Since December 5, France has been gripped by ongoing strikes and mobilisations by a coalition of trade unions, high school and university student unions, as well as the gilet jaunes (yellow vests) aiming to defeat the attack by the Emanuel Macron–Édouard Philippe government on the pension system.
While the alliance has been able to sustain a period of heightened mobilisations that have put the government under pressure, it remains unclear whether the movement is powerful enough to defeat the attack, and how it can grow.
During the 2017 election campaign, Macron promised he would “reform” France’s pension system. The current attacks build on the changes to the pension system pushed through by the Nicolas Sarkozy–François Fillon government in 2010, and the failed attacks on the Special Retirement Plans (SRPs) covering workers in the public sector and recently privatised companies in 1995 and 2007.
Macron’s attacks have been justified by the need to make the pension system “sustainable” for an ageing population. The changes aim to: raise the age workers can access their pensions from 62 years of age to a new “pivot age” of 64 (effective in 2027); force workers to work 43 years to qualify for a full pension (up from 42); and raise the age at which workers can retire on a full pension without working the minimum qualifying years of work (the “equalising age”).
The SRPs cover workers in transportation, culture, the legal sector, the military and police. These schemes originated prior to the introduction of the national pension scheme in 1945 and some date back to the period of Louis XIV. They allow for early retirement, as many of these jobs are extremely physically strenuous. They also provide a higher defined benefit than standard pensions, and are indexed to industry wage rises, rather than inflation rates.
All sectors covered by SRPs have had significant contraction in employment, so there are now substantially more retirees dependent on these pensions than workers contributing to the schemes. Because of this, the government has sought to split opposition to the reforms.
Opposition to the proposed changes is based on four major arguments.
First, the changes will disproportionately affect women, who, due to responsibility for child-rearing, are more likely to have substantial career breaks.
Many French women are already unable to qualify for a full-pension and unions argue that increasing both the qualifying period and the full-pension age will cast greater numbers of women into poverty in retirement.
Currently, women who have children are given credit towards their pension qualification. The proposed changes would remove this.
Women currently receive 29% of men’s pensions. The General Confederation of Labour (CGT) expects the gap to widen if their protections are removed.
Secondly, increases in the retirement age mean that fewer and fewer workers will be able to have a healthy, illness-free retirement.
Thirdly, the changes will unfairly impact workers in more physically-demanding industries. The rise in the retirement age will put heavy physical pressure on these workers in reaching the new pension age.
The government has exempted some categories of workers — notably police and firefighters. However, sewage workers — who die seven years earlier than other workers on average and 17 years earlier than managers — will lose their early retirement option.
Finally, workers who lose jobs later in their working lives will have to face a longer period of unemployment or underemployment prior to reaching pension age.
Convergence of struggles
The left and the more militant unions have sought to converge existing struggles within French society into the pension struggle.
This includes workers' struggles, as well as student campaigns against increased international student fees and changes to university entrance requirements.
The national movement coalition currently brings together the CGT, Workers Force (FO), The French Confederation of Management – General Confederation of Executives (CFE-CGC), the trade union Solidaires, Unitary Union Federation (FSU), Independent and Democratic High School Federation (FIDL), the National High School Student Movement (MNL), the National High School Union (UNL) and the National Union of Students of France (UNEF).
This process of convergence is not new, and has been an objective since well before Macron’s presidency, particularly in relation to: the emergence of Le Front Social and Nuit Debout during the struggle against labour minister Myriam El Khomri’s anti-worker attacks in 2016; and the gilet jaunes, which, since 2018, has drawn previously unmobilised sections of the French working class into action.
The state has responded to this mass movement with escalating repressive violence, just as it did during the November 2015 state of emergency following the terror attacks in Paris (which was withdrawn in November 2017).
Footage has emerged of Republican Security Companies (CRS) and Gendarme riot police beating protestors and deploying a range of so-called “non-lethal” weapons, including explosive tear gas grenades and flash balls. France is the only European country to deploy explosive canisters in law enforcement and there has been a steady rise in the number of people who have been maimed at protests.
The government has sought to manoeuvre in the hope of dividing and blunting the movement. Their tactic has been the announcement of a “temporary” withdrawal of the first phase of the Pivot Age increase, scheduled to begin in 2022. The withdrawal was based on finding an alternative way of saving €12 billion “in order to secure the system by 2027”.
This “concession” was primarily aimed at the conservative unions, particularly the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT), the largest French confederation in numbers of members and second-largest in employee representative bodies, and the National Union of Autonomous Trade Unions (UNSA). Both responded positively. CFDT general secretary Laurent Berger called the withdrawal of the 2022 Pivot Age phase-in date a victory for the CFDT, and called on CFDT members not to participate in further strikes and mobilisations against the pension reform.
However, more militant unions, including the CGT, rejected the government’s overtures, refused to meet with the government and are continuing to mobilise their members until the bill is withdrawn.
Opinion polls suggest that support for the movement has reached peaks of 65%, however, it has failed to mobilise this level of support and match the size and breadth of the major working-class mobilisations of the past three decades.
The current movement is substantially bigger and longer-lasting than at the peak of the anti-government movements of the past decade, but still substantially smaller than the huge movements against attacks on the working class, particularly in 1995, 2003 and 2010.
In 1995, the movement was focussed in the public sector, driven by the militant CGT and FO, but not supported by the more conservative unions, particularly the CFDT.
However, the more militant unions were able to draw into motion broad layers of the working class, including significant sections of the CFDT’s membership and base.
The 2003 movement against the first employment contract, which focused on the employment rights of young workers, was primarily driven by mobilisations of students and education workers.
The 2010 movement to defend the pension system peaked at mobilisations of 3.5 million people. There were seven mobilisations of more than 2 million across eight weeks. There were indefinite strikes in a number of industries, particularly oil refining, which resulted in widespread fuel shortages.
However, despite the larger size of these earlier movements, they achieved, at best, partial victories.
The 2010 movement failed totally and demobilised on a promise that a future Socialist Party (PS) government would repeal the changes. Once in government, however, the PS did not attempt to, and instead introduced new attacks on unions and workers.
Such defeats have contributed to the current inability of the movement to spread.
At the same time, the ability of the movement to sustain itself and force the government to offer “concessions” has given hope that perhaps the movement can outlast the resilience of the government and capital.
Importantly, the movement has been expanding. More than 200 mobilisations across France on January 24 drew an estimated 1.3 million people onto the street, up from 800,000 on January 16.
At the centre of the struggle has been the 45-day-long strike by workers in the national railway (SNCF) and public transport (RATP) sectors, which ended on January 24.
The strike was initiated by the militant union federation within SNCF and RATP, and was primarily built on the back of the September RATP strike.
Also key have been the struggles within France’s cultural institutions, including the Louvre art museum, the French National Library and the Paris Opera — which went on strike and performed at mass demonstrations in Paris.
Workers also blockaded oil refineries from January 8–11.
On January 24, the CGT announced it would seek to initiate discussions with workers in workplaces not yet on strike, to draw them into action, through general assemblies of workers and at the workplace and municipal level.
The movement’s inability to draw in the more conservative unions, particularly the CFDT consistently is a real weakness and break on the movement’s potential. However, it could also be a potential strength, as it reduces their influence. The government also cannot rely on a CFDT sudden withdrawal from the movement — which happened in 2010 after the pension changes were passed — to undermine and demobilise.
This could place additional pressure on the government, as it is less likely, compared to 2010, that the movement will simply evaporate following the passing of any legislation.
Added to this, with the splintering of the PS in the wake of the 2017 presidential elections, it is hard for more conservative forces to advocate an electoral solution to addressing the assault on pensions.