Strikes Rock France But Macron Silent on the Pension Reform Plans That Sparked Them

By Fayçal Benhassain | December 10, 2019 | 7:00pm EST
Striking protestors in Paris on Tuesday. (Photo by Omar Havana/Getty Images)
Striking protestors in Paris on Tuesday. (Photo by Omar Havana/Getty Images)

Paris ( – As France continues to be rocked by strikes sparked by proposed pension reforms, President Emmanuel Macron has remained silent, choosing not to intervene officially or to publicly defend the pension changes.

Labor unions and left-wing political parties are calling for more strikes in the coming days in the hope Macron will withdraw his plan. Despite the disruptions, surveys suggest that a majority of French people oppose the reforms and sympathize with the striking workers.

In a poll published Journal du Dimanche early this week 53 percent of respondents said they support the strike.

Politicians on both sides of the spectrum are urging the government to speak, and Macron’s prime minister, Edouard Philippe, is now expected to do so on Wednesday.

Bruno Retailleau, a Republican lawmaker, said Philippe must “be clear and reasonable on the pension reforms, otherwise French anger will not stop.”

“Something bad is going on, and it would be great if Macron took it seriously,” said Alexis Corbière, a close associate of the leftist Rebellious France leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a key supporter of the strikes.

On the far right, National Rally leader Marine Le Pen has voiced support for the strikes although she says she won’t participate in public action because she doesn’t want to march alongside left-wing unions.

The current pension system has 42 sector-specific plans, each with differing levels of contributions and benefits. Macron wants to simplify it, with a point-based system that takes into account a pensioner’s full working life – rather than the current system which takes into account the 25 highest-earning years of a private sector employee, or the most recent six months of work for those in the public sector.

Since Thursday, the country has witnessed disruption of public transportation and strikes in public services, education, health, trucking, and airline sectors. The strikes have caused the cancelation of 25 percent of domestic flights and 10 percent of international, medium-haul flights.

Even police officers are opposing the pension reform proposals. Although they have no right to protest publicly, they are offering minimum services at police stations.

With Macron not having issued any public statements, it has been left to Philippe and cabinet ministers to defend the proposal in meetings with unions and in media interviews.

Last Thursday’s strike was the biggest so far, with unions claiming that 1.5 million people took to the streets across the country, including 65,000 in Paris alone. Authorities put the figure at 806,000.

Tuesday’s turnout attracted fewer people across the country, but unions claimed that 150,000 people demonstrated in the capital.

Strike leaders have vowed to keep up the action until the pension reform proposals are scrapped.

Among reasons cited for opposition to the pension changes is unhappiness with plans to increase – by between two and five years – the current retirement age of 62 before a worker is eligible for full-rate pension. (The 42 sector-specific regimes provide for earlier retirement, so the average French person retires at 60 – earlier than in any other country in Europe.)

There are also plans to stop a system, currently benefiting about 30,000 people, whereby workers with particularly arduous jobs such as train and subway drivers have been able to retire aged 58, with full benefits.

While Macron has not spoken, his office released a statement saying, “The president is calm and determined to lead this reform, in listening and consultation.”

Philippe, the prime minister, told Le Journal du Dimanche on Sunday that if the government does not “carry out a far-reaching, serious and progressive reform today, someone else will do a really brutal one tomorrow.”

Political analysts say Macron is weakened by the fact his political constituency is a small one.

“Macron suffers from a base of weak legitimacy, because only about 20 percent of registered citizens voted for him,” Virginia Martin, a political scientist at Paris-based Kedge Business School, said in a television interview, adding that Macron “has no real political fief.”

Experts do not expect the government to back down, however.

“A pull back by the government on this issue is unlikely,” Bernard Vivier, director of the Institute of Labor and expert in social movements, told a daily newspaper on Sunday.

“If he took the route [of withdrawing the proposals], Macron would certainly not be re-elected in the next presidential election in 2022,” Vivier said, recalling that Macron was elected on the strength of promises to “transform the country.”


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