Where next for France’s pensions protests?


“The French public has resisted calls to ‘move on’, and polling indicates that two thirds of voters remain opposed to the changes, which are seen as fundamentally undermining the French social model.”

By Richard Price

The fourteenth day of national protests against Emmanuel Macron’s highly controversial pension reform since January 19th took place on June 6th, with around 250 demonstrations around France. The turnout was down on previous days of action, with the Interior Ministry claiming that 281,000 took part – down from its estimate of 1.28 million on March 7th – with the main left wing confederation, the CGT, claiming 900,000. Macron signed off the legislation which raises the state pension age from 62 to 64 in April using executive powers and avoiding a vote in the National Assembly.

There were hopes that the Assembly would debate a bill on June 8th from the 21-strong Libertés, Independents, Overseas and Territories (LIOT) group which planned to use its reserved day to put forward parliamentary business to propose postponing the increase in the retirement age and for a conference to be called to debate the financing of the pension system.

But the Speaker of the Assembly, Yaël Braun-Pivet, who, although officially neutral, is from Macron’s Renaissance party, announced she would reject the bill based on Article 40 of the constitution which bans proposals from MPs that add a burden on public finances. LIOT, which is a loose grouping of centre-left and centre-right deputies, called the speaker’s decision “an unprecedented attack on the rights of parliament.”

June 6th was billed by some in the commentariat as the “last gasp.” The strength of the movement has been the alliance of 13 trade union confederations and youth groups, which has held together up to now, but cracks have begun to emerge. A spokesperson for the EELV Greens said that the battle has been lost, while Laurent Berger, the leader of the social-democratic CFDT confederation, stated it was “coming to an end,” and that the June 6th day of action would be “clearly the last on pensions in this format.” Sophie Binet, leader of the militant CGT, said: “I hear people say sometimes that everything is over, but it’s not true,” while Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the main left party, La France insoumise, said that the battle against the pensions reform “will never end.”

Certainly, the French public has resisted calls to “move on,” and polling indicates that two thirds of voters remain opposed to the changes, which are seen as fundamentally undermining the French social model, based upon solidarity across the generations. Women have been in the front line of pensions protests because of the way that the so-called reform impacts upon them. The gender pay gap in France is 22%, while for pensions it’s 40%, with many women occupying lower paid or part-time work, and taking years out to raise children.

The new law requires 43 years of contributions for a full pension (as against 35 years in the UK), which will mean many women either working even longer, or retiring on poverty pensions. Even a government minister admitted it will penalise women “a little.” A highlight of protests up and down the country has been Les Rosies – a feminist activist group – and their spirited rendition of Gala’s 1997 dance hit Freed From Desire, now re-christened Women On Fire, which has become the anthem of the anti-Macron movement. Dressed in blue overalls with spotted head scarves a la Rosie the Riveter, they call it danse radicale, danse syndicale!

On June 6th I joined a 2,000-strong demonstration in Béziers in the heart of the Hérault wine country, marching behind the banners of the CGT, the CFDT, Force ouvrière, the Communist Party and a contingent of Rosies. Béziers is a microcosm of the structural problems of the French economy. Founded as a settlement for retired Roman legionaries, it was savagely sacked by the Papal army during the Albigensian Crusade. After the railway arrived, giving access to the Paris market, the region surrounding the city switched from mixed farming to vine monoculture and became “the capital of wine.” It was at the centre of armed resistance to the coup of Louis Bonaparte in 1851, and of the Winegrowers’ Revolt of 1907 – the vast peasant movement west of the Rhone Valley that protested against the catastrophic collapse of wine prices that left the region impoverished.

But as methods of wine broking changed, Béziers entered a long, slow decline from its late 19th century peak to becoming one of the poorest cities in France. Having voted on the left for 150 years, the failure of the left to arrest the city’s long decline resulted in it sliding to the right in the last quarter of a century, and in 2014 Béziers elected the far right islamophobe Robert Ménard as mayor. While gaining credit for renovating the centre of the city, Ménard’s tenure has been marked by provocative attacks on its Muslim minority, resulting in his conviction for incitement to hatred and discrimination, and being slapped down by the courts for attempting to form an extra-judicial militia. The city’s revival, such as it is, has boosted jobs but most of the opportunities, particularly for women, are in low paid service sector and retail employment. In the second round of the 2022 presidential election, Béziers voted 54% for Le Pen against 46% for Macron, while in the Legislative election, Ménard’s wife, Emmanuelle beat the LFI candidate by 68% to 32%.

Speakers at the demonstration Béziers stressed that the pensions law had been forced on voters undemocratically by the use of presidential powers and without a mandate. The CGT representative said that “the capitalists are collaborating with the fascists against the working class.” The demonstration paused outside the Town Hall, where Les Rosies unfurled a banner a placards that said “Ménard, closer to Pétain than Moulin” [the Béziers-born Resistance hero, who was tortured to death by Klaus Barbie 80 years ago].

Demonstrators unfurl a banner reading “Ménard, closer to Pétain than Moulin’ during the pension protest in Béziers on June 6th, 2023. Photo credit: Lizzy Ali

So where next for the movement? Clearly, despite large-scale mobilisations, it is hitting the same wall that the Gilets jaunes protests did in 2018-19. Regular one-day national mobilisations can only sustain themselves for so long, although the pensions protests have been notably more politicised, due to the central role of the CGT and La France insoumise (LFI). But both Macron and the anti-Macron forces are also playing the long game. Macron’s Renaissance party, born of an alliance between the centre-left and centre-right, has shed most of its left flank. Constitutionally unable to stand for a third term, and with no clear successor, Macron is already a deeply unpopular lame duck. Certainly it won’t be prime minister Élisabeth Borne, whose unpopularity is second only to Macron’s. Macron is hoping that by 2027 the pensions law will be in the rear view mirror, while the left is determined that it will be “not forgiven nor forgotten.”

Macron succeeded in winning the first time by incinerating the traditional parties of the centre-left and centre-right, and the second by not being Marine Le Pen. Le Pen, meanwhile, has concentrated her fire on Macron, adopting certain workerist demands, and hoping that if the centre implodes the left will be too weak to win in 2027. The left wing NUPES coalition, headed by LFI, is now recognised as the main opposition force, and its spokespeople are increasingly known to the general population.

  • Richard Price is a member of the Leyton & Wanstead Constituency Labour Party (CLP) and has been reporting on the French pensions protests for Labour Outlook from Béziers.
Featured image: The pension reform protest held in in Béziers, France, on June 6th, 2023. Photo credit: Lizzy Ali

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