French pension protests not going away


“Far from ruefully making speeches about fighting another day, there is no sign of the trade union-led opposition backing down any time soon. More protests and strikes are planned for May 1st.”

Richard Price, Leyton & Wanstead CLP, gauges the mood of anger as demonstrators prepare to take action against Macron’s pension reform on May 1st.

In the past, as Le Monde diplomatique points out, French governments frequently retreated before unpopular measures passed into law, ‘but nothing similar has happened since 2006.’ Once an unpopular government policy is ratified, protests tend to drop away, faced with an apparent fait accompli.

But while the political class has had its way for the most of the last two decades, it’s been a series of pyrrhic victories that have only deepened the sense of voter alienation. Seeing politicians as a self-serving elite is mainstream; viewing them with visceral contempt is becoming so. The traditional governing parties of the centre-left and centre-right have become bit players, while voter turnout has drifted downwards.

Only 47.5% of the electorate bothered to vote in last year’s parliamentary elections – a dislocation only deepened by Macron’s avoidance of parliamentary scrutiny of his deeply unpopular bill raising the pension age from 62 to 64. It was forced through on 14th April using the undemocratic executive powers of Article 49.3 of the constitution, without a vote in the National Assembly. With the subsequent decision by the Constitutional Court that the measure is lawful, it might seem that demonstrators have run out of road.

But far from ruefully making speeches about fighting another day, there is no sign of the trade union-led opposition backing down any time soon. More protests and strikes are planned for May 1st. Although the Constitutional Court rejected a demand for a citizen’s referendum on the retirement proposals, a second request has yet to be adjudicated. Opinion polls continue to show at least 70% of people are opposed to the pensions changes.

Unions have been much more central to the movement than they were with the gilets jaunes protests, with the centrist CFDT standing shoulder to shoulder with the left wing CGT. Eleven separate protest days, most recently on 6th April, have seen an average of over a million people taking to the streets. In addition, there have been numerous local protests.

Macron has been making a series of ‘meet the people’ appearances in provincial towns in an effort to build support for his policies, the main effect of which seems have been to stoke opposition to them. On 20th April he visited the rural town of Ganges (pop. 4,000) in the Cévennes. He was met by a demo several hundred people, emphasising the extent to which the movement has sunk roots into small and medium-sized towns, as well as strongly unionised sectors, urban professionals, students and people stuck in McJobs. Meanwhile, on the same day, hundreds gathered at the Gare de Lyon in central Paris, before making their way to the business district of La Défense, where they invaded the offices of the pan-European bourse, Euronext, letting off red flares.

The style is the man, as they used to say in France. Nothing defines Macron in the eyes of many as his privileged, out-of-touch arrogance and his reputation as ‘the president of the rich’, given to him by the gilets jaunes. In a 15-minute televised address on 17th April, he claimed to have ‘heard’ public anger over the pension changes and called for ‘conciliation and unity’. When he visited Alsace three days later he was met by demonstrators banging pots and pans. ‘It’s not saucepans that are going to allow France to move forward’, he claimed, in an echo of Keir Starmer’s feeble pledge that ‘never again will Labour be the party of protest’.

The most subversive element of the protests is their defiance of capitalist logic and their refusal to join a race to the bottom. Macron’s supporters have predictably pointed to the higher pension age in other European countries, and claimed that existing arrangements are unsustainable. Opponents have shredded claims that the changes guarantee an income of €1,200 per month to all and that they protect women, and instead pointed to the fact that they penalise those who start work earlier, and that the rich live longer. Food inflation measured 12.9% in February in a country in which food is notably more expensive than Britain.

Meanwhile, France’s rich have been doing very nicely, while everyone else suffers. The total wealth of France’s 43 billionaires rose by 7% in 2022 to $550 billion, and for the first time, according to Forbes, the world’s richest man and the world’s richest woman are both French.

How long the protests will continue or where the movement will go is difficult to predict. Some claim the chief beneficiary could be Marine Le Pen, but organised working class protest is not traditional Le Pen territory. It feels, only a year into Macron’s second term, that a long shadow has already been cast over the next presidential election in 2027. Macron cannot stand for a third term, and his Renaissance party (formerly En Marche!) will struggle to find a candidate with broad appeal. Much will depend on whether the left can heal its divisions and unite behind a single candidate.

  • Richard Price is a member of the Leyton & Wanstead Constituency Labour Party (CLP).
Featured image: Demonstration against the pension reform in Le Mans, March 28, 2023. Photo credit: Antoine Oury under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

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