Trouble in Paradise: French Protests, Two Months In

Protests and strikes have been rocking France for the past few months, with escalating events leading to very publicized fights and injuries. The strikes have been described as being over the French retirement age being increased from 62 to 64, leading many foreigners to brag about how late their country’s retirement age is, and how bad their pension plan will be. But the situation is actually a little bit more complicated. First, here’s the background: The French pension system has been described as one of the most generous in Europe, for good reason. The current system has a retirement age set for between the ages of 62 and 67, with the average retiree retiring shortly before they turn 63 with an average pension of €1,400 per month. President Macron campaigned in part on pension changes, one of which being to increase the pension payout floor to €1,200 per month. The average retiree is now richer than the average French person. Under the current system, folks can retire with a full rate pension at 62 if they have accumulated between 41.5 and 43 years of working and pension contribution, depending on their birth year. Otherwise, they can retire with between the ages of 62 and 67 with a reduced pension corresponding to how much they worked, or wait until 67 to retire with the full pension. There are many industry-specific deals that allow workers in certain fields to retire even earlier. This robust retirement system is the pride of the French people, who believe that it lets workers enjoy their later years, and gives great protection to workers. But there is a worry that, with the rising life expectancy and the ever increasing amount of Baby Boomers retiring (the ratio of workers to pensioners is down to just 1.7), the system may not be sustainable without some changes. After all, the pensions that pensioners are given are paid by workers expecting to one day achieve a pension of their own. So President Macron and Prime Minister Borne’s government decided to increase that retirement age, and trouble followed.

This is not the first time this exact issue has come up. Attempts to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62 were met by large protests in 2010, though the increase came to pass. And different pension reforms were brought up in late 2019, resulting in massive protests and strikes in the transportation and education sectors, among others. The French love striking. The issue was put on the back burner due to a respiratory virus pandemic, but now it is back, with new reforms set to fix what some see as a pressing problem, while others view them as just a way to be tyrannical.

These potential reforms are remarkably unpopular, with some polls showing that over two-thirds of the French population oppose the reforms, as well as the well publicized massive and well-coordinated protests. On Jan. 19, even before the “2023 Social Security Financing Adjustment Bill” was introduced to the French lower house on Jan. 30, around one million demonstrators marched throughout the whole country, holding signs and chanting in clear opposition to the reform. They were mostly non-violent. By the time the bill was introduced between around one (government numbers) and three (union numbers) million people were protesting, numbers which stayed around constant for the next few weeks.

Due to concerns that the bill wouldn’t pass, Prime Minister Borne decided to invoke article 49.3 of the French constitution, which basically allows a law to pass unless the legislature votes to dissolve the government. This makes more sense than it sounds. Using 49.3 is not exceedingly uncommon, but it’s use here to force the bill through provoked outrage, and even more anger and protests. Though some députés tried, the government was not dissolved and the bill passed. As the protests enter their third month, both sides have been standing firm as violence has escalated, with increased police scuffles and arrests, many of which have been accused of being unjustified. In some cases, random protestors have allegedly been picked up off the street, police justifying these arrests as they were “participation in a group with a view to preparing violence.”

France’s strong union tradition has been very clear these past few months, as many different unions collaborated for persistent general strikes in such varied sectors as transportation, energy, teaching, recreation, and more. When being enumerated in a list this can seem rather small, but the effect of these strikes is nothing but.

One particularly thorny strike is garbage collector strike, which began March 9 in Paris over their concerns of their specific retirement age being raised to 59. At one point, over 10,000 tons of trash were left to rot in the streets of Paris. Images of ever-piling trash are everywhere, as the Parisian government refused to break the strike for many days. Even with this, Parisians are still generally supportive of the strikes, with the general sentiment still being that “it may smell bad, but they are doing it for us.” There are still fires blazing, tensions mounting, and a new general strike is scheduled for the March 30

This can all seem strange from an American perspective. Why would Macron choose to do something than so many of his own voters disagree with, and that is sure to sink the political chances of it’s supporters. The most likely answer is that he truly believes in it, and doesn’t have anything to lose. He is already on his second five-year term (expiring in 2027), and as the French republic does not allow for more than two consecutive presidential terms, he wouldn’t be able to run again until 2032, something he doubtfully would have done regardless of recent events. His political party, Renaissance (formerly known as En Marche!, liberally translated as "Let’s Go!") was founded by him pretty specifically for his presidential campaign, and it is unclear how well it would last without him. For his political calculus, he seems to be willing to be vilified to push what he considers to be an important yet bitter pill for France. And it most likely worked. Despite the millions of protestors, strikes, and condemnations, his bill passed, and seems to be here to stay. It is now cemented in Emmanuel Macron’s legacy, for better or for worse.