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Wednesday April 24, 2024

What’s going on in France?

By Khalid Bhatti
April 02, 2023

France is in the grip of mass protests and strikes that have erupted against the controversial pension reform plan. The Macron government wants to increase the retirement age from the current 62 years to 64 years. From 2027, workers will have to make social security contributions over 43 years rather than 42 years in order to draw a full pension. Some other controversial measures have also been included in the pension reform plan.

The strikes and protests were mostly peaceful before March 16. But the police clashed with protesters after French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne rammed through the bill in the National Assembly, the lower house, last week by invoking Article 49.3 of the French constitution. The constitutional clause grants the government executive privilege to pass a bill without a parliamentary vote and gives the opposition the opportunity to respond with a no-confidence vote. The Borne government has survived two no-confidence votes by a narrow majority of nine votes.

A recent poll has found that 82 per cent of the French hold a negative view regarding the use of Article 49.3, and 65 per cent wish for demonstrations to persist, even after the passing of the law.

The ongoing strikes and protests have become more violent as the police are trying to defuse the situation through violence. The protesters are also responding with the same tactics to defend themselves. Now the Macron-Borne government is putting the blame of violence on the striking workers and protesting young people.

The first round of strikes and street protests took place on January 19, 2023. From train drivers to airport workers, most people took to the streets to voice their demands. Workers in the health, ports, energy and other sectors are also organizing strikes. Tons of garbage are now piling up on the streets as sanitation workers have also been on strike since March 7.

Nearly 3.5 million workers and young people took to the streets across France against the pension reforms announced by the Macron government on March 23. Nearly 800,000 people took to the streets in Paris. Hundreds of thousands of people in Marseille, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Nantes, Lyon and Grenoble strongly protested against the reforms. The French have been fighting against the pension reforms for the last two months. Mass protests and strikes took place in different parts of France in the last eight weeks.

The neoliberal right-wing Macron government had hopes that protests and strikes would fade away soon. But the protest movement has swelled in recent weeks. As soon as the Macron government announced its plan to reform the pension system in France, trade unions strongly rejected it and called the reforms anti-workers.

The police’s high-handed tactics to intimidate the protesters have failed so far. The law-enforcement agencies have arrested nearly 800 people including some tourists. Police intimidation, arrests and harassment on the streets are not working. The local authorities have imposed a ban on street protests to control the situation in many cities.

The Macron government is using all sorts of tactics and measures to break the strikes and contain the street protests. But the workers have pushed back. Instead of demoralizing the protestors, these restrictions have provoked them even more.

In general, the mood and methods on demonstrations and pickets are becoming more defiant and radicalized than the ‘days of action’ in the past, which have often felt more like rallies than national strikes. People are using their ingenuity to resist attempts to crush the movement.

Workers in France are protesting against pension reforms because they believe that the proposed reforms will result in longer working hours with fewer benefits and a higher retirement age. They also fear that the reforms will hurt the country’s most vulnerable citizens, such as the elderly and those with health issues, as they will no longer be able to retire early. Additionally, the workers are concerned that the proposed reforms are too focused on austerity and cuts rather than on their living standards, benefits and quality of life.

Trade unions are opposing the pension reforms in France because they believe that the reforms will hurt workers and pensioners, as they will be required to work longer, receive lower pensions, and be subject to a greater number of pension reforms in the future. They are also concerned that the reforms will lead to a two-tier system, with some workers receiving a lower pension than others. The unions also fear that the reforms will lead to an increase in inequality, with the wealthy receiving more benefits than those on lower incomes.

The pension reforms in France are so unpopular because they are seen as a direct attack on one of the most cherished social safety nets in the country: the retirement system. Many right-wing governments in the past tried to reform the pension system but faced stiff resistance and mass opposition from trade unions, workers and young people. Macron tried to pass the pension plan in his first tenure too but failed to do so due to fierce resistance from the workers.

The reforms make it harder for people to retire early and reduce benefits for some of the lowest-earning retirees. They also raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 and reduce pension payments for those who work past the age of 65. The reforms also include a controversial increase in the number of years of contributions needed for a full pension.

The French government wants to increase employment among the 61- to 64-year age group. Nearly 33 per cent people in this age group work in France compared to 61 per cent in Germany and 69 per cent in Sweden. These changes have met widespread opposition from labour unions and other groups, who argue that these reforms are unfair and will lead to an increasing number of elderly people living in poverty.

The writer is a freelance journalist.