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France in Revolt: Pension Cut Protests Rage on Into Their Fourth Month

Issue 279

A protest movement against increasing the retirement age has become an existential struggle over the French way of life.

Sarah Turi May 10, 2023

On April 6, a crowd of students, workers, retirees and union members packed the trains in the Paris Métro system, converging on Invalides, a monument near the National Assembly building on the left bank of the Seine. As they traversed the underground corridors, their voices united in a rallying cry: “Emmanuel Macron, oh tête de con, on vient te chercher chez toi.” (Emmanuel Macron, oh dumbass, we’re coming to your house to get you.”) As the protesters reached the Invalides station, police officers greeted them at the doorways, randomly searching their belongings and bottlenecking the exit. 

This demonstration and numerous others across France represented a crescendo of public dissent just a week before the April 14 Constitutional Council vote that approved President Emmanuel Macron’s use of a constitutional provision to enact a bill to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 without a vote in the National Assembly. 

“It’s the first time I see Paris living so much since the lockdown in 2020. When you go in the streets, the only thing that doesn’t work is traffic. The shops are still open. And the banks are completely shut down, of course, because people are burning the banks,” Noemi ­Colin, a Parisian protester, told The Indypendent.

Millions of people had turned out for multiple protests against the pension bill since Macron’s center-right government announced it Jan. 10. An alliance of the country’s major labor unions called for strikes and demonstrations that began on Jan. 19, and protests took place from Amiens in the north to Bayonne in the southwest.

The bill will raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 by 2030. A January poll found more than 70% of respondents opposed it. It will also raise the time required to receive a full pension to 43 years of work. It will provide a minimum pension of 85% of the minimum wage, but only for those who meet very specific criteria — such as working in the private sector for their entire career without ever earning more than the minimum wage. This excludes many women, who often have gaps in their work history and on average receive pensions that are about 40% lower than men’s.

An alliance of the country’s major labor unions called for strikes and demonstrations that began on Jan. 19, and protests took place from Amiens in the north to Bayonne in the southwest.

“This amount is barely above the poverty line! No pension should be lower than the minimum wage for a complete career!” the leftist General Confederation of Labor (CGT) union federation declared in January.

The leftist parties in the New Ecological and People’s Social Union (NUPES), which includes La France Insoumise (France Unbowed, the largest), and the communist, socialist and green parties, also endorsed the unions’ call for protests. Marine Le Pen of the far-right Rassemble National (National Rally) party, who came in second to Macron in the 2022 presidential elections, denounced the pension bill, but criticized the protests and strikes against it. 

According to the CGT, 3.5 million people protested across France on March 7, while the Interior Ministry estimated 1.28 million. The demonstrations have been as large as those in 1995 against previous pension changes (won by protesters) and in 2010 against President Nicolas Sarkozy raising the retirement age from 60 to 62 (lost). Students are ­occupying buildings, workers are striking, and roadblocks and blockades have occurred nationwide, including piling trash in front of governmental buildings. 

The movement’s demands extend beyond keeping the retirement age at 62. The CGT wants the age returned to 60, with a minimum pension equal to the minimum wage (€2,000 per month, about US$2,225) instead of the government’s proposed €1,200 and that time spent in school and other factors be considered as viable reasons for gaps in people’s work history.

“There are more people than in the Yellow Vests protests, but the yellow vests of four or five years ago are now in the street against the reform too,” said Lila, a vocal protester, referring to the Yellow Vest protests, a largely rural and outer-suburban movement sparked in 2018 when Macron raised taxes on gasoline and imposed other austerity measures. 

•   •   •

President Macron’s decision on March 16 to invoke Article 49.3 of the French constitution — which enabled him to force the pension-reform legislation through without a vote in parliament — angered protesters further. 

Protest fire in Paris. Anna Drettakis @anita.photographies

“For me it’s not about the pension reform any more. It’s about the system of governance. Macron’s use of Article 49.3 for the eleventh time in his reign to bypass parliament feels like we are in a monarchy,” Jean-Baptiste Yasak told The Guardian.

The demonstrators range in age from young high-school students, through workers in their prime, to retirees. 

“The young generation isn’t used to demonstrating. Now, it’s coming back,” says Noemi Colin. “Young people are massively in the street and it’s so joyful — dancing and listening to music and singing demonstration songs.”

“When we have exhausted legal avenues, there is only mobilization in the streets left — whether it is demonstrations, riots or things like that,” a young protester named Nathan told The Indy

At demonstrations, youth run around spray painting walls and roads, scaling bus stands, trees and lampposts. Flaming trash cans light up the processions, with protesters navigating around the occasional mound of burning trash and debris. Meanwhile, people watching from their windows demonstrate their support — and occasionally opposition — eliciting cheers of solidarity or boos. 

A cardboard French President Emmanuel Macron in a trash can, a nod to garbage-collector strikes. Anthony Leitz
@tonystrass_photos

Other protesters carry whimsical sculptures, such as a Tim Burton-esque papier-mâché sculpture of Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne surrounded by signs reading, “Let’s throw Macron’s world in the trash,” “French democracy 1789-2023 defeated by Article 49.3” and “Retirement before arthritis.” At the April 13 Paris protest, a Pink Bloc cortege featured a van that read Amour, Greve & Blockage — Love, Strike and Blockade. Another slogan referred to a popular brand of beer: “16-64: It’s My Beer, Not My Career.”

The April 14 decision by the Constitutional Council, a high court that reviews the constitutionality of legislation, re-energized the mobilizations. 

Despite President Macron’s unwavering position, “there will be no return to normal unless the reform is withdrawn” exclaimed Sophie Binet, a prominent union leader, on April 20. That day, hundreds of demonstrators in Lorient, a seaport in Brittany, lit fires to block all traffic. They kept the blaze alive throughout the morning.

•   •   •

As the group I was with reached Place de la Bastille during protests on April 13, the police suddenly materialized, tears streaming down people’s faces as pepper spray assaulted our eyes.

“We were massively gassed by cops who threw grenades from behind,” said my friend Emma, recounting a terrifying moment when she realized that she and her friends were hemmed in by the cops, trapped between police barricades.

On March 31, a group of lawyers submitted around 100 complaints denouncing the arbitrary arrests that have taken place since the implementation of Article 49.3. French law gives the police significant authority to arrest people who insult them. But most arrests during this movement have resulted in no legal action. After a March 16 protest at Place de la Concorde in Paris, for example, only nine out of 292 detained demonstrators faced criminal proceedings, suggesting purpose of the arrests was to suppress public dissent, not to catch those who damaged property.

•   •   •

The January call for a strike was the first by the eight major French unions in 12 years, when President Nicolas ­Sarkozy proposed raising the retirement age to 62. Since 1970, the unionization rate amongst French workers has seen a significant decline, but throughout this movement, unions have witnessed a surge in membership.

On March 6, garbage collectors and sewer workers in Paris began occupying and blocking the city’s incinerators, with 20–30% of these workers going on strike. In mid-March, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin requisitioned waste-management workers to return to the job, putting them at risk of six months in prison and tens of thousands of euros in fines if they continued to strike. French journalists reported that these employees of the state nonetheless continued to protest by slowing their work pace. And, outraged protesters took to social-media platforms and messaging apps, forming group chats mobilizing blockades at waste-management facilities throughout France for over a month.

President Macron’s decision on March 16 to invoke Article 49.3 of the French constitution — which enabled him to force the pension-reform legislation through without a vote in parliament — angered protesters further. 

On March 7, more than one third of workers went on strike in France’s gas and electricity sector, at its government-owned railroad company and in education.

On March 11, amidst nationwide strikes, four out of seven oil refineries in France shut down. By March 22, at a Total refinery in Normandy, the state started requisitioning ­workers to ship kerosene to airports. In response, over 300 workers and students assembled in front of the refinery and staged an all-night vigil to prevent requisitioned workers from entering the site. A court suspended those requisitions on April 6, calling them “a serious and manifestly illegal infringement of the right to strike.”

“The strike of the refiners, like that of the garbage collectors, allows linking the issue of pensions, wages and environmental issues and can have a decisive impact on the protests against the reform and the government,” Laura Menge, a labor lawyer and activist at Revolution Permanente, a Trotskyist political party, told The Indy.

After three months of power cuts across France, known as the Robin Hood operations, the National Federation of Mines and Energy Trade Unions warned that upcoming high-profile events like the Cannes Film Festival, the Monaco Grand Prix, the French Open tennis tournament and the Avignon theater festival might be affected. 

“In May, do as you please,” the union said in an April 21 press release. “We won’t give up!” It also emphasized that striking employees would closely monitor “all branch negotiations, whatever the subject,” to achieve not just the ­withdrawal of the pension changes but also the fulfillment of their other demands.

The strikes and blockades have caused significant disruptions to France’s energy sector and economy. Electricité de France, the country’s primary utility, has lost a staggering ­€1 billion worth of output as a result of strikes at nuclear and hydropower plants. Meanwhile, disruptions at liquefied natural gas terminals led to a decrease of 1.1 million tons in gas imports between February and March, costing an additional €650 million.

Demonstrators in Poitiers, western France, take to the train tracks.

•   •   •

Another notable visual of the protests has been the shattered glass advertisement stands lining the streets, often bearing the word “reform” spray-painted above jagged, fractured openings.

Why does the pension bill foment such extreme and ­enduring anger? It reflects the broader neoliberal trend in France that prioritizes market efficiency over social protections and workers’ rights. This has been spearheaded by center-right President Macron, who has gone to lengths to associate himself with former U.S. President Barack Obama. 

Like earlier measures to make it easier for employers to lay workers off, the bill represents a push to make France more “competitive” in the global economy at the expense of workers’ economic security and leisure time.

“In France, we say that we’re fighting not to end up like in the United States. We want to defend our rights; we want to defend our gains,” said a hospital worker at an April 1 protest in Paris.

“No to retiring at 64!” says a large banner on a truck in Paris. Sarah Turi

Many fear that Macron will continue to implement ­austerity measures that fracture France’s expansive social-welfare state. All French workers, citizens and legal residents are covered by health insurance, occupational accident and illness insurance, retirement insurance (pensions) and unemployment insurance, and family allowances are paid upon the birth of a child, as well as allowances for early child care, education and accommodation. 

Inequality still exists in France, though. According to a 2018 report by the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies, life expectancy for the poorest 5% of men is 13 years shorter than it is for the wealthiest 5%. Protests say raising the retirement age will only make this worse, particularly for women and France’s predominantly African and Middle-Eastern immigrants.

“At the age of 64, a quarter of the poorest French people —workers — are already dead. So we don’t want to work until we die. It doesn’t interest us,” said Delphine, a railway worker, on April 6. 

“It’s part of France’s DNA, the revolution,” she continued. “But it’s also because we have this great social system. You know, in the United States, it’s better not to get sick. But in France, if you get sick, you get treated. There’s no problem. You find a doctor, and you go to the hospital. And we think it should be like that all the time. And above all, we don’t want to lose that, because we know there is a way to finance all of this. We pay taxes, no problem.”

Protest is ingrained in French society. From the 1789 revolution that overthrew (and beheaded) the king and a centuries-old hereditary aristocracy, to subsequent revolutions in 1830, 1848 and 1871 that sent autocrats fleeing, to the student-worker uprising of May 1968, the French generally demonstrate and strike en masse when their rights are at risk. (In the colonial era, France  also controlled the second largest global empire after the British, which few native-born French questioned.) 

Since April, France has seen an outpouring of Casserolades — public cacophonies created by banging on metal household utensils, a practice used to denounce the monarchy in 1832.

“We still go to work. In the afternoon, we take three or four hours to demonstrate. At both my school and at my job, which are two very different places, many, many people are going to the streets during the demonstrations, and people are very easy to convince to go,” Noemi Colin said.

•   •   •

A Paris demonstration gets rowdy. Emma Bert Lazli @emmeeyes

The Constitutional Council’s April 14 ruling in support of Macron’s pension bill triggered another tumultuous round of protests across the country. Demonstrators rallied around city halls and key government buildings, torching garbage bins and setting the streets ablaze. In Rennes, protestors set fire to an empty police station using garbage cans. 

The number of protest fires has been unlike anything I have ever seen. Burnt remnants of sidewalk railings, road signs, lamp posts and trash cans now blend into the city’s fabric, their presence a powerful reminder of the movement’s resilience. 

Now that the bill is law, there are no impending decisions for protesters to try to sway, so they hope to disrupt society enough that the government has no choice but to give in to their demands and reverse those decisions. 

“Demonstrations are really a symbol of how the French people can express themselves,” Laura, an ecologist, said at the April 6 protest in Paris, speaking about the current state of democracy. “It’s really about taking back power, and it’s possible to make a revolution.” 

While the size of the protests and strikes has somewhat ­dwindled over the last three months, large actions again took place April 28–29. On May 1, all eight major trade unions united for the first time since 2009 for massive International Workers Day demonstrations ten times larger than last year’s. The CGT reported 2.3 million protesters; the Ministry of Interior, 782,000. With 12,000 police officers deployed across France, the day saw intense ­repression from law enforcement and ended in 540 ­arrests.

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