques Chirac and his Prime Minister, Alan Juppé, were on broadly the same issue in 1995?

CALENDAR: Key dates in the French pension strikes

The marches were bigger than those which opposed Macron’s first, more radical attempt to reform the pension system in 2019. They were roughly the same as the crowds which eventually defeated the Chirac-Juppé reform in 1995.  

It is traditional for the French unions to double their numbers when counting demonstrators. Old joke: “How many players on a football team? Eleven, according to Fifa but 22 according to the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT). 

The CGT claimed 400,000 people on the streets of Paris on Thursday and 2,000,000 in France as a whole. The government said 80,000 in Paris and 1,120,000 across the country.

The 24-hour strikes, seen as a test of strength, were also effective but not so effective as the unions hoped. Quite a lot of TGV’s and other trains ran; all the Paris Metro lines but one were open at least part of the day.

On the railways – the spear-point of the anti-Chirac protests in 1995 – just under half of the workers joined the strike which means that just over half ignored it. Much the same was true of teachers.  

The stoppages were almost entirely in the state sector. Private sector workers, whose pension rights will also change,  ignored the strike en masse – with one notable exception.

If the government was disturbed by anything, it was the high proportion of strikers in the nuclear power (state sector) and gas and petrol-refining industries (private sector).

The main union federations are reluctant to block petrol supplies or turn off the lights. They fear that will anger the public and help the government. Not so some local refinery and electricity union branches.

In two towns with parliamentarians who support the reform, the lights were switched off (illegally) by electricity workers for two hours yesterday. That may be a sign of what is to come.

Everything points to a long and nasty battle. The unions, having lost most confrontations with governments since 1995, cannot afford to lose again.

ANALYSIS: Do French unions still have the power to force a government U-turn?

Nor can President Macron afford to back down. To do so would be to spend the last four years of his second and final mandate as a lame duck.

Paradoxically, the intensity of the opposition offers him the chance of a great victory. If he prevails, he can claim to have pushed the country forward against its own wishes. His pension reform is, in truth, a relatively modest affair, compared to the radical changes he promised in 2017.

The mood of the country is even angrier and more poisonous than it was in 1995. That may be an unconscious recognition that strikes and marches have less power than they did.  In the age of the internet, home-working, bicycles, Uber and BlaBlaCar, it is not so easy to bring the country to a standstill.

I believe that it’s unlikely that Macron and Borne will buckle. But the battle has only just begun.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Calls to limit right to strike in Paris during the Olympics

Paris regional officials have reportedly asked the French Senate to limit the right to strike during the 2024 Olympics in an effort to ensure smooth operations for public transport.

Calls to limit right to strike in Paris during the Olympics

As unions organise ahead of a day of mobilisation and walkouts on January 31st to protest proposed pension reform, head of the greater Paris region (and right-wing former presidential candidate) Valérie Pécresse ha reportedly requested that the French government restricts the right to strike during the 2024 Games.

A member of Pécresse’s team told Le Parisien that the objective was to place limits on the right to strike in an attempt to stop certain unions from abusing the right and “completely disrupting [public transport] services”. 

READ MORE: Calendar: The latest French pension strike dates to remember

However, the proposals were rejected by the French Senate and were denounced by unions as “another attack on the right to strike”.

Although strikes are common in France there are some limits – workers in essential industries like public transport must give 48 hours’ notice of their intention to strike and workers in certain sectors including the army and emergency services are banned from striking.

The French government also has a rarely-used strike-busting power which allows it to force strikers back to work if their actions are affecting the security of the county.

Pécresse’s request came just a few days before the French government was set to debate an “Olympics bill” – which will establish some exemptions to current regulations in the effort of ensuring “smooth running” of the Olympic Games in 2024.

Concerns have arisen regarding the possibility of industrial action during the Olympic Games, which will come after the controversial opening up of competition the Paris public transport system (the RATP). During a speech in mid-January, Pécresse told IDFM that she hoped to create “100 percent guaranteed service during peak hours” on public transport, even during strike action.

Members of French President Emmanuel Macron’s cabinet have also expressed apprehension about possible strike action during the Olympics.

The attempt to add amendments that would restrict striking came just a day after French Minister of Transport, Clément Beaune, told Télématin that there were no plans to “touch the right to strike”, but that Macron had tasked the ministry with look into setting up more significant warning periods, as well as safeguarded periods for “vacation departures”. The minister also discussed the idea of having reserves of workers who could be mobilised to help during strike periods.

It was a member of Pécresse’s centre-right party – Philippe Tabarot – sought to add amendments restricting the right to strike to the bill, but they were ultimately rejected by the Senate. He referred to strike action at French national rail services (SNCF) during the Christmas holidays – which left 200,000 people without transport – as “intolerable” and said that “the right to strike is now being abused”.

READ MORE: ‘You don’t strike at Christmas’ – fury in France as trains cancelled

According to Le Parisien, Tabraot specifically sought require unions to provide strike notice at least 72-hours ahead of industrial action – instead of the current 48-hours. Additionally, the proposed amendments would make it so unions could not reactive an old “unlimited” strike notice that was filed several years ago and has since gone unused. The latter would attempt to diminish workers’ ability to spontaneously walk out.

And finally Tabarot hoped to add an amendment that would limit ‘short strikes’ by requiring workers to join strike action “at the start of their first shift” that day. This would make it so workers could not walk out in the middle of services for ‘short’ (under 59 minute) strikes.

Even though Tabarot’s amendments were not accepted during this attempt, the elected official said that the Senate would have to return to the subject in the following weeks and months, as the French parliament continues to consider the Olympics bill.