Last October, I first started to get wind of a strike against Macron’s pension reform. As I am under 30, I didn’t think twice about it. I had yet to discover that this unprecedented call to strike is the clearest example to date of the changing nature of workers’ movements in France. Some call the shift a giletjaune-isation, because it comes from the bottom. A local assembly of trade unions at the RATP (Paris’ transport agency owned by the state) decided to strike on December 5. The strike was announced two months in advance and quickly rallied the railway workers. It has now lasted over 50 days. As I write, the strike is ongoing but has failed to produce concrete results, despite the very new modalities of action which express such profound human creativity and solidarity.
Tensions have been extremely high since December 5, most notably in the first couple of weeks. On a couple of occasions, the Paris metro has been shut down and half of the trains in the country were not functioning. Companies have promoted working from home and university exams were either delayed for a month or even cancelled. The government and the “reformist” unions (centrists like the CFDT and UNSA) called for a truce during the Christmas holidays, which the workers in the major transport companies disobeyed. Both of those unions have since shown support for the reform, leading to a disconnect between their base and their leaders. Many have continued to strike and protest, while others have symbolically ripped up their membership cards and left the CFDT. The remainder of the unions, the Gilets Jaunes and individual citizens have called for a complete withdrawal of the pensions reform.
The pensions reform
The government had originally planned to present the pensions reform in 2019, but had to postpone this because of the Gilets Jaunes uprising. Since then, all that was known was that there would be a point-based system, which Belgium had rejected after mounting a large protest movement of its own. As the right-wing presidential candidate François Fillon famously told business owners in 2017, the only advantage of a point-based system is that it is easy to reduce pensions. Macron’s campaign promise concerning pensions was that he would create a universal pension scheme instead of the many schemes for different professions.
The government insists the reform is about justice between different pension plans. They will be calculated based on one’s entire career, whereas it is currently the 25 best years in the private sector and the last six months of your career in the public sector where wages rise over time which are accounted for. Soon after the movement began in December, the government withdrew plans to change the pension scheme for stewards, police officers and the military to avoid trouble in key sectors.
In all the precipitation and mishaps around the law, one thing has become apparent: there is little logic behind such a major law, as was expressed by the Conseil d’Etat (highest administrative court) last week. It will open a market of 320 billion euros for private pension funds, in which people will have to invest to live decently through retirement. One of the major targets of the law’s opponents is Blackrock, the famous American hedge fund, whose president of French operations received the Légion d’honneur, the French equivalent of a knighthood. Jean-Paul Delevoye, the minister in charge of the pensions reform, was pushed to quit once the public became aware of his multiple jobs including conflicts of interest regarding his involvement with insurance companies. So far, this has been the only true concession to the law’s opponents.
Those mobilised are extremely determined for the whole law to be withdrawn. There is too much to lose for many professions: lawyers and chiropractors might no longer make enough to run their own independent offices, public sector workers will lose between 300 and 1000 euros a month, the pension system will be emptied of billions of euros from its wealthiest contributors (above 10, 000 euros per month) and all will have to work longer (up to 64 instead of 62 currently). Pensions have been capped at 14% of the GDP and with rising numbers of retirees, individual pensions will be reduced.
A radical protest
But this protest movement is about so much more than pensions: it is a struggle against neoliberalism and Macron’s authoritarianism, although this is not explicit in terms of demands. Some people feel like a defeat in this struggle will make it difficult to mobilise in the future considering the momentum we currently have. Workers have been mobilised in many different sectors over the past two and a half years and their frustrations are intensifying. Macron has a 25% approval rating and while the wealthy have made record profits since he became president, over a million people have gone below the poverty line.Print