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France to Unveil Pension Reforms, Setting Up Part 2 in Battle With Unions

FILE - French workers demonstrate against government pension reform plans near the train station in Versailles, Jan. 20, 2020.

After weeks of crippling transportation strikes, France’s government will formally unveil controversial pension reform legislation Friday, which will test its ability to overcome powerful union dissent and overhaul an indebted retirement system that is one of Europe’s most generous.

The pension reforms arguably are the most central and problematic of President Emmanuel Macron’s broader campaign promises to make the country more economically sustainable and business friendly. But it remains unclear whether he will succeed where previous governments have failed — and angry voters may sanction the 42-year-old leader and his young Republic on the Move party in upcoming elections.

“The government thought it would have the reforms without a problem. That’s not what happened,” said Jean Grosset, director of the Observatory of Social Dialogue at Paris, the research group at the Jean Jaures Foundation. He predicts the government’s success in pushing through meaningful reforms will come at a cost.

'Beginning of the end'

But sociologist Guy Groux said the government had emerged as the clear winner in a standoff that ultimately split unions and mobilized only a small fraction of the workforce.

“I think this is the beginning of the end” of the strikes, Groux said, adding the government “has come out very well” despite some concessions.

Hardline syndicates plan to counter the draft bill with a "black Friday" marked by massive street protests and metro shutdowns, echoing some of the worst days of a transportation strike that began in early December and is the longest in the country’s history.

“Friday is the day or never,” said Philippe Martinez, head of the hardline General Confederation of Labor, or CGT union, which wants the legislation scrapped.

This graffiti in a French suburb calls on President Emmanuel Macron to resign. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)
This graffiti in a French suburb calls on President Emmanuel Macron to resign. (Lisa Bryant/VOA)

Petering out?

This week has seen highway, port and plant blockages, but the broader protest movement appears to be petering out. Public transportation was mostly back to normal Monday. And while polls show most French still oppose Macron’s pension reforms, the numbers of those backing continued strike action are dwindling.

“I think this country needs the reform,” said salesman Pierre Maerten, whose chocolate shop has lost significant business because of the strikes. “People are getting older, life expectancy is longer. Pension reforms are absolutely necessary.”

Still, the pension protests add to months of separate yellow vest demonstrations that have together cost the economy billions and laid bare intense, if disparate, sentiments of anger and injustice. Lawyers are worried about paying more into a broader public pension pot; dancers and opera singers passionately defend their special retirement scheme that dates to the 17th century.

Workers 'created this wealth'

“We’re not spoiled. We workers are the ones who created this wealth,” said Makan Dambele, 52, an airline mechanic and CGT unionist. “We want to benefit from the fruits of our labor.”

The government already has made some key concessions to its plan to reconcile myriad separate pension plans into a single, point-based system. For now, it has retreated from earlier goals to increase the retirement age to receive full benefits from 62 to 64 — still among the lowest in Europe. It hopes Parliament will pass final legislation by summer.

“I don’t think the government has won,” said Grosset, of the Jean Jaures Foundation. “It communicated badly. It didn’t respond to workers’ legitimate questions. It needed big protests to change its positions.”

Grosset predicts the government could see worker anger spill into March municipal elections and possibly 2022 presidential ones. Far-right leader Marine Le Pen already has announced a new run for president, setting the stage for another possible runoff against Macron. The two politicians are currently neck and neck in the polls.

But sociologist Groux believes Macron would have lost key center-right votes had he not pushed through the reforms.

“If Macron backtracks in the faceoff with the unions, then he’ll lose these voters and he’ll be outdistanced by Le Pen,” he said.

French union members gather at a recent pension strike. The sign reads, "The force of French workers is striking." (Lisa Bryant/VOA)
French union members gather at a recent pension strike. The sign reads, "The force of French workers is striking." (Lisa Bryant/VOA)

Unions spotlighted

While the pension strikes have translated into a major headache for many commuters, they are far from the national gridlock of two decades ago. The 1995 protests paralyzed transportation and forced the then-conservative government to backtrack on reforms, handing unions a significant victory.

But today, union power is diminished and unity is splintering. Two moderate syndicates, including France’s largest, CFDT, are in compromise talks with Macron’s government and support key parts of the reform package. Hardliners, starting with the CGT, are staging sabotage and wildcat actions, insisting on nothing less than full repeal.

Forecasts for protests

Still, they are making headlines in ways they never did over months of yellow vest protests, which largely sidelined them. Grosset believes French syndicates will continue to be relevant going forward, although they need to modernize.

“At their height, the yellow vests mobilized 240,000 people,” he said. “Once the unions mobilize in a big way, they get 1 [million], 2 million people out.”

Sociologist Groux is less certain. The unions failed to get many private sector employees behind the pension protests, he said, and ultimately mobilized only a small fraction of France’s overall workforce.

“The mobilization was very weak,” he said, adding, “Some union leaders believe their base and the workers haven’t changed since the 1960s. We’re a long way from there.”