By Pierre Levy
Is France on the eve of an uprising? Was the king of England’s state visit to France (and in particular to Versailles) postponed because it was feared that Charles III. could become an indirect victim of popular revenge, similar to his French colleague Louis XVI. in 1793? Seriously, will Monarch President Emmanuel Macron have to abandon his pension reform?
Because the movement against them does not let up. On the ninth day of action, March 23, a new record number of demonstrators took to the streets, almost as many as on March 7. According to the police or unions, more than one to three million people took part in the demonstrations in cities and towns alike.
In several places, small groups (who wore masks but were actually more bourgeois than the demonstrators) set up barricades, tried to set fire to public buildings (including town halls) and attacked security forces (among them more than 400 people were injured). The pictures went around all over Europe.
Most importantly, according to the union leaders, polls confirm that the government text meets with a significant proportion of the population, estimated at over 70 percent, to oppose it. This is despite the fact that the law raising the retirement age by two years was formally passed on March 16, applying a constitutional article that allows the executive branch to pass its proposal without a vote in the National Assembly unless it subsequently passes a motion of no confidence assumes Two such motions were tabled, one of which missed acceptance by just nine votes…
Most observers noted that this crackdown increased popular anger and participation in demonstrations. A tenth day of action will take place on March 28th. Many commentators – including those close to the government – are wondering how long the looming political crisis will last: will Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, who lacks an absolute majority in the assembly, be able to remain in office? And how can the second term of office of the President himself, which will only end in four years, continue?
It is always risky to predict with certainty the future of a social movement and its ability to push through its demands. Therefore, caution is advised. However, two fundamental factors suggest that the head of state is on course to successfully implement his reform.
The first is due to the nature of the mobilization. Of course, the demonstrations are massive; of course, “public opinion” remains largely opposed to the great social step backwards that is to work two more years; Of course, certain sectors are particularly strongly mobilized – this applies to the transport sector, refineries or waste disposal. This leads or can lead to spectacular consequences.
But all of these elements are not necessarily decisive for the balance of power compared to what would be decisive to bring down the controversial project: a mass strike that would spread to thousands of companies, factories and offices – which is very far from it is to be the case. The references in this area remain 1936 (le “Front populaire”) or May/June 1968.
The 1995 movement is often cited as an example, when the long and massive strike by railroad workers and other public services suspended the abolition of special pension schemes, but in no way prevented a radical reform of social security. The expression “representative strike” also dates from this year.
This phenomenon is happening again today: millions of citizens, while sympathizing with the strikers in some specific sectors, essentially tell them: carry on, your struggle is our struggle, we support you. That way, the balance of power is unlikely to tip over. Applauding, answering a pollster, even demonstrating – that has never been able to replace mass mobilization in the workplace.
The second factor is blindness to the actual responsibilities for reform. These are to be sought in Brussels (which in no way exonerates the French President, since he is a co-author of the guidelines adopted at European level). Blindness? Or, worse, the willful delusion of those who are trying at all costs to spare the European Union in the (absurd) hope that it will become more “social”.
There is no EU directive that prescribes a uniform retirement age in all member countries. But there is very much a multifaceted push to pull this up everywhere. An example of this is Spain, where the retirement age is now 66 and will rise to 67, despite compensatory “fairness measures” emphasized by the “left” government in its recent reform.
On July 12, 2022, the EU Council “recommended” France to reform the pension system. Then the European Commission showed a certain impatience before Emmanuel Macron presented the reform: “So far, no concrete measures have been specified”.
In addition, the French President is aiming for a leading role in the Union, but this requires credibility with his counterparts, especially Berlin. He would therefore like to appear as a zealous reformer.
And anyone who still has doubts about the crime scene and the perpetrators should remember the Barcelona European Council, which took place on 15/16. Dated March 2002. The conclusions of this summit made it very clear that “by 2010 a gradual increase in the effective average retirement age in the European Union by around five years should be aimed for”.
At the time, this formulation was approved by President Jacques Chirac (right) and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin (Socialist). The (but very pro-EU) centrist François Bayrou (who is now in Emmanuel Macron’s majority) had reacted sharply at the time:
“Jacques Chirac and Lionel Jospin have signed an important decision on extending the contribution period for pensions in Europe. Who discussed it? Who even said a word about it? Which citizen, which MP, which parliamentarian was prepared to prepare this important decision invited? Nobody”.
Today, the Barcelona commitment continues to determine current policies, in the name of “rigorous” management of public finances… and to the utmost satisfaction of the “financial markets”.
However, there is no political force in the French parliament that is promising liberation from the EU: of course, neither the Macronist MPs, nor those of the classic right or the traditional left – but also not those who are often classified as left-wing or right-wing extremists become.
As long as this denial continues, the social movement, no matter how strong, will suffer from a handicap that severely limits its chances of success.
more on the subject – French on strike: General strike paralyzes the country today