French Working Class Organize Mass Strikes Against Pension Reform

French President Emanuel Macron recently proposed a bill to increase the retirement age. The French working class responded with massive strikes and protests against it – something that should inspire and guide the American left. 

On January 31st, over 1.2 million people took to the streets in France to protest French President Emanuel Macron’s new plan for pension reform, which would raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. This follows an initial protest on January 19th, when 1 million people took to the streets. The protests are being led by eight French unions, and supported by Jean-Luc Melenchon, the leader of France’s left coalition. Some of these unions have taken drastic steps to voice their opposition to the pension bill. One such union, the General Confederation of Labour (CGT), led by leftist Phillipe Martinez, cut power to nearly 100,000 homes and offices in what the union called “targeted blackouts” around the cities of Lyon and Bordeaux. 

Macron’s pension reform would gradually increase the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 by 2030 and accelerate a planned measure providing that people must have worked for at least forty-three years to be entitled to a full pension. It would also raise the minimum pension for a full career to 1,200 euros ($1,298) per month. The rule that workers must work for forty-three years is also being protested, particularly by those who do exhausting physical labor, with the unions arguing that it is unreasonable to expect people in their mid-sixties to do hard labor. Macron has long championed raising the retirement age, going back to his first victory in 2017. However, when Macron sent this pension bill to the French legislature for the first time in 2020, it was defeated. Now with a significantly smaller governing coalition than he did in 2020, he is insisting that raising the retirement age is what France must do, and that this bill is the flagship legislation for his second term as president, referring to the bill as “indispensable” and “essential.”

Both the far-right and the Left, led by Melenchon, have strongly opposed the bill. Leftist assembly members have reportedly offered 20,000 amendments to the bill. Opposition to this unpopular pension reform could provide a major boost to the Left, which is already coming off a fantastic electoral performance in 2022, in which the New Ecological and Social People’s Union (NUPES), a left-wing party coalition, came in second place in the legislative elections, and Melenchon nearly came in second in the 2022 presidential race, only placing a few points behind far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. Defeating this pension reform would be not only a major win for the citizens of France, but it would also likely boost the chances of a left-wing victory in the 2027 elections.

General Strikes

Around 11,000 police officers were mobilized for the protest on January 31st, showing that Macron and his government knew the bill was deeply unpopular. Even with the apparent fears of violence that the government showed by mobilizing 11,000 officers, the protest stayed mostly peaceful all across the country. In Paris, a small group of protestors clashed with riot police, who fired tear gas at the protestors. Overall, of the over 1.2 million protestors, only 250 people were arrested. 

Strikes continued during February and March. According to the CGT, general strikes on February 7th, 11th, and 16th each drew over one million people, with the strike on the 11th drawing around 2.5 million individuals according to the union. As the expected vote on the bill was getting closer, unions scheduled March general strike dates on the 7th, 11th, and the 15th. The protests on March 11th had the lowest number of participants of any of the strike days to date. Also on March 11th, the French Senate, the upper house in France’s bicameral legislature, passed the pension reform bill, with a final vote of 195 to 112. As a final vote on the bill in France’s National Assembly, the lower house of the legislature, was scheduled on the 16th, France’s unions believed they had one final shot to voice opposition to the bill. It is unclear how many people protested on the final day of action; France’s Interior Ministry reported around 500,000 participants, the CGT reported 1.8 million, and French newspaper Le Monde reported around 900,000. Regardless, protestors were able to bring a halt to all liquified natural gas operations, forty-percent of high speed rail and around half of all train operations were canceled, and around twenty percent of flights from Paris were delayed. And then on the 16th, when MPs arrived to the National Assembly, thinking that they were about to cast one of the most consequential votes in their careers, French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne, at the behest of President Macron, shocked the entire nation by invoking Article 49.3 of the Constitution, which allowed for the government to enact pension reform without a vote in the National Assembly. 

The Fall of French Democracy

Article 49.3 has been in the French Constitution since 1958, when Charles de Gaulle established the Fourth Republic of France. As previously stated, the article allows the French executive to push a bill through the National Assembly without a vote. The usage of Article 49.3 likely means that the pension reform bill was likely going to fail in the National Assembly, or at least failure was perceived as likely by Macron. This undemocratic tool does have a built-in safeguard; any opposition party in the National Assembly can call for an immediate motion of no-confidence in the government, a process which is usually very difficult to push forward in France. Both Melenchon’s NUPES coalition and Marine le Pen’s National Rally Party filed motions of no-confidence. On March 20th, the motions were voted on in the National Assembly. A majority of 287 French MPs would need to vote in favor to oust the government. The motion would fall just nine votes short, even with the complete backing of every left-wing party, the far-right, and even several members of The Republicans, Macron’s junior coalition partner. 

Major unions had already called for general strikes prior to the failure of the no-confidence vote. Hundreds of thousands of protestors had taken to the streets daily across France in the days leading up to the vote, and thousands would continue to protest after the vote had failed. Following the pension reform becoming law, the protests have become more violent. Protestors have been lighting fires across Paris, and unions have taken even greater direct action to shut down multiple sectors of the French economy. Macron has responded to public displeasure with the undemocratic process but weaponizing the French police force. While relations between protestors and police had previously been peaceful, with minimal arrests taking place during the first wave of strikes, the last few weeks have seen a dramatic uptick in police brutality. This response has been met by loud condemnation from human rights organizations, and it even prompted a comment from the White House. Still, in the face of human rights abuses, the French workers persist in their opposition to this law.