February 28, 2023: France has been rocked by massive, disruptive street protests, including nationwide strikes and marches, during the past six weeks over the government’s anti-labour reform plans, bringing out the deep fault lines in its much-vaunted societal and democratic system.
Depending on whether you believe the government or the trade unions, either 10 lakh or 20 lakh people took part in the recently held rallies. It’s a huge number, considering the western European nation’s population of 6.56 crore is a shade less than India’s eighth most populated state of Karnataka (6.95 crore).
The smug G7 nation, which loses no opportunity to pat itself on the back for its rich culture and iconic structures, and lectures other countries such as China, Russia, and India on human rights and democracy, now stands exposed as an undeclared failed state as the domestic mess escalates.
At the centre of the conflict is the French government’s decision to push up the retirement age from 62 to 64, and make people who’ve been in service for at least 43 years eligible for state pension, a benefit extended to all retirees until now.
Only those who joined the workforce at a younger age or are engaged in a hazardous profession are exempt from the proposed rules, which need parliament clearance before being turned into law.
The January 10 government announcement of the controversial move triggered an immediate backlash, with eight leading trade unions calling a series of strikes from January to February, vowing to force the government to roll back the plan.
“Traditionally, relations between the government, employers and trade unions have been more antagonistic in France than in most other European countries,” said Douglas Webber, an emeritus professor of political science at the INSEAD business school.
However, policy propositions that don’t go down well with the working class come as no surprise from western governments, which are loyal-as-dog worshippers of market forces, and for whom granting relief to senior citizens is a bitter pill to swallow.
WHAT ABOUT US, UK?
The UK, for example, has under its various Acts increased the state pensionable age of its citizens in phases based on their gender and date of birth. While under a previous legislation, a 1950-born woman would get her pension after attaining 60 years of age, under the latest law, a person born between March 6, 1961 and April 5, 1977 would be eligible for pension only on reaching the age of 67. Similarly, in the US, the official retirement age is 67.
Coming back to the turbulent developments in France, on January 19, nine days after the government unveiled its pension plans, students and retirees walked shoulder to shoulder, disregarding freezing rains, in nationwide rallies. Also marching with them were trade unionists, health workers, and energy agency employees as a general strike put the brakes on most of the trains, including the premium Eurostar that had to cancel a number of services between Paris and London.
One-fifth of the flights originating from Paris’s Orly Airport were grounded, while more than a third of France’s teachers joined the strike. Businesses, refinery delivery, and power supplies suffered as a result of the domestic turmoil.
Seats of French pride and global tourist destinations, such as Versailles Palace and Eiffel Tower, were closed, while the Louvre Museum shut some exhibition rooms.
Similar strikes and marches took place on January 31, February 7, 11, and 16, with a huge number of people participating, making the current anti-government protests the most intense in France in recent years.
Trade unions trashed the proposed reforms, calling them a threat to the French working class’s hard-fought rights, and suggested the government tax the rich or ask employers to increase their contributions to fund the pension system.
Nathan Arsac, a 19-year-old student and member of the UNEF union, said, “I’m afraid of what’s going to happen next. Losing our social achievements could happen so fast. I’m scared of the future when I’ll be older and have to retire.”
Opinion polls show a substantial majority of the French people were opposed to the government’s pension plans. However, neither the countrywide protests nor the negative opinion polls could make the government rethink the new plan, with President Emmanuel Macron saying, “People know that yes, on average, you have to work a little longer, all of them, because otherwise we won’t be able to finance our pensions properly.”
“The proposed changes would create more wealth for the country because we will have more hours worked,” said Macron, who is often seen as one of the faces of 21st-century neoliberalism. In his first term, Macron reduced corporate taxes, made hiring-and-firing easier, and claiming benefits became harder for the unemployed class. The new pension plan was central to his campaign promise ahead of the second term.
In an audacious show of his servility to the neoliberal cause, the 45-year-old president is even ready to cosy up to the conservative Republican Party to push the Bill through in parliament as his centrist alliance lost its parliamentary majority last year, though it is still the largest group.
Critics point out that the proposed changes deny the people a vital social security instrument, while the two extra working years would make life tougher for the aging generation who deserve to rest after spending decades slogging for a living.
It has also been pointed out that the measures curtail employment opportunities for the youth, with France’s unemployed population rising up to around 22 lakh at the end of last year, according to the latest figures released by the French National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies. Also, the unemployment rate stands at 7.2% of the active population – which is more than double that of Karnataka (3.4%).
With the government refusing to budge, the unions have called another countrywide strike on March 7, and urged their members to “prepare together to bring the economy to a halt”.
AN ECONOMY ON EDGE
While there’s no data on the losses suffered due to the disruptions, such serial strikes and unrest can have a bearing on the French economy, which is still recovering from the ill-effects of Covid-19 and especially lockdowns at a time of soaring inflation.
Webber agrees, saying, “The strikes or protests are highly disruptive because they are heavily concentrated in the public services, especially public transport, but they are normally fairly brief.”
The situation in France is volatile, but it sounds incredible because the mainstream media isn’t covering the protests as a societal failure. Influential media outlets and international news agencies have been portraying these protests as routine demonstrations, trying hard not to let the world know that France – for all its big talk about values and democracy – isn’t a big fan of workers’ rights.
However, with the confrontation set to intensify, things may spiral out of control any day, further compromising France’s grandstanding on human rights and freedom.
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