The pension reforms currently provoking general strikes, mass protests and widespread public anger in France were first pledged by Emmanual Macron in his 2017 presidential election campaign. Trade unions and opposition parties began to organise against the reforms before the Covid-19 pandemic forced the government to postpone its plans.
Then, on January 6th of this year, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne brought back the plan to raise the legal retirement age from 62 to 64 from 2030, sparking intense industrial action and nightly protests across the country.
The pension reform itself is deeply unpopular (opposed by 70-80 percent of the French public), but the manner in which the new law was passed—invoking the 49th article of the French constitution, allowing the Prime Minister to bypass the National Assembly to force through the reforms without a vote—sparked real anger. That parliament was not consulted is widely perceived as an anti-democratic affront, causing the popularity of Macron and his government to plummet: 71 percent want the government to resign, while the president’s approval rating has fallen to 28 percent—the lowest since the gilets jaunes protests in 2018.
A Mass Movement
On January 31st, 2.8 million people turned out at union-led demonstrations to oppose the reforms in France’s largest mobilisation in almost three decades. While the scale and intensity of the protests have made media headlines worldwide, the government response has attracted the attention of human rights organisations.
Amnesty France has condemned the use of violent and repressive policing tactics. It has highlighted several cases, including a protestor who had a testicle amputated after being struck with a baton, a high school student who suffered facial injuries from a police ‘sting-ball’ grenade, and the frequent use of dangerous crowd control methods such as kettling, which is illegal in France.
Human rights organisations have also condemned the excessive use of tear gas and hundreds of arbitrary arrests. Detention in police custody is used punitively, including detaining high school students preparing for their baccalaureate exams for days at a time before their release.
New Forms of Organising
Millions of people have taken to the streets to demonstrate against pension reform, with large turnouts in every French city. In Paris, the crowds are so massive that they have to be divided across two or three boulevards. In contrast to the police response, the demonstrations are typically impassioned but restrained.
The movement against the pension reforms is producing new types of organisation and protest. At the mass demonstration on 16th March, a series of rallies were spontaneously announced for later in the evening and on the following days—it is interesting to note the promotion and organisation of these rallies often take place on social media and outside of traditional political and trade union networks.
After demonstrators arrive at the rallies, they form small groups, which then roam the city playing cat and mouse with the police, dispersing before reappearing in different locations. The actions are reminiscent of yellow vests protests: every day, a new action and a new location.
The unrest shows little sign of abating. Yesterday, Macron was interviewed on French TV. In 30 minutes, the President said three things: the pension’s reform is ‘necessary’ and he wished he didn’t need to do it, ‘republic order’ needs to be restored, and France cannot afford ‘economic immobility’.
This, of course, will do nothing to calm the protests. As we write this, union workers are still holding picket lines, protests are ongoing, and political parties are organising to support hardship funds for striking workers.
Legally, the pension reforms have been adopted. Socially, they are far from being accepted.