Strong mobilization against pension reform casts doubt on French government

In protest at the government’s pension reform proposal, French workers staged a massive strike on Thursday (5 December), which paralysed the country. With teachers and transport sector workers expected to strike again today, this will be the ultimate test for President Emmanuel Macron’s attempts to reform the country.

Scheduled for three months, the strike that started on Thursday (5 December) in France brought together around 800,000 demonstrators. There were many many civil servants, as well as lawyers, firemen, doctors, students, but also yellow vests and so-called ‘casseurs’ (hooligans).

The mobilisation is much greater than the previous ones and, for a majority of them, including transport sector workers, the strike would be renewed on Friday (6 December).

Many took the streets, including 44% EDF (utility) employees, 80% RATP (bus) employees, as well as 55% SNCF (railways) workers. And while half of the teachers and professors did not provide courses that day, some planes were unable to take off due to a lack of air traffic controllers.

“It will last as long as it takes, there will be a winner and a loser,” assured the CGT labour representative of the railway workers (SNCF) at Gare de Lyon in Paris.

Workers took the streets in protest at the government’s proposal to reform the national pension system, which aims to unify the system and moderate the existing 42 special schemes, which the government says only increase the total amount of pensions.

While the strike managed to paralyse part of the country, particularly the Paris region, due to the almost total lack of transport and the closure of many national education institutions, strikes organised across the country also brought together hundreds of thousands of people.

In the provinces, more than 700,000 people were on strike, according to the Interior Ministry. In Paris, where casseurs disrupted the rally, there were nearly 250,000 demonstrators according to the CGT union, but only 65,000 according to the interior minister. The CGT union estimated that 1.4 million people went on strike in France.

“France has the best pension system, I don’t see why we should change it,” said a CGT demonstrator on Thursday (5 December) in Paris, where protesters braved the cold, fog and tear gas before rallying at Place de la République.

In response to this situation, the government has tried to play the appeasement card.

“We respect the mobilisation of the French people,” said government spokesperson, Sibeth Ndiaye at the end of the Council of Ministers. “We also understand that [in the reform] there are things that seem unclear to them today,” she acknowledged.

An unclear reform

During a visit to RATP headquarters, the State Secretary for Transport, Elisabeth Borne, said that “a space to discuss the modalities of implementation” of the pension reform existed.

While the current pension system in France is already complex because of the impressive number of schemes, its reform is even more so. The government is planning a drastic change in methodology, with the introduction of a calculation method based on points, and no longer on the number of quarters worked.

According to Les Echos, a public pension management institution could be created, which would make it possible to identify the amount that the state must contribute each year to make up for the recurring deficit.

There are not enough current contributors to pay for the retirement of their elders, which forces the state to compensate them every year with several billion euros. But the system should return to balance within a few years.

The government is struggling to convince trade unions that its reform aims to reduce inequalities. Because if there are currently inequalities, between private and public employees or men and women, the reform will do little to benefit many people except the state budget.

But methodology has little to do with it, given that the differences are due to wage discrepancies, over which the government has little power.

A test for President Macron

Already weakened at the international level, where he has angered his peers by criticising NATO, Emmanuel Macron is facing a pivotal point in his five-year term.

After having given up billions of euros last year to calm the ‘yellow vest’ protests, he must now show that he is capable of reforming France, even if just symbolically. The consequences of the proposed reform will not have any impact on the budget before 2025, and economists are also questioning the reform’s logic and underlying substance.

At this point, to make a difference in the country’s financial situation, the government should be attempting to improve the productivity of its workers, rather than the hours worked.

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