Millions of workers and youth in France mobilised on January 19 against the government's latest attack on pensions. John Mullen explains the background.
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French President Emmanuel Macron announced, on January 10, the introduction into parliament of his new bill on retirement pensions. This proposes to make us work longer, by advancing the normal age at which one can retire, to 64 years of age from 62, and by rapidly raising the number of years of contributions needed to receive a full pension.
Seven-hundred and fifty-thousand people retire in France each year. Macron’s last attempt at making us work longer, three years ago, was joyfully wrecked, by millions on the streets and hundreds of thousands on strike. Macron was humiliated, pushed into making concessions one by one to different sections of workers, then into promising that only those born after 1975 would be affected, before finally having to dump his reform as the strikes continued, though he pretended that the COVID-19 pandemic was the reason.
This time around, frightened by the certainty of mass resistance, Macron and Prime Minister Elizabeth Borne mixed some concessions into the pensions bill. Seniors on poverty pensions will get increases that should gradually mean that no one with a full work record gets less than €940 a month. The initial plan to push the retirement age to 65 was watered down to 64. Macron has also insisted that Borne, not himself, should be the frontline spokesperson, just in case it all goes pear-shaped. In addition, unlike three years ago, Macron has limited himself to the aim of giving less money, and has abandoned his previous plan to reorganise all pension schemes on a points basis, which would make the schemes far easier to privatise further down the line.
So the latest battle in a 30-year war over pensions has been launched.
In 1982, the Socialist Party (SP) government of François Mitterrand reduced the pension age to 60, and the number of years working to get a full pension was fixed at 37.5. Since 1993, governments of the right and of the social-liberal left have continually tried to hack away at the pension scheme. Sometimes they succeeded, sometimes resistance pushed them back, and sometimes the struggles resulted in a draw.
In 1993, a right-wing government added two and a half years to the time you had to contribute in the private sector in order to get a full pension, bringing it up to 40 years. In addition, private sector pensions were to be calculated based on a percentage of average earnings over 25 years, and no longer over the best 10 years.
In 1995, the Right was defeated in its attempt to slash public sector pensions. More than a month of strikes — during which the Paris metro was completely shut down for weeks on end — obliged Prime Minister Alain Juppé to abandon his plan in panic.
In 2003, public sector pensions were attacked again. Public sector workers now also had to work 40 years for a full pension. However, pensions were still based on the average salary of the last six months of work before retirement.
In 2010, the normal pension age was pushed back from 60 to 62.
In 2014, the SP government further increased the number of years necessary to be entitled to a full pension. Among other neoliberal crimes, this act destroyed the SP electorally (they are now down to 30 Members of Parliament).
Pension systems are complex, but the figures show the immense value in fighting back. In France today, 4.4% of people over 65 live in poverty. The figure for Britain is 15.5%, and for Germany 9.1%, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. If the situation in France was as bad as in Britain, it would mean nearly two million more older people living in poverty. Class struggle works!
Heading for a explosion
The chances of a social explosion this month are excellent. In a January 12 poll, 46% said they are ready to mobilise in resistance. This includes 32% of those already retired. Only 23% of the population say they will “definitely not” join the resistance. About 60% say they support the fightback, while only 27% say they are opposed to it.
It is interesting to note that a majority of those who voted for far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in last year’s presidential elections are ready to mobilise to defend pensions. This has obliged Le Pen to loudly pretend she is on the workers’ side in this struggle, and the conservative media is happily suggesting that the fightback will be an alliance between the left and the far-right. In reality, it is the left that will organise the struggle, and this could be a moment to pull back many of those who voted for the fascists, towards a class struggle view of the world. Some trade union federations have already announced that they will prevent any attempt by far-right organisations to join the movement’s demonstrations.
The leaders of all eight trade union confederations have called for strikes on January 19. It is the first time in 12 years that all of them have called together: usually some try to play the “moderate” in the hope of getting better treatment from the government. In 1995, one of the biggest trade union confederations, the French Democratic Confederation of Labour, supported the pensions bill, provoking a huge crisis in its ranks. This time, in 2023, even police trade unions are criticising the bill.
Trade union leaders, including the more radical among them — if we are speaking of the mass confederations — are professional negotiators. Even if, in France, union leaders do not receive the hugely inflated salaries they do in Britain and elsewhere, they do not put fightback at the centre of their strategy. In the present question of pensions, the reform being so unpopular, and the working class having proved in recent years its willingness to strike, it would have been perfectly possible to coordinate a general strike for the day of the announcement of the pension reform. In coming weeks, trade union bureaucracies will prefer to call single “days of action” and will only call a general strike if put under huge pressure from below. Still, General Confederation of Labour leader Philippe Martinez declared this week that the strikes could be “better than in 1995”, so that is a start. And some groups of workers are determined to go further. Oil refinery workers have already announced two and three-day all-out strikes over the next couple of weeks.
The main radical left party, France Insoumise (FI), led by Jean Luc Mélenchon, has launched, with other left organisations, a series of public meetings across France, to build the resistance, and radical Left MPs are very visible on TV attacking Macron’s bill. The FI program includes the reestablishment of retirement at 60 for all. One thousand people came to the first public meeting, in Paris, on the same day as the PM’s announcement. FI MP François Ruffin spoke there. “Retirement is wonderful, it is our right to a joyful life,” he said. “It is our right to have the time to look after grandchildren, go fishing or learn zumba, but we need to retire while we are still in good health." Another FI MP, Mathilde Panot, insisted that the pensions bill was “a declaration of war”.
There will be a national demonstration on January 21, called by left youth organisations, supported by the FI. Buses will be running from across the country. This is Macron’s flagship reform, and we need to sink it fast. This will require more than union “days of action”.
[John Mullen has been active on the anticapitalist left in the Paris region for many years and is a supporter of the France Insoumise. His website is at www.randombolshevik.org.]