Pension Strikes in France: What is Going on and Why?
Foreign Correspondent in France, Katie Fox, explains the country’s latest strikes and outlines why people have decided to protest the government’s pension reform plans.
France has been on strike since 5 December 2019. Now, as we enter February 2020, it has become the longest strike in France for over fifty years. The previous record was in 1986, with widespread strikes held over arguments about SNCF (the French rail and transport company) and its working conditions.
The cause of this most recent strike is the government’s planned reforms to pensions. Currently, there are forty-two individual retirement plans in France, all slightly different, depending on what role you had and when you started working. The reforms consist of a universal points-based system for all. While it is supposed to simplify the current scheme, and reduce inequality, the French unions are not happy.
The cause of this most recent strike is the government’s planned reforms to pensions.
Emmanuel Macron, the President of France, originally stood firmly by his government’s proposals. However, Édouard Phillipe, the Prime Minister, has said that both sides could compromise on the matter. Following more days of protest, where thousands took to the streets across Paris and France, the government has in fact agreed to withdraw the age limit of sixty four for qualifying for a full pension. Despite this, the strike still continues, with most of the country still unhappy with the compromise.
When it began in Paris, all but two of the fourteen metro lines were shut. Trams and cross-country railway lines ran reduced services, bus depots were blockaded, and thousands took to the streets to express their anger at the reforms. Now, over a month later, the situation is much better – but still not what you would expect from one of Europe’s most major cities. While more metro and bus lines have partially reopened (mainly during peak hours), there is still widespread chaos, with trains packed full, and people still unable to get to work.
It seems almost unbelievable that the strikes have been able to continue this long. Not only do the transport networks have to deal with five weeks of losing income, due to people taking other means of transport – they also have to reimburse the thousands of citizens who paid for their monthly Navigo Metro passes and found themselves unable to use them. The Opera de Paris has lost over €2 million and numerous other tourist attractions have been receiving less visitors than usual.
Across Paris, workers find themselves unable to get to work due to the transport strikes, which could cause serious issues for lower income households. Tensions are high on the crowded metros. However, while everyone seems to agree that the strikes are frustrating and inconvenient, it does not stop the French from getting involved and joining the protests.
Over the course of the recent strikes, there have been street protests either once or twice a week. Their determination appears to be refuelled by widespread police violence.
In England, when we have transport strikes, it may make trains busier as fewer run. However, it is rare to see such widespread disruption. The British are also less likely to take to the streets in protest. We know it is different in France, where the Yellow Vest protesters (Gilets Jaunes) have marched every Saturday for over a year, which started as an anti fuel-tax protest but turned into a wider attack on the government. Over the course of the recent strikes, there have been street protests (manifestations) either once or twice a week. Their determination appears to be refuelled by widespread police violence. Phone recorded videos of protesters being submitted to tear gas and unprovoked beatings from armed police only seems to heighten the sense of community among protesters.
After the death of a father of five, during what should have been a standard arrest, Macron has actually denounced the violent methods used by police. While we should not have to wait for an inevitable mortality for action to be taken, at least the French government appear to finally be listening. One union has now called off the strike, with most metro lines returning to normal service as of Monday 20 January. It will be interesting to see how the current government lasts after such strong opposition to their plans from the French people.