Tuesday was indeed an “unforgettable” day, as the unions had announced, for the sixth national mobilization against the pension reform, which intends to raise the pension age from 62 to 64, there was a record number of participants in the strikes and in the 265 marches that went through large and small towns in France.
The eight major unions and five youth organizations aimed to “bring the country to a halt,” and so they did, with impressive demonstrations (3.5 million participants according to the CGT union, 1.8 million according to the Interior Ministry) and strikes in the public and private sectors. A “historic mobilization,” according to CFDT Secretary Laurent Berger.
Polls confirm the national mood: 72% of French people remain opposed to the pension reform that would have them work for two more years, and 59% approve of the strikes continuing beyond Tuesday. The government – currently in a state of confusion and getting itself tangled up in contradictory statements – is well aware of this: the issue is not March 7, as a number of ministers have admitted, but March 8, 9, 10, etc.
On Wednesday, strikes that began on Tuesday and even earlier were set to continue: transportation was still disrupted, while fuel supplies from all refineries were blocked, as were gas stocks; on Tuesday there were disruptions in electricity supply, which threatened to continue. In addition to transportation and energy, Wednesday is seeing demonstrations tied to Women’s Day, over the “penalization” of women’s pensions under the proposed reform, while student protests are planned for Thursday (on Tuesday some universities were already shut down) and high school students are also joining in. The protests concern not only pensions but the possibility of a return to compulsory military service (currently France has voluntary civil service).
The key is how long the struggle will be sustained. All anxieties have crystallized around the 64-year pension age, while for many the very concept of “work” is losing meaning, accentuated by the Covid crisis. The government, which has lost the battle of public opinion, seems to be banking on a reversal of the situation as a result of the discontent with the effects of the protests and strikes.
The CGT union sees things differently: “In the scenario of a persistent blockade,” says Secretary Philippe Martinez, “public opinion may rise up against the government, because it is up to the government to find a solution to unblock the situation.” According to Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, it is one thing to have “the right to demonstrate and to strike,” but quite another, a “serious” one, to “bring the French economy to its knees,” as the CGT federations have threatened.
The unions sent a joint letter to Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday, calling once again for the withdrawal of the 64-year proposal and the reopening of negotiations for a reform that would not be unfair. But the president is trying to maneuver the protests in order to advance other goals: at stake seems to be the idea of institutional reform as a way out, just like after the yellow vest revolt came the “great debate.”
Unions and citizens supporting the protests have highlighted the question of legitimacy: can a president elected to prevent the far-right from coming to the Elysée, and not for his own electoral program, bank on this victory to impose a highly unpopular reform?
Elisabeth Borne, in serious trouble as a result of the unpopularity of the reform, asked “What is the alternative?” in a situation where the only options seem to be increasing contributions or decreasing pensions. As a solution to save the pay-as-you-go system, threatened by deficits due to a demographic imbalance (those who are working are paying for the retirees), the opposition is proposing to tax big business – but this is taboo for the government.
Meanwhile, the reform continues its path through the Senate, after confusion in the National Assembly, where only a few articles were debated due to the short timeframe imposed by the government (invoking Article 47.1 of the Constitution) and the filibuster by France Insoumise, which has caused unease among the other components of the NUPES alliance (PS, the Greens, PCF). Debate was scheduled to begin on Tuesday night on the heart of the bill: Article 7, which raises the retirement age from 62 to 64.
The Minister of Labor, Olivier Dussopt (former PS), went so far as to claim that the proposed change was “a left-wing reform”; while the right-wing Républicains, on whom the passage of the law depends because they have a majority in the Senate, jumped in to take advantage: “We will make it into a real right-wing reform.”