Over the winter holidays, while the rest of the world decorated their streets with festive lights and Christmas garlands, the avenues of Paris have been filled with banners, riot police, and tear gas. It has been two months since various protests and strikes against the French President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reforms erupted in December, and public sector employees, such as lawyers, teachers, and hospital workers, have been on a continuous strike. Railway workers, in particular, have been on strike for the longest time since 1968. On December 5th, over 800,000 protestors took to the streets, marking a turnout not seen since the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protests in 2018.
Under the proposed reforms, special pensions for French public sector workers, which currently allow them to retire at the age of 50, will be abolished. Their monthly pensions will be calculated according to the same rules as those in the private sector, which would mark a noticeable decrease in their pension. The new system will allow those with patchy careers to accumulate credit for every hour worked. High earners will pay extra for the pensions of others. And, although the minimum legal retirement age would technically remain at 62, a new “equilibrium age” of 64 would be established with additional incentives to work beyond that.
The French unions, however, see these proposals in a different light. The Confédération Générale du Travail, or the General Confederation of Labour, rejects the proposed points-based system. It accuses Macron, which it calls “a president of the ultra-rich,” of having destroyed the pension system. Having organized strikes since day one of the proposal, it has refused to return to work until the government abandons its plans for reform. Talks between unions and the government resumed on January 7th, after protests continued throughout December. President Macron says that he has no intention of shelving his reform, and the confederation of labour has said that it would not accept any compromise. As such, it’s hard to see how the protests would end up.
When and how this conflict is resolved not only matters to the commuters who are struggling to get to work on time amid the transportation strikes, but also as the measure by which Macron’s presidential term will be evaluated. With only two years until the next election, and having only narrowly survived the gilets jaunes protests against fuel price increases the year before, Macron has failed to meet the radical promises he made during his 2017 campaign, in which he vowed to reshape labor, training, and welfare systems to encourage job creation and ease mobility.
However, compromise with the confederation may be the only option moving forward. Much of what happens in the future will depend on the momentum of the protests in the near future, which is beginning to show signs of slowing. A big turnout was expected for a one-day protest on January 9th, but participation in the strike by railway workers has fallen from 32% on December 6th to a measly 6% on January 3rd, and among train drivers from 87% to 31%. Although most polls show that the majority of French citizens support the strikes, a couple have shown the number slip below 50% on certain occasions. Yet, despite these discrepancies, most of the French are still against the proposed new system.
Poor communication, conspiracy theories, and hostility to Mr. Macron means that, even now, few believe his claim that he is trying to reform France’s pension system rather than destroy it. In order for his reforms to pass, he may first have to change the way he is received before turning to policy changes.