Since the 5th of December 2019, France is witnessing its biggest strike since either 1995 or as some mention May 68, though the number of participants is of course way less important than in that mythical year.
After almost 50 days of strike in diverse sectors of the economy and a very aggressive political campaign from the government and mainstream media against the strikers, the public opinion still support the movement with a bit more than 60% of the population considering it as a “legitimate struggle” and believing that “the government should take into account the mobilisations”.
If we wanted to explain such a phenomenon after a year of yellow vest protest characterized as a social-movement bypassing the traditional mechanisms of political mediation (including unions), we would need to understand that the pension system, attacked nowadays, is at the heart of the french model of social security and the spearhead of union’s struggles. Throughout the years, the neoliberal governments from both the rightwing parties and the social-democrat ones had bypassed social movements in order to implement different reforms that had for effect to postpone the legal age of retirement from 60 to 62 or to add working years to the number needed to claim one’s right to retirement with a full pension (around 43 years nowadays, pushing in reality the age of retirement to 64 for anyone aiming at a full pension, most people leaving at 62 are stroke by a malus on their pension’s amount). Everytime the governments had to confront huge demonstrations (2003, 2010, 2012) with sometimes millions of people in the streets. However, they always managed to crowbar their agenda, especially by using institutional mechanisms allowing them to expedite the political debate at the parliament and adopt it quickly. What differs nowadays in the proposed reforms is that, instead of a parametric reform adjusting different modalities in the pension system (the legal age, number of years of contribution, etc…), the government has announced its will to implement both a structural reform and a parametric one.
The actual system is based on two types of solidarity. A certain amount of wealth (today around 14% of the GDP) is allocated to pay for the pensions. We call it an intra-generational solidarity as everyone contributes according to its possibility (as do their employer) and receive then a pension according to different modality of calculation. The pension is though derived on their wages in their active lives. The second solidarity mechanism is called inter-generational : every generation keeps on allocating a certain amount of national wealth to pay the pension of the older generation. The government is proposing to shift to a “point pension system” that is a first step to a total individualisation of pension. The next objective with the probable failure of the new system in ensuring significant pension will be to allow pension fund from the private sector to profit from it. Revising equally the different modality of calculation for pensions, is expected with the new reform that people will not only have to work longer (according to each generation’s life expectancy 64, 65, then 66 up to 67 for millenials) but also lose hundreds of euros. As an example, the civil servants from the public education system expect to lose from 300 to 800 euros monthly in their pension ! An unbelievable situation that even the government admit to be unsatisfactory. It therefore advanced its promise to compensate it by raising teacher’s pay, as if after years of austerities the 900 000 teachers could expect being raised of hundreds of euros a month. Numerous sectors that were benefiting from special retirement rights according to the history of their bargaining system or the special conditions they undergo at work (hazardous work, lower life expectancy,…), will lose all of the acquired rights. That explains the huge mobilisations of public transports in the strike. For a month almost no subways and trains were running in the Parisian region, and the SNCF (national railway company) could only ensure ⅓ of its normal rate of transportation. It is estimated that the consumption decrease of 30% in the Parisian region (heart of the French economy) during a period that however include the holidays and end of the year celebrations !
Other public sectors such as hospitals and care employees or different administrations have gone under strike. Lawyers are striking nowadays forcing the Justice system to let people go free in the absence of trials (you can only be detained preventively a strict number of days before your trial). Dockers have reduced the portual activity close to zero and numerous refineries have crippled the circulation and production of gazol in the whole country.
The government adopted two attitudes toward it. First it stayed silent and ignored simply the mobilisations while recognizing the relative strength of the movement. It’s second move was to try to find a partner in reformist unions (the CFDT and UNSA) who are not opposed to a point system however opposed to the so-called “pivot age”, meaning the bonus/malus system that would apply if you claim your right to retirement before or after 64. This measure is aiming at saving money on the pension system. Indeed, however the retired population is expected to raise from 20% to 27% in 2050, the government wants to freeze the wealth allocated to the pension system at 14% of the GDP (that is what they call parametric reform but is obviously an austerity measure). It is therefore really easy to understand that more people sharing the same amount of money will lead to a general decrease of pensions’ level. The bonus/malus system is Macron’s government’s solution to save money on people’s lives ! The government proposed to the unions to suggest another solution to finance the “necessary savings” without raising the contribution of employers or making capital contribute. A very clever move on its side cause while setting this trap to the unions, the Prime Minister has promoted it as a concession to the movement. However the reformist unions happy to jump in it while congratulating themselves for their “victory” have not really been participating in the strikes (except in certain branches where the local unions have not supported their leadership), and the government plans to sway the public opinion with this scheme as failed.
Lately as the possibility to strike has decreased with almost two months free of wage for some strikers, the movement has shifted to targeted symbolic actions (electricity cuts, perturbations of official ceremonies and so on), the government is back to the argument it used during the yellow vest : “the movement is radicalizing, using antidemocratic actions, attacking the Republic”. Tensions also rose after the french police continued its violent repression of demonstrations with again wounded people, and demonstrators that have been beaten up on the ground or shot at with LBD rifles. The social situation is explosive and no one is in capacity to say where this would lead the country. One thing is certain though, Macron has been for two years facing numerous difficulties and only garners support from the bourgeoisie and the upper middle class.