French protests intensify as unions escalate strike action against Macron’s pension cuts

“The French government cowers behind a wall of riot shields and police batons, using tear gas against protestors and legal threats against striking workers.”

By Fraser McGuire

The French government has used a special constitutional power to pass a bill that will increase the retirement age by two years without a vote taking place in Parliament. The introduction of the bill saw immediate widespread public opposition, with trade unions coordinating strike action and millions of demonstrators taking to the streets.

While many protests in January and February were primarily focused on the pension reforms, the announcement that the bill would be passed without a vote in Parliament, exacerbated by the rising level of state violence by French riot police, has pushed demonstrators to increasingly call for broader political and economic change. One French student who took part in protests in Paris last week said, “the protests started because of his [Macron’s] pension reforms, now they are to bring down his government”.

A contrast between the continuing demonstrations against Macron’s pension reforms, and recent major protests in the UK, has been the way in which the protests in France have swept across rural areas as well as large cities. Less spontaneous and anger fuelled, protests in the UK are often concentrated in large urban areas, especially London, which can be effective as a show of force but also sometimes undermine grassroots organising in local areas and make demonstrations less accessible. The ongoing protests in France have seen thousands of people taking to the streets in small towns such as Montargis, a community of just 15,000, nearly 20 percent of which has been out demonstrating against the pension reforms.

Alongside the widespread public demonstrations, workers across multiple sectors have taken industrial action as part of the ongoing struggle against the French government’s assault on workers’ rights. Schools, public transport, ports, and refineries have all been affected by the shutdowns, and a rolling strike by waste collectors in Paris has seen around 7,000 tonnes of rubbish pile up in the streets. In mid-March, workers from the CFE-CGC trade union claimed that they had cut the electricity supply to the presidential island retreat where Macron goes during the summer holidays. Trade union leaders called for another day of national strike action on April 6th, and it is likely that a lack of movement from the government will see workers in new sectors begin industrial action.

Women are expected to be disproportionately impacted by the pension reforms, with data from a Pensions Policy Council report finding that women receive an average of €967 (£852) per month compared with €1,617 (£1426) for men. Although the report notes that the gap is slowly decreasing, it is obvious that when women’s direct pension is 40 percent lower on average than men’s, an increase to the retirement age will hit women especially hard.

Since the French presidential election last year, when the French Communist Party received more than one million votes and Melenchon’s La France Insoumise came within 400,000 votes of challenging Macron for the presidency in the second round, it has been clear that an increasing number of people in the country are rallying against the status quo, as the monumental failures of the system are laid bare. In last year’s French elections, there was also a noticeable continuation of a trend of antipathy toward electoral politics as voter abstention grew, especially among young people who feel ever more alienated from, and hostile towards, a political and economic system which has failed them their entire lives.

The French government cowers behind a wall of riot shields and police batons, using tear gas against protestors and legal threats against striking workers. A record 13,000 police officers have been deployed, and the climbing number of incidents of police violence and repression has helped act as a catalyst to unite discontented members of the French public, striking workers, young people, and students. As police violence mounts, the chance of the protests dissipating diminishes, the growth in public anger is outpacing the growth in fear of the police. The signs indicate that there is no end in sight to the protests and that they will likely continue to escalate. Students in black bloc march through Paris, as projectiles and fireworks are thrown during clashes in Rouen and Nantes. Human rights groups including Amnesty International condemn “excessive force” and “wrongful arrests” from police, and buildings are set alight by furious protestors- including a police station in Lorient and the 245 year-old Bordeaux town hall.

The tinderbox of public discontent has been lit. Although it is near impossible to predict the outcome of the combined strikes and protests if they continue to keep up momentum, an increasing section of the French public is radicalising as they witness the failure of the neoliberal orthodoxy to deal with continuing social and economic crises, and the lengths to which Macron’s government is willing to go in order to protect the status quo.

  • You can follow Fraser McGuire is the Chair of East Midlands Young Labour, you can follow him on twitter here.
Featured image: Demonstration marches across a bridge in Perpignan against the pension reform project on January 31, 2023. Photo credit: Fabricio Cardenas under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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