French pensions protests continue

Tuesday 28 Mar 2023

As the protests over reforms to the country’s pensions system continue, the French capital has been looking less and less like it does on television

French pensions protests continue


One of the most successful series to appear on the US entertainment platform Netflix in recent years has been MTV Entertainment’s Emily in Paris, a series based on the experiences of young marketing executive Emily Cooper as she explores life in the French capital after having been transferred there by her company in Chicago.

It shows Emily adapting to French life in an upmarket part of Paris, meeting co-workers, clients, and French and European friends drawn for the most part from the city’s young and upwardly mobile middle classes, and living the kind of lifestyle that presumably many viewers of the series in the US dream of, all the while providing a postcard-pretty image of the French capital.

However, the gap between the life Emily leads in the Netflix series and the reality that does not appear on TV has been growing ever wider in recent weeks as a result of the protests that have met French government attempts to change the country’s state-run pensions system.

If Emily were to return to Paris this month, instead of picturesque streets featuring family run boutiques and sumptuous monuments, visits to chateaux owned by the relatives of co-workers, and a general air of savoir faire and savoir vivre, she would likely be confronted with piles of rubbish filling and in some cases blocking the streets.

She would have to navigate back-to-back traffic jams as increasingly desperate people try to get to work against a backdrop of rolling public transport strikes, and she would have to pack a facemask to avoid the tear gas fired by riot police as they fight it out in evening battles with demonstrators in areas of central Paris.

As if to underline the problems Emily could face were she to return to her Paris apartment this month, the French government announced on 24 March that a visit by British King Charles III to France this weekend has been postponed. According to reports in the local press, the decision had been made in consultation with the British government because there were worries about ensuring security during his visit to France.

While Paris has never looked quite as it does on much US television, which prefers to present an image at odds with the reality for most of the city’s residents, the contrast between image and reality has been particularly stark in recent weeks as a result of the ongoing strikes and demonstrations against the new pensions law brought in by the government led by French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne earlier this year.

The new law raises the retirement age in France from 62 to 64 and increases the number of years required for workers to qualify for a full state pension. According to the government, the reform is necessary in order to guarantee the survival of France’s state pensions system, which is under pressure from an ageing population and more people spending more and more years in retirement.

Unlike the pensions systems in many other countries, the French state system pays the pensions of retired workers out of contributions made by the working population, meaning that present workers are paying for the pensions of those who are retired. This contrasts with the private, occupational, and other schemes in place in other countries that depend on funds invested in assets including stocks and government bonds.

It also means that in a system that depends upon the working population directly supporting the needs of those who have retired, any increase in the number of retired people relative to those in work will put pressure on a system that depends on high levels of employment.

France has been suffering from significant unemployment and under-employment for decades, with the number of retired older people rising at the expense of those in work.

Keeping the present retirement age of 62 – the age when French workers can claim a state pension – at a time when older people can spend 25 years or more in retirement means that with economic growth slowing and much of the job market stagnant or shrinking, the system as it stands is under financial pressure.

Following weeks of apparently fruitless negotiations against a background of rising opposition from the country’s unions and, according to opinion polls, a majority of the French population, Borne forced the law through parliament on 16 March without a vote under a procedure denounced as undemocratic by her opponents.

    Under a hitherto obscure article of the French constitution, the now-famous Article 49.3, the government of the day can “engage the responsibility of the government before the National Assembly [the lower house of the French parliament] in regards to a finance bill or a bill financing the social security system.”

“The bill is considered to have been passed unless there is a vote of confidence during the following 24 hours,” the article says. In the case of Borne’s pensions bill, there was a vote of confidence in the government the following day, which it survived by just nine votes. The bill now goes to the French Constitutional Council to check it is in accordance with the constitution and after a few more steps it should become law later this year.

For many of those Al-Ahram Weekly spoke to in Paris this week, Borne’s use of this article to force her pensions bill through parliament was the last straw in a process that according to them has been marked by an unwillingness to listen to alternative points of view.

“The article is completely undemocratic and shows a total contempt for parliament,” the owner of a small store selling newspapers in one of the French capital’s northern districts told the Weekly. “The protests against it are only just beginning. And they are not only about the pensions law anymore, but about a whole style and method of governing.”

Even some of those willing to give the government the benefit of the doubt over the need for the reform and some of the provisions included in the new law were unhappy about the way the measure had been forced through parliament in the absence of a majority and with demonstrations continuing in the streets.

“This has unleashed something that it will be difficult to stop, with the violence that has met this new law if anything indicating the failure of [French President] Emmanuel Macron’s presidency,” one Paris resident in his fifties told the Weekly. “While the provisions in the law are not in themselves a bad idea, this was not the way the reforms should have been introduced.”

According to opinion polls, a majority of French people regard the present state pensions system as unsustainable and in need of reform. However, there has been a marked lack of agreement on what form that reform should take and how new sources of finance can be introduced into the system.

Against a background of squeezed incomes and high inflation, with the result that many sections of the French population previously protected by the country’s welfare system have been feeling the pinch of a loss of purchasing power and therefore also of declining living standards, the government’s proposed reform of the pensions system has come at a particularly difficult moment.

France like other European countries has been faced by the double blow of inflation rates running at their highest level in decades as a result of the war in Ukraine and the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and of energy prices in particular only being kept in check by a system of price controls.

The last thing much of the population wanted to hear against this tide of rising anxiety about economic prospects and future welfare was the news that they would also need to wave goodbye to a comparatively comfortable retirement, with some commentators in the French media claiming that the increase in the retirement age to 64 was “only a first step” in plans to raise it to 67 or even 70 in line with some other countries.

Whatever the true intentions behind the new law might be, an interview with French President Emmanuel Macron on television on 22 March if anything made the situation worse.

Intended to explain the government’s thinking in the wake of the recourse to Article 49.3 of the constitution to force the new law through parliament, the interview in fact showed Macron impatient and even petulant in his reactions to the strikes and demonstrations that have met the government’s pensions reform, in the estimation of many.

Much of the press focused on the French president’s apparent efforts to hide the fact that he was wearing a luxury watch costing thousands of Euros in the interview while talking about the problems of those living on inadequate pensions.

Walking across Paris in the evening after the new pensions law was forced through parliament, the Weekly found the underground system largely closed, traffic jams in all directions, and the night sky lit up by flares coming from the direction of the Place de la Concorde in the centre of the capital as riot police attempted to clear the Square of demonstrators.

Anyone deciding to walk along the Seine River instead of trying to cross the square in search of some form of transport would have found an almost festive mood of street musicians apparently taking refuge from the violence as tear gas wafted in clouds overhead.

With further strikes planned for the weeks to come, and trust in the government now at new lows according to opinion polls, it may be that the battle over this round of France’s pensions reforms is not yet over.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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