“This is a nationwide movement that has support across generations from students to broad sections of the working age population.”
By Richard Price
Emmanuel Macron’s first presidency was blown off course by the gilets jaunes protests of 2018-19. Ten months into his second term he faces an equally energised movement of opposition to his government’s attempt to steamroller through a law to reorganise pension arrangements and raise the pension age.
It’s a paradox that while Macron has won the presidency twice with comfortable majorities of 32.2% in 2017, and 17.1% in 2022, for much of the last six years he has been loathed by large sections of French society. In 2017, Macron was the beneficiary of a once-in-two-generations opportunity that dropped into his lap, when the centre-left Socialist Party imploded, and the centre-right Republicans became mired in corruption scandals.
Macron slipped through the middle with a Blair-style agenda of neo-liberal public sector reform, sugar-coated with social liberalism. In June 2017, Macron’s start-up party, La République En Marche, won an absolute majority in the National Assembly, but 17 months later the gilets jaunes movement erupted, with Macron – ‘the president of the rich’ – its main target.
Participation in the regular gilets jaunes protests tailed off in 2019, partly because of the movement’s lack of a clear political strategy, but the grievances which underlay them remained, not least among them contempt for the ‘political class’ in Paris.
Although Macron’s handling of the pandemic was judged better than Boris Johnson, and the French economy less impacted by its aftermath than the British, France’s unemployment rate remains almost double that of Britain’s, with youth unemployment running at almost 19%. In June 2022’s legislative elections, LREM lost 101 seats and its majority in the Assembly, with significant gains for the left wing La France Insoumise (roughly ‘Rebellious France’) and the far right National Rally (the re-named Front National).
From this, Macron and his prime minister, former Socialist Party fellow traveller Élisabeth Borne, judged that it was time to press on with attempts to raise the pension age. Millions understand that what is at stake is the French social model, with its 35-hour week, six weeks’ holiday and a benefits system that shames ours.
Rolling strikes crippled Paris’s public transport during much of December and January. On January 19th the emphasis moved to the streets as over a million people took part in dozens of demonstrations and rallies across the country. On January 31st, nearly 1.3 million took part in a further round of demonstrations. This figure was equalled on February 16th, with 50,000 alone marching in the small southern city of Albi.
Although Paris can be guaranteed to put on a good demo, support for this movement, like the gilets jaunes before, has been strong in small and medium-sized towns, emphasising the regional element to inequality in France. The organisation of the protests has had a strong trade union input, extending well beyond the usual suspects of the militant CGT to seven other unions and confederations including the normally moderate CFDT.
This is a nationwide movement that has support across generations from students to broad sections of the working age population. Geographically it stretches from the post-industrial regions of the north to the eastern rust belt and the poorer areas of the south.
Those attempting to sell the pension changes argued that it would create a fairer and unified system by merging the 42 existing private and public schemes into a single, points-based system. It offered a level playing field, in which the rights of some professions to retire early would be curtailed in the interests of all.
Underlining that opposition is not confined to the principle of the French social model, but extends to the detail of the proposals, opponents seized on the new scheme’s inequalities. To qualify for a full state pension, the worker would need 43 years of contributions (compared to 30 in the UK). This tends to penalise women with caring responsibilities. It also means that those who started working early have to work more years than those the started later. And it is much less favourable for those with small pensions.
The bill’s passage through the National Assembly was riotous, with noisy opposition from LFI and National Rally deputies. Macron was accused of using every trick in the book to restrict debate to 10 days. Opponents responded by filibustering and using other delaying tactics. If Macron was looking for support from the Republicans, they were keeping their heads down. In the presidential and parliamentary elections, they had campaigned for raising the pension age to 65; since then, cracks have emerged.
Labour Minister Olivier Dussopt was booed and barracked. At midnight on February 17th the debate in the National Assembly was guillotined amid total confusion and without a decisive vote on the bill. It will now be passed to the Senate, which will have 15 days to debate it, starting on February 28th. Following that, a joint committee of the two houses will be convened in mid-March to seek agreement, with the parliamentary deadline fixed for March 26th.
So what happens next? Unions are calling on their members to ‘stop the country’ on March 7th. Action will include strikes in oil refineries. Macron’s approval rating has fallen to 32% – his lowest for 3 years. Public opinion is with the demonstrators. With parliament deadlocked and the centre and right divided, the conditions are there for the movement to press home its demands and maintain its impetus.
- Richard Price is a member of the Leyton & Wanstead Constituency Labour Party (CLP).