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French pension protests and strikes: A union activist speaks

Third Way arranged an interview with a French union activist to better understand the ongoing pension situation protests and strikes in France. The proposed retirement reform law, called Proposition de Loi Pour la Réforme des Retraites (A proposed law for retirement reform.). It has been introduced by President Macron and his ‘Renaissance’ (formerly En Marche) group. It aims to standardize retirement at 64. One interesting (and absurd) reform would be for the dancers at the Paris Opera. They would be on the general retirement reform thus a dancer couldn’t retire (on a full pension) until they were 64! In this proposed reform Macron says he wanted to make it one law for all but, in fact, he didn’t incorporate the pensions of Deputies (MPs) or the Senators (and some others).

Here is our interview:

What is the current status of pension reform in France?

People can retire and get their full pension at 62 after having contributed fully for 41 and a half years.

What are the main proposed changes to the pension system in France?

People will have to work until they’re 64 and to have contributed for 43 years. (Those who started work at 16, however, will have to contribute for 45 years – as the govt. seems not to want them to retire early.) This means that someone with a degree will never get a full pension at 64. If they want a full pension they will have to supplement with a private pension. Also, for every child that is born you get three months reduced pension age BUT – when you are on maternity leave your pension contributions will be stopped!  All this therefore hits the lower classes, women (because of maternity leave and they often work part-time) and those with some education who cannot put in the 43 years to retire at 64.

Demonstration by the Gilets Jaunes (yellow jackets) at Belfort in 2018. French unions may adopt their tactics in the ongoing pension protests.

What is the timeline for implementing the pension reform in France?

The proposed law has gone to the Assembly national – but it was only there for two weeks. Macron implemented the device 47.1 of the French Constitution that allows him to restrict the amount of time for discussion. Thus not all the paragraphs were talked about – particularly the one referring to working till the age of 64.
There was a non-confidence motion present by the Rassemblement National (the former Front National) and LFI (La France Insoumis – led by Melanchon). The motion was picked randomly and the one from the RN was chosen. As a result most of the Assembly who were for the non-confidence motion refused to vote! And it was defeated.
The proposal will now go to the Senate which has a ‘Républicain’ majority. Les Républicains are for the proposed law so it will most likely go through.

How have French citizens and labour unions responded to the proposed pension reform?

The unions, for the first time in a very long time, have agreed to work together – even those who are normally close to Macron.
Three major strikes have been called and have garnered more and more support. There will be another on March 7th. This last strike is crucial as it could carry on indefinitely. The unions wish to block the whole country – if necessary. It seems that the unions are very well organised this time (bearing in mind they didn’t help and were even hostile to the Gilets Jaunes).
The govt. has said that if the law isn’t introduced that France will go bankrupt. But the unions counter this with the fact that pensions are well-funded for the next 10 years – after that they will go into the red for 10 years but then return to a healthy balance.
COR (Conseil d’Orientation des Retraites) – which is in charge of pensions has said that there’s enough money  and there’s no need for reform. French people contribute twice that of a British worker for instance.
People have followed the strike and 80% do not agree with this reform. Macron was told no-one wants it but he responded by saying that he was re-elected and his program stated he was going to put this reform forward. Thus he is going to do just that – further he has said ‘it is needed’.
Strike funds have begun.

What impact have protests and strikes had on the French government’s approach to pension reform?

However the govt. has launched a huge propaganda machine working on and through the media. Despite this, everywhere Macron goes he receives a hostile reaction.

What concessions, if any, has the French government made in response to protests and strikes over pension reform?


How do different political parties and factions in France view the proposed pension reform?

All parties are against it except for Renaissance (En Marche) and Les Républicains AND (to the surprise of many) Zemmour’s party. Eric Zemmour is a ‘controversial’ figure in French politics and stood for the presidency last year.

How does the pension system in France currently compare to other countries in Europe and around the world?

French workers retire the earliest in Europe. But – as stated previously – France contributes twice that of Britain. Sweden contributes the MOST and their retirement age was 62 but has recently gone up to 65. Some Swedes, who retired at 62 now get nowhere near enough money and because of the war in Ukraine prices have been generally hiked up. Sweden has therefore a lot of pensioners who cannot afford to live.
The legal age of retirement in France is currently 62 with 41/42 years of contribution needed. This is already very difficult for most folk as it stands, as pensions have not increased with inflation.

How might the proposed pension reform affect different groups of people in France, such as retirees, workers, and business owners?

The middle-class (equivalent in France) will never have a full pension at 64 if they have studied. As stated previously, women will be particularly hit. Any gaps in employment (which are common) will affect the amount of contribution.

What role do demographic trends, such as an aging population, play in the need for pension reform in France?

There is no need for a reform as the pension system is currently over-funded by TWO BILLION euros a year. However, as already stated, in 10 years there will be a problem because of a decrease in population. At that point it will cost the French govt. 100 billion euros. BUT the French govt. has spent 600 BILLION euros to date on ‘Covid’ measures.
Some close to the govt. have said that this pension reform is not to save the pension system but rather to pay off the ‘covid’ debt as demanded by the EU. We can only imagine what the cost of the war in Ukraine will be.

Regarding the strikes, could you provide more information about the actions of trade unions and their different approaches and tactics?

1/Demonstrating and striking. Thus far targeting transport and schools.
2/ On 7th March we will target energy companies to provoke energy cuts. The METRO will be stopped.
3/ For the first time unions will block roads (as per the Gilets Jaunes). The unions generally, and sadly despised the Gilets Jaunes as it could not control them as a working-class uprising but they have noted their tactics.

Picture credit: By Thomas Bresson – Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75417108


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