France: Movement to defend pensions building up steam

February 6, 2023
Protest against pension reform January 31 France
Three million people mobilised across France on January 31, according to media reports. Photo:

In Paris and in 267 other towns around France, there were angry protests on January 31, against President Emmanuel Macron’s attempt to raise the standard retirement age from 62 to 64. This is 18 more towns than mobilised in the previous day of action on January 19. In every town, numbers were considerably bigger than last time (and last time even the government said more than a million people had hit the streets).

Rail and metro workers, civil servants, energy and oil workers, construction workers, culture industry workers, town hall and hospital workers and many more struck. Dozens of high schools were blockaded by school student protesters in order to allow pupils to go on the demonstrations. In dozens of universities, mass meetings are beginning to bring students into action on the issue.

Lorry drivers joined the protest by blockading ring roads earlier in the week. Even at football matches, banners defending pensions could be seen. Collections for strike funds — rare in French strike movements — are becoming more common. In a couple of dozen towns there were evening torchlight demonstrations last week in an aim to keep up momentum.

The movement is still building up steam, despite the refusal of union leaders to call for more than one-day strikes.

Three years ago, eight successive huge days of action over a couple of months, and longer strikes in some sectors, pushed back Macron’s attack on pensions, forcing him to make concession after concession before shelving the whole plan, pretending it was because of the pandemic.

To win, more determined strike action will be needed. Macron is shaken. He has just decided to abandon a particularly vicious attack on vocational high schools, which would have put them under the control of business interests. This is because the pensions revolt is bigger than he was expecting.

Still, three days ago, Prime Minister Elizabeth Borne declared that the plan for two years more work before retirement was “not open to negotiation”.

Macron’s new right party does not have a majority in the National Assembly. To pass the law, he needs the support of the traditional right Republicans. They had looked solid, but are now wavering as big demonstrations march in medium-sized, traditionally conservative towns across the country.

The latest polls show that Macron’s plan is even more unpopular than it was a couple of weeks ago. Sixty-one percent of the entire population supports the strike movement, and the opposition to the movement is concentrated among richer people and those already retired.

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