More than 1 million people poured onto the streets in France on Thursday to protest the government’s plans to reform the pension regime. The bill, which was presented to the Council of Ministers on Monday, aims to raise the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 years old starting from 2030. It would also bring an end to some of the country’s specialised retirement regimes, whereby certain workers get bigger pension pots and to retire earlier than others (rail or post workers, for example). It is due to be debated at the French assembly on 30 January.
Pension reform is one of the defining issues of Emmanuel Macron’s second five-year term, as he looks to become the president who resolves a quandary that has troubled French presidents since the early 1990s. The policy was one of the central pledges of his 2022 presidential campaign, after he postponed it due to the double pressure of the streets and the Covid pandemic.
It is set to be hotly contested by trade unions, activists and politicians from the left and centre. In this regard, Thursday’s massive turnout was but one of a series of actions in what is expected to be a long tug of war between the government and the streets. The next strike is slated for 31 January, and in the days running up to it, trade unions have announced plans to disrupt the railway network, ports infrastructure, and the oil and nuclear sectors.
So who will prevail, the people out in the streets or the government? As a historian specialised in French social movements, I can attest the evolution of the past 30 years does not play in the strikers’ favour, notwithstanding some notable victories.
1995: the great showdown against pension reform
Many of those taking to the streets today will be hoping to replicate the spectacular demonstrations of November-December 1995 – the largest in the country since May 68. At the time, the right-wing government led by Jacques Chirac (1995-2007) sought to impose an austerity package known by the name of its then prime minister, Alain Juppé. Intended to tighten to public purse’s strings ahead of France’s adoption of the euro currency, Plan Juppé‘s reforms would have – among others – raised employees’ contribution to retirement funds and aligned specialised retirement regimes with that of the general public.
Things didn’t work out as the government hoped. Public-sector workers and students turned out en masse to oppose the plans, and for over three weeks, trade unions brought the country’s transport network to a halt. In Paris, one takes hours to go anywhere by car, bike, foot or hitchhiking. Some commuters are left with no option but to sleep at their offices. At the movement’s apex, more than 2 million people took part in the demonstrations of the 12 December, one out of six national strike days.
Despite the disruptions they created, the 1995 protests enjoyed considerable public support –- so much, in fact, the media talked about a “strike by proxy”. On 15 December, Alain Juppé had no choice but to call an end to the pension-reform project.
The failure dealt a blow to Jacques Chirac at the start of his first seven-year term. It was also one of the factors that contributed to the right’s defeat in the elections held after the president dissolved the National Assembly in 1997.
Just as the memory of May 1968 fuelled a phobia of student movements within the political class, the 1995 strike and the failure of the Plan Juppé lent credence to the idea the pension reform presented high political risks. This likely explains the extreme caution with which successive French governments have approached the subject.
In 2003, still under the Chirac presidency, it was the Minister of Social Affairs, François Fillon, and not the prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who carried out a pension reform. While careful not to touch the special pension regimes, he still had to reckon with a major strike movement, which saw a turnout of nearly 1 million people. But unlike the 1995 strikes, the trade unions failed to gain public backing, allowing Fillon to pass his reform.
In the autumn of 2007, only a few months after his presidential inauguration, Nicolas Sarkozy introduced a bill that would have also upped the contribution period for beneficiaries of special retirement schemes from 37 to 40 years. Like Macron’s pension reform today, the policy was one of Sarkozy’s main campaign pledges. Faced with a well-supported social movement in the transport and electricity sectors, he gave his Minister of Labour, Xavier Bertrand, a great deal of latitude to negotiate, making some economists say that this reform was one of “failed reforms of President Sarkozy”.
The state vs. the street
In truth, the impact of social reforms is of little importance. They are above all a matter of conveying an impression of change and symbolically affirming the power of the state over that of the street. This is perhaps more than ever the case with incoming presidents. When starting his mandate, Sarkozy was only too aware how a large-scale student movement had just forced the preceding government to backtrack on plans to introduce a “first employment contract” – a framework that would have essentially made it easier to fire employees under 26.
Even in cases where it is symbolic, this victory of the state emboldens successive governments to push their reform projects, as modern day protests multiply, radicalise and even occasionally escape the control of trade unions. In this instance, one can think of the civil disobedience movement Nuit debout, which has been compared to the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States, 15M in Spain, and the more recent Gilets Jaunes protests.
Governments’ increasing show of force
The past years have seen French governments increasingly turn a blind eye to demonstrators. Thus in 2010, labour minister Eric Woerth pushed back the retirement age from 60 to 62 years old, notwithstanding strikes that brought more than one million people in the streets (2 million, according to trade unions). In 2016 and 2017, presidents Hollande and then Macron also ignored protests and did not hesitate to resort to Article 49.3 – a legislative device enabling the government to bypass parliament for measures relating to social security – to relax labour regulations.
More than protest, it is the Covid crisis that has undermined efforts to adopt the pension reform began under the government of Édouard Philippe (2017-2020). However, the tussle between the state and the street that started on 19 January could well see Macron succeed, particularly now that the government has negotiated a parliamentary majority with the right-wing party Les Républicains to pass it.
Beyond the issue of pensions, Macron is betting on his ability to assert himself in the face of opposition in many forms. This is a major test, the outcome of which will inevitably influence his entire second term in office.