By Théo Bourgery-Gonse
(EurActiv) — Some 1.12 million people, according to official statistics, took to the streets of France on Thursday to express anger at President Emmanuel Macron’s pensions reform, while unions claim the number was over two million.
The day’s turnout was a political win for France’s unions, who hoped to set a rapport de force against the government.
Firefighters, bakers, museum workers, teachers, train and metro drivers, but also high-school students and regular citizens stopped work on Thursday in protest of a reform they deem unjust and untimely as the cost-of-living crisis hits an all-time high.
The long-debated reform will see the legal retirement age increase from 62 to 64 by 2030, starting from 1 September 2023. Retirees will continue to benefit from a full pension from 67 years of age. Specific policy changes would be enshrined in the bill to support the most at-risk.
“This reform is there to ensure the financial stability of the pensions system” over the long run, Borne said in an introductory press conference last week, claiming the bill is one of “justice, financial stability and social progress”.
“If I don’t fight against this reform when I’m 24, I’ll be done for my entire life”, a young demonstrator, who did not want to share her name, told EURACTIV.
She hopes to see the reform shelved or instead ask “the rich” to pay back the deficit, “millionaires and billionaires who have so much money they don’t know what to do with it”, she added.
Reinstituting austerity in Europe
Starting Wednesday evening, electricity production from dams and nuclear plants had been voluntarily reduced in a show of strength from electricity provider EDF protestors. In addition, 50% of the entire EDF workforce did not show up to work on Thursday.
Regional trains were at a virtual standstill, while one-third of all primary schools in Paris were expected to remain closed. Just one in four trains ran as scheduled in the country.
A poll released on the morning of the general strike showed 72% of French people said no to increasing the legal retirement age, a 4% uptick from last week. Even with the most conservative count of 1.12 million protestors nationwide, never had a pensions reform in the past 10 years brought so many people to the street.
“This reform is one of the first trial runs to reinstitute austerity across Europe” following the COVID-19 pandemic, Esther Lynch, Secretary General of the European Trade Union Confederation and who attended the Paris march, told EURACTIV France.
To her, fighting against the bill is not just a necessity for France: it signals to the rest of Europe that austerity-like measures, at a time when inflation is at its highest, just won’t do. “A European response to support struggling workers and control energy prices is too slow to come through”.
According to reports by the French pensions analysis body, the share of GDP devoted to pensions spending in the country would remain stable at approximately 13% by 2070 if the reform wasn’t enacted.
On the other hand, the government argues that a short-term deficit (up to 2034) could put immediate public finance levels at risk.
EURACTIV understands union delegations from Belgium and Italy were also present at the march.
Government vs trade unions
Macron made this reform a campaign promise in 2022 – and his government kept a close eye on strike developments throughout the day.
Earlier on Thursday, Macron, who was in Barcelona for a Franco-Spanish bilateral Summit, reiterated that he would follow through with the reform with “determination and responsibility”.
In a press conference on Wednesday (18 January), the government’s spokesperson said that if nothing were to be done, the country’s deficit would increase another €150 billion by 2034. “The reform is imperative”, he added.
But it did not break French unions’ rare show of unity – who spoke in the same voice against increasing the legal retirement age. Clashes with the police were limited, and 30 arrests were made.
The presence of left-wing MPs, who are members of the NUPES parliamentary coalition, gave greater gravitas to the political role unions are set to play in the next few weeks.
A new nationwide protest has already been scheduled for 31 January.