French Protestors Violent on a Pension Reform Bill

Photo source: The Economist

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upofront

It was first in January 2023 when thousands of French demonstrators went violent on the streets to protest against a decree by Macron that raised the minimum pension age from 62 to 64. Then on specific days in February 2023, trade unions backed further strikes. It seemed apparent that the majority of French, including railway workers, rubbish collectors and others with the support of opposition parties, were resolutely against pension reform. In March 2023, there were nine hundred-three acts of arson in Paris alone, as anarchists, known as black blocs, joined in.

Many French protestors have been on the streets again because they think Macron is compromising the hard-won rights of a modern welfare state and view his decision as an undemocratic abuse of power. It is because French workers need to work for forty-three years rather than forty-two to attain social security. But, the success of the no-confidence vote in March 2023 ended the political crisis for Macron as he wanted to enact the pension reform into law. The mass discontent is unlikely to dissipate, though.

Macron’s once-closest independent allies in the centre, Francois Bayrou and Edouard Philippe, endorsed his reform. Although, these cyclical episodes will also worsen Macron’s reputation for having a haughty governing style. As it is, the president’s popularity rating has fallen to just twenty-eight per cent from a high of forty-one per cent after his re-election, according to Ifop, a pollster. This is its lowest point since early 2019, during the gilets jaunes (yellow jackets) rebellion. That’s why, a popular uprising, inspired by the ongoing political disorder, having the capability to oust him, cannot be ruled out. It also keeps a parable by American novelist William Faulkner alive: ‘the past is never dead.’ He indulged in it while observing the white south’s preoccupation with the Lost Cause and its grievances.

As per an article by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker, there is a certain claustrophobic nature of French politics, ‘in which bad faith, raw personal ambition, and reverse-spin politicking overwhelm pragmatic argument.’

It reflects that manifestations and grèves are part of the fabric of contemporary French politics. At a minimum, a French president ought to pay great regard, if only providentially, to the national mood, no matter how it is expressed. Given the frequently isolated, centralised and monarchical nature of presidential power in France, there has been an assumption that the crowds who pour onto the streets, however undemocratic in terms of pure numbers, are a crucial resistance to the state power and exercise a veto power of their own. ‘L’etat, c’est moi,’ Louis XIV believed, where the legitimate opposition to the state are its citizens who feel sufficiently motivated to go out and shout at the king.

The ruling government, in their justification, believed that the pension reform is necessary to balance its books, and as French people are living longer than they were in the 1980s, the preservation of pensions, according to Macron, is inevitable. As per The Economist, an annual pension deficit in France will reach €14bn ($15bn) by 2030. Critics from the opposition left-wing alliance, NUPES, say that it would be more reasonable to tax ‘super-profits’ on the rich. A two per cent tax on the assets of French billionaires, suggested a report from Oxfam France, would wipe out the pension deficit overnight. The right-of-centre Republicans, who in their previous rule increased the pension age from 60 to its present 62, now dare to insist that Macron’s version is unjust.

However, the government propaganda has not stopped yet. According to Marc Ferracci, a labour economist and a member of parliament for Macron’s centrist party, the pension reform is central to the objective of bringing almost full employment and raising the employment rate of older workers. France is just below Germany when it comes to the rate of older workers aged between 55 to 64. To save the silver, the government also wants to introduce a ‘senior index’ to monitor the share of older workers on the payroll and discourage firms from firing grey-haired people. At the same time, the French government has also tightened rules on unemployment benefits during labour shortages and periods of economic growth. Such a project always made sense for France.

It was during the pandemic that many countries had been thinking about the nature of employment. France was one of them and in the minds of its commoners, progress towards a better society is perceived by the easing of the burden of work. In 1880 Paul Lafargue, a socialist thinker, published ‘Le Droit à la Paresse’ (‘The Right to be Lazy’), arguing for a three-hour working day and denouncing the ‘madness of the love of work’. Two decades ago, ‘Bonjour Paresse’ (‘Hello Laziness’), a guide to doing nothing at work, became a bestseller.

The rolling back of working time was originally designed to protect worker abuse. It eventually became part of the country’s post-war story. But it never found takers. The most recent example is the 1995 reform effort proposed by the newly elected President Jacques Chirac, which mobilised the French streets in strikes. The protests that time had shut down Paris from October through Christmas when they paused for the treve des confiseurs—the holiday pastry armistice.

In 1982 Francois Mitterrand cut the retirement age from 65 years to 60. Two decades later, France introduced the 35-hour working week. The pandemic has accelerated this shift, according to Romain Bendavid, who authored a paper for the Fondation Jean-Jaures, a think-tank. By 2022, only forty per cent of the French said they would prefer to earn more and have less free time, down from sixty-three per cent in 2008.

There has been a political debate on these statistics. Perceptions have been formed, and French politicians are leading this debate from the front. They also symbolise insults and make slogans at the same time. Sandrine Rousseau, a Green leader from the NUPES coalition, argues bluntly for the ‘right to laziness’, and wants to bring in a 32-hour working week. Gerald Darmanin, Macron’s interior minister, dismisses NUPES as a group of ‘people who don’t like work’ and think they can live in a ‘society without effort.’

In reality, French workers are not lazy. Realising this based on facts makes French society more complex. They have long working hours (thirty-seven) than Germans (thirty-five). Even within NUPES, some politicians, including Fabien Roussel, the leader of the Communist Party, embrace the value of work. The French workers may say that work is no longer central to their lives, but a new study by the Institut Montaigne, a think-tank, shows that three-quarters are broadly happy at work, a figure that has been consistent for several years.


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