France: the Tides of Protest6 min read

Over the course of the past few years, and particularly the past two, France has seen a resurgence of widespread discontent amongst its citizens in relations to the current administration (i.e. President Macron) and the various actions they have taken during their time in office—particularly with certain decisions that have led to the increasingly high prices of gas. However, now the current administration has made another attempt at yet one more drastic change, and this one, arguably, has the most devastating consequences of them all. President Macron and his party now seek to “enact the mother of all reforms” by equalizing the pensions collected by citizens seeking to retire in France as well as the age at which each worker is able to retire—launching another two weeks of forecasted protests throughout France, and causing a muck for any potential for re-election of Macron in the near future. The protests have now become so disruptive and extreme, with up to around one million participants, that certain sectors of the workforce are on complete strike, and flights in and out of France have been canceled.

President Emmanuel Macron of France was quoted the other week as telling various ministers that he believes he “cannot run for re-election” if he cannot seem to achieve “the mother of all reforms” through the creation of a “universal”, points-based system that cuts unjustified benefits for certain individuals and makes the overall system much fairer for all participants. In order to achieve this goal, Macron and his administration have made moves to reduce the amount collected in each pension by French citizens when nearing retirement to be entirely equal, so that no one person has an “advantage” when collecting a said pension. Both Macron and his administration argues that solidifying and unifying the pension system in France – while simultaneously getting “rid of the 42 special regimes” for sectors ranging from rail and energy workers to both lawyers and even the staff of the Paris Opera – is vital to the maintenance of the system and keeping it “financially viable” whilst the French population continues to age, which would solve the current fix they are finding themselves in. (The Guardian) Various unions throughout the French workforce have seen these attempted changes as “an attack on fundamental worker rights”, and now greatly fear that people will have to work much longer hours each day for even smaller pensions—making the change on that is, arguably, quite counterintuitive.  The current pension arrangement functioned when the active workforce greatly surpassed the number of pensioners, however, now that France has an aging population that, as of now, seems to be growing at such a rate that will eventually come close to exceeding the workforce, a lack of pension funds seems to present itself as a foreseeable problem in the coming future; the national rail regime on its own requires around “eight billion euro per year of taxpayer’s money to remain afloat”, sources detail. (The Guardian) The consistent strikes that have ensued as a result of the furthering of this idea by the government have garnered a fifty-three percent support rate amongst the French public, illustrating the great extent to which the possible change has frustrated the workforce.

The issue presents itself to be quite interesting, as a great majority of French workers are, in fact, not in favor of the change, making the debate over the controversial proposition, and now likely future change, quite questionable—as if the change was to be beneficial, why would not a large percentage of French citizens be in favor of such a change? Leftist CGT Union leader Philippe Martinez was quoted saying, “In France, we have the best pension system in the world,” whose union is the most powerful among rail workers. He continues by saying how “The government has to go back to the drawing board,” and that they must, without question, scrap the current “reform” plan that will “increase poverty in the country”. (Telegraph) The overall outrage stems from the fact that, as has been the norm, in French society people across various sectors of the workforce are able to retire at different ages as a result of the use of the French Labyrinthine System, which Macron puts forth as one of his primary reasons for insisting upon the drastic change to the pension system. For example, train drivers in France are able to retire at the age of fifty-two, whereas public, electric, and gas workers are able to retire at fifty-seven, and “members of the national ballet, who start dancing at a very young age, as early as age 42.” (NY Times) The French President argues that these changes are simply his devoted attempts to “add dynamism to France’s economy and make it more business-friendly.” (NY Times) Macron argues that the practice is “outdated, unfair and unsustainable.” France spends a decent fourteen percent of its gross domestic product on its pension system, which is more than almost any European country spends on a pension system. (NY Times)

The French Labyrinthine System came to be as a result of the events around the second world war when a  “postwar retirement system” was set to be created by Gen. Charles de Gaulle, who desired to establish a social safety net in 1946 after the liberation of France; however, during the various problematic events of the postwar time, he conceded to demands by France’s largely Communist-led unions to allow for different professions to control their own pension plans. With this being said, in place of a centralized system, railway workers controlled their own retirement system, along with sailors, lawyers, notaries, teachers and, eventually, even ballet dancers and actors too. (NY Times) 

This proposition, which as the days progress seems to become more and more of a certain implementation by the French government, presents quite a large problem to French society—as illustrated by the ongoing protests across the nation. The continual deterioration of both trust and backing of the French public toward their president will prove to be quite a large problem to Macron if he has any potential hopes of reelection in the coming future; if these protests continue at such a large scale as they have been for the past couple of months, what will become of the presidency? Will it open the door to more conservative parties having a lead in the polls in the coming elections?

“French Strike Aims To Save An Envied, But Convoluted, Approach To Pensions”. Nytimes.Com, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/06/world/europe/france-strike-pension-reform.html.

Chrisafis, Angelique. “France Pensions Overhaul To Go Ahead Despite Huge Protests”. The Guardian, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/dec/08/france-to-press-ahead-with-pensions-reform-despite-protests. Accessed 9 Dec 2019.

Henry Samuel. “France Braces For More Mass Protests As Macron Rules Out Re-Election Bid If Reforms Fail”. The Telegraph, 2019, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/12/06/france-braces-mass-protests-macron-rules-re-election-bid-reforms/. Accessed 9 Dec 2019.

1 thought on “France: the Tides of Protest<span class="wtr-time-wrap after-title"><span class="wtr-time-number">6</span> min read</span>”

  1. Your blog post brings up a relevant and hot button issue of today – economics. Macron has been in the news several times about various economic reforms, all met with some backlash. The Yellow Vest movement which began in 2018 against rising fuel prices, the potential trade war between the U.S. and France, and now the pension reform. While I agree that the public’s outrage is just, I believe that Macron does have validity to its claim about the current state of economics in France. If no action is taken to alleviate or alter the government’s spending (whether it be on pensions or not), the French government will find itself in a deficit. So Macron may be out of touch with the people on what they want, but in terms of economics for the country, he has the upper hand. Macron will have to do some damage control if he wants to regain public confidence; however, I don’t believe that a conservative party (like that of Marine LePen) would win. As you stated if Macron can not get this order passed that would not run for re-election, so I would assume his party would elect another candidate, because this issue seems to hold more strongly with that of Macron than that of his party. The one thing I would recommend to make your blog post stronger would be to make some of your points more concise. Otherwise, I enjoyed your article and learning about this situation in France.

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