On Thursday 19 January, millions of workers marched against French president Emmanuel Macron’s proposed pension reforms. The action, essentially a one-day general strike, was organised by the trade unions in what is expected to be a lengthy battle with the state. Everyone, from seasoned left-wing unionists to the right-wing media has noted this was an unexpectedly high level of mobilisation. But Macron is determined to push his reforms through.
In recent decades struggles against the consistent downgrading of France’s pension system have been flashpoints of class struggle. As one activist recently put it ‘this is our world cup’. In 1995, 2003, 2010 and 2019-20, millions of workers protested similar reforms. Most of the time the battle was lost – the pension age elevated and its conditions worsened.
In 1993, after a 37.5 year career, you could retire at 60 on a full pension. Today, it’s 43 years of contributions to retire at 62. After the current proposals, it’ll be 64. But pockets of victories also took place. Memories of the 1995 victory against the notorious ‘Plan Juppé’ (named after the then prime minister) remain. In 2019/20, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic also forced Macron to shelve earlier plans for pension reforms.
Today French workers are also mobilising because inflation has leapt from under one percent in 2020 to nearly seven per cent today. Similar to the UK, waves of strikes are underway: in hospitals, oil refineries, factories, and workplaces where action has not typically been common such as supermarkets. As the cost of living leaps upward, patience with government plans is running low.
The government is using vacuous justifications for cutting pensions. We’ve heard it before: ‘people live older and therefore should work longer’, ‘there are fewer people in work per pensioner in today’s economy’, ‘other countries have already adopted these reforms’ and the classic, ‘the system is in crisis and we must cut costs in order to save it’.
But right now there is no deficit in the pension system – the reforms are only supposed to avert deficits forecast for the future – so the government’s narrative of a system in crisis is only serving to antagonise workers. Feelings of injustice are compounded by the fact that the planned reforms are part of a wider package which include tax cuts for businesses – cuts that are explicitly costed, and offset, by these cuts to the pension system.
A general climate of active involvement could open the way for an escalation of strikes
Truth be told, Macron has long lost the trust of the majority of working people. Only one fifth of those eligible to vote supported him in the first round of the 2022 elections and his base of support is now heavily tilted towards the traditional right. The most recent opinion poll shows 72 per cent of the population are opposed to putting the retirement age up to 64. As a result of this intense unpopularity, Macron now relies on an uneasy partnership with Les Républicains, the traditional party of the right, to pass these reforms.
Those around Macron know their position is weak. Some have tried to soften his stance — the original plan was to have the retirement age increased even further and the announcement of the reforms has been put back several times. The government had hoped that the more moderate unions, in particular the CFDT (Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail) federation, would support the government in exchange for potential concessions. But even the CFDT has distanced itself from Macron.
The French trade union movement remains notoriously divided. While the CGT federation (Confédération Générale du Travail) has been at the forefront of all the major mass mobilisations of the past 20 years, but the CFDT is of roughly equal size and boasts greater membership in certain jobs, particularly in the private sector.
While the CFDT is known for its willingness to compromise, this doesn’t mean its members are incapable of militant action, especially when the stakes are high. In 2010, in response to similar pension reforms, it was CFDT workers in oil refineries who threatened to paralyse the country and were threatened with losing their jobs under an emergency government order.
The current attack has a similar effect of uniting the trade union movement as well as uniting the wider political left. The government will try to detach the CFDT from the rest of the movement and use their support to legitimate its planned reforms. They will keep giving lip service for the need for dialogue.
But Macron will not substantially change his stance. Akin to the UK, where the Conservative Party will not meaningfully engage with striking public sector workers, France is witnessing an ideological battle. It currently remains unclear whether the CFDT leadership will be willing to cave to government demands and accept the proposals.
What lies ahead? As we go to press the movement marches on. The trade union coalition has called for a new day of action on 31 January. These individual days of mass action are important, especially if they are as impressive as 19 January, but they need to be combined with smaller, continuous protests across the country.
Local marches and branch-specific strikes are happening, as well as a myriad of meetings in town halls and bars around the country. A general climate of active involvement could open the way for an escalation of strikes. This seems to be the case already in the railways, where unions have warned of an indefinite strike starting in mid-February. The battle is only beginning and is certain to last for several weeks or months but French workers remain defiant and the possibility of victory remains in the air.