France’s biggest strike in decades shows how Emmanuel Macron has alienated millions

The mass revolt by workers against pension reform is a symptom of the government’s political failures.

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How long would you be prepared to strike against a pension reform that would leave the vast majority of the population poorer than they are now? The answer, for the French, is indefinitely: today marks the start of an “unlimited strike” in France, widely supported by trade unions in all transport sectors including rail, metro, airports and haulage, as well as in education, health, energy, justice and policing. Most schools are closed, while the SNCF rail service cancelled tickets in advance and forecasted around nine out of ten network trains would be disrupted. You get it: c’est la grève générale

The gilets jaunes (“yellow vests”) crisis last year slowed down, but did not put an end to Emmanuel Macron’s spree of neo-liberal reforms. After passing a decree that reduces benefit eligibility and payments for the unemployed in October — which some have warned will be  a “massacre” — the youngest French leader since Napoleon, who promised to liberalise the country’s institutions, is facing what may be his biggest challenge yet: a complete overhaul of the French pension system. 

The reform, explained here in more detail, aims to merge the 42 current systems, tailored to each sector, into one “universal” system that will be calculated based on the number of “points” workers have accumulated over their career, instead of the current calculation based on worked trimesters. According to expert analysis, “everyone will lose out financially”. No wonder, then, that just about everyone in France is going on strike.

Indeed, many experts are raising the alarm: despite the government’s claims that the reforms will create a more egalitarian pensions system, economists have disagreed, including Thomas Piketty, the author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, who has called it “a fraud”: “Those who have less will end up paying the highest contributions,” he said.  

The French government’s communications strategy has been disastrous, with ministers making a string of contradictory declarations on the project, which has been postponed several times since January. Some said the retirement age would not change, then the change was mentioned tentatively, before being finally killed off by Macron himself. Several clauses have been discussed publicly only to be cancelled, and the details of the reform have yet to be published. Meanwhile, the French government quietly introduced capitalised pension funds in October — until then, pensions indexed on the stock exchange were unheard of in France. 

Of the new pensions system, the minister Jean-Paul Delevoye, charged by Macron with leading the reform, has said, with an air of mystery: “It is not a reform, it is a society project.” The authorities’ intentional vagueness has frustrated the public, a social policy expert and former Sarkozy adviser has written in Le Monde: “Those who enjoy their sector’s special provisions have understood clearly that they will lose out, while many others don’t understand how they will be impacted: this feeds their worry and their irritation.” Anecdotally, Macron’s declaration that he doesn’t like speaking about “difficult working conditions” (pénibilité) because “it suggests that work is hard”, did not settle an already fraught debate. Nor did his education minister’s statement that some who are striking are doing so only “because they don’t understand everything about the reform”. 

Rail workers, teachers, lawyers, bin collectors, police officers, hospital staff: this “interprofessional strike” is leaving no one behind. Striking firefighters even started early, setting up camp on Paris’s Place de la République on Monday, with the firm intention of remaining until Thursday, to demand that their pensions be maintained at their current level. The police, too, could mobilise: on Monday, officers symbolically placed their helmets on the ground in protest at the reforms. A police union has warned that while they will be on duty on 5 December, they might join the movement in the days that follow; some police unions are already calling for strike action.

As unions have said, the strikes will be renewed every 24 hours and the wave of industrial action could potentially continue until Christmas. It’s difficult to know how long the strike will last; but the French government is braced for a “cyclone”

Past mobilisations offer an indication of how big this one could be: in September, an initial strike by rail unions against the pensions reform paralysed the entire Paris Metro, as well as most of the city’s traffic. But it is the winter of 1995 that is most often invoked. On that occasion, French workers of all sectors rallied for a three-week-long action against a similar pensions reform that paralysed the country and peaked with two million in the streets. “The social malaise is now stronger than in 1995,” Bernard Thibault, the then leader of the CGT trade union, has said.

In 1995, the government, then headed by Alain Juppé, backed down. “We don’t back down! We must send a message of great determination”, prime minister Edouard Philippe said in November. Macron, too, has claimed that he won’t yield or give up. Not backing down is also the unions’ rallying cry. The French winter is coming, and it carries a wind of discontent. 

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency.