France: Millions march against pension reform

September 11, 2010
Protest against pension cuts in Marseille on September 7. More than 2.7 million people took part in 200 marches across France. P

More than 2.7 million workers joined protests across France on September 7. The strikes and protests marked the start of a parliamentary debate over the new pension bill that will dramatically cut workers’ pensions. The protests were called by coalition of six of France’s Union Confederations.

More than 200 marches were held across France. The largest was in Paris, where 270,000 people took part. Striking transport workers caused significant disruption to services with only 40% of high speed train services running across France. A quarter of flights from Paris airports were cancelled or delayed.

The government of President Nicolas Sarkozy has tried to play down the size of the mobilisations, claiming only 1.1 million workers took part.

There are four key changes that have been proposed by the Sarkozy government: Lifting the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 years; raising the age at which workers can retire on a full pension from 65 to 67; increasing the period that workers must work to qualify for the full pension from 40 to 41.5; and increasing the proportion of public sector workers’ salaries that they contribute to the pension system from 7.85% to 10.55%, the same amount as in the private sector.

The proposed changes would have a considerable impact across French society. Workers who enter the workforce at 18 or younger will face working for more than 44 years. The French Democratic Confederation of Labour said more than 100,000 people aged between 14 and 18 enter the workforce each year.

Workers who experience any break in employment will increasingly struggle to qualify for the full pension. Three quarters of women already receive 40% of the pensions that men receive.

The French government has sought to justify the cuts based on projected shortfalls in the current system of up to $150 billion by 2050. This position has been rejected by French unions, which oppose the idea that workers should be made to pay for the funding shortfall.

The Solidaires and Workers Force union confederations are calling for pensions to be funded through a redistribution of wealth that targets company profits.

Public opposition to the reforms are not reflected just in the size of the mobilisations. Opinion polls suggest two thirds of the population oppose the reforms.

The government’s initial response to the mass protests has been to insist the changes will go ahead. On September 9, the Independent reported Sarkozy saying: “There is no question of going back on this. Working a little longer is the most reasonable path.”

However, the government has indicated that it would include amendments that will allow workers to retire at 60 if they started work before they turned 18 or if they suffer from a partial physical incapacity. The National Assembly, which is dominated by Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement, is expected to pass the bill on September 15.

After the September 7 protests, Solidaires issued a statement saying: “A showdown is underway. Given the government's determination we must show even greater determination … the challenge today is to force the government to yield.

“We must therefore provide the means. Employees must discuss and arrange the renewal of the strike wherever possible and it is the responsibility of the Inter Union deciding on a response to the challenges at September 7, continued to be held in the days to come.”

On September 8, the Inter Union Coalition met and announced further days of action. The first will be on September 15 to apply pressure to the deputies. A further day of strikes and demonstrations has been called for September 23 in the lead up to debate on the bill in the Senate.

These actions alone are unlikely to be enough to force the Sarkozy government to back down. A previous attack on pensions by the then Alain Juppe government was defeated only as a result of a general strike over November and December 1995.

However, the mass protests are an important step towards a campaign that could defeat Sarkozy’s assault on pensions.

[Chris Latham maintains the Revitalising Labour blog.]

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