Angry Workers Raise Their Voices…
Last week, French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron announced plans to streamline the French pension system. As it stands, the current pension system has forty-two different tracks and will cause the country to go into more debt, but the plan to change the pension program to a single system based on points could have consequences for the working class (“Strikes against Macron’s Pension Plans Shut down Much of France”). With the new points plan, many workers, especially those in the transportation industry, feel that they will have to work longer before retirement and will receive a lower-quality plan. In order to try to get Macron to walk back his new plan, hundreds of thousands of workers have taken to demonstrations.
The protests started on Thursday, December 5. That morning, many modes of transportation, including the metro system, were experiencing major delays and cancellations because of the strike. Paris was especially hard hit, and only five of its sixteen metro lines were in operation (“Macron Pension Reform: France Paralysed by Biggest Strike in Years”). Airlines and train transportation were also impacted, with some flights and trains forced to shut down. The protests also caused many tourist sites to shut down as workers were striking at such places of employment, and both the Musée d’Orsay and the Eiffel Tower were closed (“Strikes against Macron’s Pension Plans Shut down Much of France”). Many people are worried about the impact that these protests will have on businesses, as people have been discouraged from travelling or going out to shops if they can avoid it. Some business owners are especially concerned considering that it is the holiday season, and Christmas sales may be depressed by the closing of shops and the low numbers of functioning modes of transportation.
These protests have been largely peaceful, but some small skirmishes have occurred. In Paris, some extremely disgruntled protesters smashed shop windows and started fires in a demonstration of their rage (“The Latest: French Protesters Set Fires Amid Strikes”). These violent encounters have been few and far between for the most part, but there have been signs of the protests escalating over the weekend. Tear gas was thrown into crowds and rubber bullets were fired at other protest sites when protesters threw objects or jostled riot police (Breeden). The movement is clearly gaining steam, with extremely high turnout numbers. The government’s official head count of the Thursday protests was 800,000 people, but the labor union CGT stated that 1.5 million people participated in the demonstrations (“Strikes against Macron’s Pension Plans Shut down Much of France”). Although such protests have wreaked havoc on much of France’s transportation system and businesses, many people have been able to avoid the protests over the weekend. On Monday, it is likely that commutes will be severely hurt by continuing strikes, and the impact will be felt by several sectors of society.
These recent protests over Macron’s proposed pension plan have sparked discussions about the deeper inequality that exists within France. Members of the Yellow Vest movement, which was prevalent throughout December 2018, joined in the protests this past weekend. The Yellow Vest movement originally hoped to give the lower classes of French society a voice and to promote greater economic equality with a wide variety of proposed policies, but the movement has lost momentum throughout the past year. Yohann Petiot, the leader of Alliance du Commerce, commented on the negative effects of having protests in back-to-back years, saying, “This new movement and the risk of continuing strikes are a further hard blow for shopkeepers who were already seriously affected by one year of the Yellow Vest movement” (Breeden). However, it is not likely that the strikers will stop considering that Macron has not backed down from his plan to streamline the pension system.
This debate over inequality is a particularly pressing one for France, considering that it seems to have reached a boiling point at several points in time over the past few years. These protests prove that many citizens are upset by the potential plans that could create even more inequality, and their actions have had a tremendous impact on France. Macron has even considered declaring a state of emergency, which shows that state strength has been severely weakened. If the demands of these protesters are not met, the tactics that are used may become even more extreme. At a certain point, the internal sovereignty of France may be questioned. The fact that France has essentially been immobilized by the recent protests proves that inequality (or the threat of a new unequal system) can have an extremely detrimental impact on the functionality of a modern state.
Protests in other countries have often been fueled by similar discontent. Iran is currently embroiled in extremely violent protests that have witnessed a severe crackdown by government authorities. These protests were originally in response to a huge hike in fuel prices, which added another exorbitant expense to the lives of middle and lower class citizens. In this respect, the protests in Iran share similarities to those in France, but Iran’s protests also have been a way for demonstrators to speak out against the regime in general. France’s protests are nowhere near as violent or as dangerous as those in Iran, but the global climate surrounding civil unrest shows that protests can quickly intensify.
This recent wave of protests in France over pension brings up the issue of inequality yet again. The government has not done a sufficient job in addressing the concerns of workers, and the demonstrations are starting to impact much of French society, particularly within Paris. Based on the current situation, what unintended consequences may arise from these demonstrations? What response from the French government would adequately satisfy workers enough to stop the protests and strikes, and how do you think the Yellow Vest movement will play a part in these demonstrations in the future?
Breeden, Aurelien. “France’s Weekend of Discontent: Yellow Vest and Pension Protesters Gather.” The New York Times, 7 Dec. 2019. Accessed 8 Dec. 2019.
“The Latest: French Protesters Set Fires amid Strikes.” AP News, 5 Dec. 2019. Accessed 8 Dec. 2019.
“Macron Pension Reform: France Paralysed by Biggest Strike in Years.” BBC News, 5 Dec. 2019. Accessed 8 Dec. 2019.
“Strikes against Macron’s Pension Plans Shut down Much of France .” The New York Times, 5 Dec. 2019. Accessed 8 Dec. 2019.