French workers raise their heads, again

19 February 2023
Alan Gomez

“Work. Metro. Grave.” Macabre but astute, the slogan has adorned banners and placards carried by millions of French workers demonstrating against President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to increase the official retirement age from 62 to 64. The slogan distils into three words how French workers feel about having two years of rest and leisure stolen from them and handed over to the bosses.

“I don’t want to retire when I’m six feet under”, Rose, a 60-year-old housekeeper at a February demonstration in Albi, southern France, told a reporter. “How could I do this job at 64?”

Marianne, a cook from Marseille, told media at another protest: “We are not radicals, but we think everything should be blockaded because, despite the demonstrations and strikes, we’re still not being heard. In our jobs, we can’t do them at 64 or over”.

Workers from across unions, sectors and industries have been striking and demonstrating since Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne’s 10 January announcement that the government planned to increase the retirement age by two years. At the movement’s recent peak on 11 February, 2.5 million workers demonstrated against the changes in hundreds of cities and communes across France. Now, the movement has its eyes on a general strike, planned for 7 March.

Airports, railways and logistics have been disrupted, refineries have been shut, schools closed and some universities occupied. Indeed, not only workers but also high school and university students have formed contingents and marched in the demonstrations. In the first week of February, 200 high schools and fifteen universities mobilised, and many more have protested since. A popular slogan on the young people’s placards is: “You give us 64, we’ll give you May 68”, recalling last century’s revolutionary student and worker rebellion.

A clear majority of people, 67 percent, oppose Macron’s attacks, according to media outlet CNEWS, up from 61 percent in a survey in January. Another poll taken by independent media outlet Politis showed that 68 percent support lowering the age of retirement to 60.

As the bill for increasing the retirement age is debated in the National Assembly, Macron and his ministers are saying that this “indispensable” change is about fairness and pragmatism: if everyone chips in an extra two years of work, the government can avoid a €150 billion deficit, which would not only bankrupt the French pension system but also, potentially, threaten to derail the French economy.

Yet, as many commentators note, the cumulative deficit is vastly overestimated, and rumours of bankruptcy are greatly exaggerated.

If the proposed retirement age change was about balancing the books, there are other options, such as redirecting funds from other expenditure towards the pension system. For example, the French state provides about €200 billion a year to the private sector. Paring back the concessions and handouts to capitalists would more than make up for any pension deficit.

The battle over the increase in retirement age is more about shaping the world of work and instilling a “work-metro-grave” attitude among French workers. Take Macron’s interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, who accused the left of having a “deep contempt for the value of work”. He railed against “those who think we must work less and less and defend the right to laziness”. Darmanin also singled out left-wing leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who he claims calls for “a society without work, without effort”.

France is renowned for its protection of workers’ rights and conditions, from its 35-hour work week to its relatively low retirement age. Yet those gains, fought for by the labour movement in the past, are being undermined and chipped away, if not by law then by employer pressure. For many French workers, the 35-hour working week is a myth. Most put in 37 to 40 hours per week, if not more.

From outside France, it might seem curious that a two-year increase to the retirement age would inspire some of the biggest demonstrations in recent history. Compare the situation with Australia, for example, where the retirement age for everyone will be raised to 67 in July, a move that has provoked hardly a whisper of opposition from the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

What France shows is that a combative union movement, with a history of struggle and determined in the face of official opposition, has the potential to inspire masses of workers to fight back. In 2019-20, French workers pushed back another of Macron’s proposed changes to the pension system, the pandemic forcing both workers and government into a stalemate. Before that was the “yellow vest” movement, which won modest victories against a Macron proposal to increase the price of fuel.

Notwithstanding its show of militancy, there is debate on the way forward for the current movement. With a noticeable decline in the number of striking workers at the most recent 16 February demonstration, some are pessimistic that the 7 March mobilisation will be a success. While the union leaders back the demonstration, they have stopped short of calling for a broad, ongoing general strike.

Yet ongoing stoppages, strikes and blockades are precisely what’s needed to force Macron to pay attention. “The state doesn’t care about demonstrations. Now you have to blockade”, Laurent, a rail worker at a Paris demonstration told a reporter. Macron and Borne’s strategy is to ride out this wave of discontent and marshal enough votes in the National Assembly to get the pension attack through.

But it’s not yet a done deal: Macron’s party lost its majority in the last election. The left parties are united in their opposition, and the extent of public hostility is forcing even the centre right—which raised the retirement age the last time it was in office—to reconsider its support.

France continues to serve as a reminder of the power that workers hold. When workers move, society stops. France also shows how demonstrations and strikes create confidence and a sense of collective purpose. As 2022 Nobel Prize for Literature recipient Annie Ernaux wrote in Le Monde diplomatique, a French monthly newspaper:

“[Those] demonstrators in January 2023—so numerous that they struggled to get out of the Place de la République—reminded me once again of Paul Éluard’s lines: ‘They were only a few/ On the whole earth/ Everyone thought they were alone/ They were suddenly a crowd’. I would like to thank them. Let’s stop lowering our heads.”

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