By Lisbeth Latham.

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 gilets jaunes (yellow vests) to defeat the attack by the government of President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Édouard Charles Philippe on France’s 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. The movement faces serious barriers to expansion and growth.

Pension counter-reforms

During the 2017 election campaign, Macron promised that he would look to “reform” France’s pension system. The current attacks build on both the changes to the pension system pushed through by the former Sarkozy-Fillon government in 2010, and the failed attacks on the Special Retirement Plans for workers in a number of public services and recently privatised companies, launched in 1995 and 2007.

These attacks have been justified on the grounds of making the pension system “sustainable” in the face of France’s ageing population. France’s pension system relies on pensions being paid out of the payments of current workers, with excess payments going into an investment fund.

The planned changes, affecting the majority of French workers, would increase the age at which workers could access their pensions from the current 62 years old (the “pivot age”) to 64 years old in 2027. The reform would increase the period of time that workers are required to have been working in order to qualify for a full pension from 42 to 43 years, and increase the age at which workers can retire on a full pension without working the minimum qualifying years of work (the “equalising age”).

Special Retirement Plans

The Special Retirement Plans (SRPs) refer to 42 different pension schemes received by workers in 15 organisations including rail workers with the SNCF (French National Railway Company) and RATP (Autonomous Operator of Parisian Transportation), members of the Paris Opera, lawyers, members of the army, sailors, and the National Police.

Workers in these primarily public organisations have pension schemes that had been in place prior to the introduction of the national pension scheme in October 1945, some of them dating back centuries.

The SRPs tend to allow earlier retirement – many of these jobs are extremely physically strenuous – and provide for workers to receive a higher defined benefit than the standard pensions. The SRPs also have better indexation (the standard pension is indexed at inflation, while the majority of the SRP pensions provide for workers to have their pensions be indexed with wage increases in their former industry).

This attack has been justified on the basis of providing transparency and equality to the French pension system, and the claim that it would secure the financial basis of the pensions in these plans. All of the SRPs are in sectors that have experienced significant contraction in employment, so there are substantially more retirees dependent on the pensions than workers contributing to the schemes, so the attack has the added aim of splitting opposition to the pension reform.

Union responses

Opposition to the proposed changes have been premised on four major arguments:

First, the changes will disproportionately affect women, who, due to the socialised norms around responsibility for childcare are more likely to have substantial career breaks. Already many French women are unable to qualify for a full pension prior to reaching the pivot age.

Unions argue that increasing both the qualifying period and the full-pension age will cast greater numbers of women into poverty in retirement. At present, women who have children are given credit towards their pension qualification – one year per child in the public sector and two years per child in the private sector. The proposed changes would end this.

Women currently receive 29 per cent less than the pensions of men. However, the General Confederation of Labour (Confédération générale du travail, CGT) expects this gap to rise to 42 per cent if the current protections for women are removed as proposed.

The second argument against the pension reform is that increases in the pension ages mean that workers will increasingly be unable to retire prior to the onset of the illnesses of old age, and so fewer and fewer workers will be able to experience a healthy period of retirement.

“Your pharmacist recommends retirement before arthritis”

Thirdly, the changes will unfairly impact workers who work in more physically demanding industries. These workers are currently allowed to retire earlier, but an increase in the pension age will put heavy pressure on the bodies of these workers to work to the new pension age.

While the government has retreated on this change for some categories of workers, notably police and firefighters. But sewage workers – who on average die seven years earlier than other workers and 17 years earlier than managers – will lose their access to early retirement. 

Finally, workers who lose their jobs later in their working lives, who already find it difficult to obtain work, will have to face a longer period of either unemployment or underemployment prior to reaching the pension age.

Convergence of struggles

The movement draws together separate struggles that have been occurring in France during the Macron presidency. The Left and the more militant unions have sought to draw together the existing struggles within French society into the pension struggle.

This has included pre-existing workers’ struggles but also student movements that have campaigned against higher tuition fees for international students and the introduction of increased university entrance requirements. The education reforms have resulted in thousands of young people failing to gain entrance to university.

Thousands of university and high-school students have mobilised against these changes. Protests have included blockades or schools and universities, and prompted calls for exams to be totally cancelled to allow the full involvement of students in the movement.

This process of convergence is not new, and has been an objective of a range of militant organisations since before the Macron presidency. This has included the Front Social and the Nuit Debout movement that emerged during struggles against the El Khomri labour reforms (named after Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri). The gilets jaunes are a new mobilisation force which, since November 2018, have drawn into motion sections of the French popular classes that unions and other progressive forces have not been able to mobilise for an extended period of time.

Violent repression and ‘concessions’

In response to the mass movement, the French state has responded with escalating repressive violence, just as it has done in response to other mobilisations since the November 2015 introduction of the state of emergency following the terror attacks in Paris. (The state of emergency was eventually withdrawn in November 2017).

There has been footage released of Republican Security Companies (CRS) and gendarme riot police beating protesters, as well as the deployment of a range of “non-lethal” weapons, including flash balls (the fire rubber bullets) and explosive tear gas grenades. France is the only EU country to deploy explosive canisters in law enforcement.

This violent repression has seen a steady rise in the number of people who have been maimed at protests. The brutal security response has caused dozens of people to lose an eye, or a hand, and thousands to be seriously injured.

In addition, the government has sought to manoeuvre in the hope of dividing and blunting the movement. It announced the “temporary” withdrawal of the first phases of the increase in the pivot age that had been scheduled to begin in 2022. This withdrawal is based on finding an alternative way of saving €12 billion “in order to secure the system by 2027”. The government has proposed a conference on 30 January to identify alternative mechanisms to make savings in the pension system.

The “concessions” have primarily been aimed at the conservative unions, particularly the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail, CFDT) – the largest French confederation when measured by the number of members and second-largest in employee representative bodies – and the National Union of Autonomous Trade Unions (L’Union Nationale des Syndicats Autonomes, UNSA), which is the second most popular union within both the SNCF and RAPT transport companies.

These unions have responded positively to the concessions, with CFDT general secretary Laurent Berger labelling the withdrawal of the 2022 pivot age phase-in date a victory for the union, and calling on CFDT members to desist from participating in strikes and mobilisations against the pension reform.

However, the more militant unions have rejected the overtures of the government, arguing that the legislation is not amendable and that it should be withdrawn. The CGT, in a 11 January statement, said, “that debate on the pivot age is simply aimed at winning the support of certain unions”.

Léon Crémieux, a militant in SUD Rail, the trade union Solidaires within the SNCF and RAPT, and leader of the New Anticapitalist Party (Nouveau Parti Anticapitalise, NPA), argues that the upcoming conference is a trap because it “will only be able to put the ‘pivotal age at 64’ back in the frame, forcing retirement two years later, or lengthening the number of years worked necessary to retire (43 years today)”. SUD Rail, in a statement on 24 January, said it would refuse to meet with the government and would continue to mobilise its members until the withdrawal of the bill. 

Movement weaknesses

Despite significant public support, opinion polls suggest that support for the movement has reached peaks of 65 per cent. However, the movement has failed to meet the size and breadth of the major working-class mobilisations of the past three decades in France.

The current movement is substantially bigger and longer-lasting than the peak of the anti-government movements of the past decade, but it is substantially smaller than the big movements against government attacks against the working class of the last three decades, particularly the movements of 1995, 2003, and 2010.

In 1995, the movement was primarily within the public sector, and was not directly supported by the more conservative unions, particularly the CFDT, but it wase driven by the CGT and Workers Force (Force Ouvriere, FO). The more militant unions were able to draw much broader layers of the working class, including significant sections of the CFDT’s membership and support base, into motion.

In 2003, a mass movement against the first employment contract, which attacked the employment rights of young workers, was primarily driven by mobilisations by students and education workers.

The 2010 movement to defend the pension system peaked at mobilisations of 3.5 million people, and seven mobilisations of more than two million across eight weeks. In addition 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 at best achieved partial victories. The 2010 movement failed totally and demobilised on the promise that a future Parti Socialiste (Socialist Party, PS) government would repeal the changes – which the PS government never attempted to do. Instead it introduced new attacks on the unions and France’s working class. These defeats have contributed to the inability of the new pension 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 or potentially capital.

Importantly, the movement has been expanding. The 200-plus mobilisations across France on 24 January drew an estimated 1.3 million people onto the street, up from 800, 000 on 16 January.

At the centre of the struggle has been the strikes within the SNCF and RATP, with 45 days of strike action that ended on 24 January. This strike was initiated by the militant union federation within both the SNCF and RATP, and was primarily built on the back of the September strike within the RATP against pension reform.

Other key sites of struggle have been the depth of the movement within France’s cultural institutions, particularly the Paris Opera – which has been on strike and performing at the mass demonstrations in Paris – the Louvre, and the French National Library. Blockades of oil refineries occurred from 8-11 January.

On 24 January, the CGT said it was seeking to initiate discussions with workers in those workplaces not yet on strike, to draw them into action. This is taking place through general assemblies of workers and organising at the workplace and municipal level.

While the inability to draw the more conservative unions, particularly the CFDT, consistently into the movement is a real weakness and a brake on the movement’s potential to mobilise, it could potentially be a strength as it reduces the influence of the CFDT on the movement. The government cannot rely on the CFDT’s to suddenly withdraw from the movement as it did in 2010 after that round of pension reforms were passed.

This may place considerable 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.

The current national intersyndicale – which brings together the CGT, FO, CGC-CFE (Confédération Française de l’Encadrement-Confédération Générale des Cadres), Solidaires, FSU (Fédération syndicale unitaire, Unitary Union Federation), FIDL (Fédération Indépendante et Démocratique Lycéenne, Independent and Democratic High School Federation), MNL (Mouvement National Lycéen, National High School Student Movement), UNL (L’Union nationale lycéenne, National High School Union), and UNEF (Union Nationale des Étudiants de France, National Union of Students of France) – has called for three further days of mobilisation on 29, 30 and 31 January.

These days of mobilisation will be an important test as to the direction of the movement’s inertia.

Lisbeth Latham is a contributing editor at Irish Broad Left. She blogs at Follow her on Twitter @grumpenprol.

Leave a Reply