THE BATTLE IN FRANCE TO SAVE PENSIONS: FIRST ROUND – The mobilizations that took place throughout France from 19 January to 16 February 2023 against the pension reform demonstrated the prevailing high level of anger. 

There were millions in all the major cities, but also in smaller towns and rural areas, where no one expected to see so many people, incorporating people in the streets for the first time of their life.

Les Posadistes, 25.2.2023

With the unification of the 8 most important organisations opposed to the postponment of retirement age from 62 to 64, the trade union front represented the most important element of this first part of the battle. This unity did not exist for 13 years at national level. It now results from the pressure of the working-class base and employees who express the general disgust against this unfair and unjustified reform and against all the regressive measures of this government.

Because of its amplitude, this struggle shows that the points at issue raised by the strikers and the demonstrators go far beyond pension reform in itself. As in 2019 during the Yellow Vests demonstrations, it is a choice of society that is called into question today, in the context of the constant deterioration of the living and working conditions: implementation of new management methods imposed by the employers based on performance, Uberisation[1] of the labour relations, loss of reference points by teleworking – add to this the public services’ breakdown, the rising prices, inflation, impossibility of decent housing, worsening social inequalities and poverty, climate inaction.

A violent reform against the workers

This pension reform has crystallised all the discontents, public sector and private sector’s workers alike, retirees, young people, women – against a policy led by Macron and his government which always goes in the same direction: stigmatise those who work hard, in painful conditions, those on the front line who were applauded during the Covid and who have not seen any concrete improvement in their living conditions; those who are forced to work always more, with no care for their views and even less for their right to a well-deserved retirement in good health.

This Pension Reform comes on top of the Unemployment Insurance Reform which took effect on 1 February 2023, saving to the State around €4.5 billion in benefits. This has suddenly reduced the number of beneficiaries by 12%, or just over 300,000 people. In an accelerated way, the government gets ready to pursue these two reforms in Unemployment Insurance and Pensions to save another €17 billion by 2027.

This government is telling us that if we don’t take action now, our pension system is heading for bankruptcy; that we have to work longer to get higher pensions; that this reform will be fairer than before, in particular for women. Everything false! The system was in surplus by €3 billion in 2020. The supposedly scientific forecasts are based on a deficit which should occur in 25 years time. So, the main objective is to dismantle our social security system based on solidarity, a system which was set up in 1945 at the end of the war, by the elected communist Ambroise Croizat[2].

During the two years of Covid, the government provided employers and companies with financial aid and contributions’ exemptions to the tune of €157 billion in 2021. The government now tries to recover this sum other than by recourse to increases in general taxation. Excess profits and indecent gains are turned into shareholders’ dividends. In 2022, more than €80 billion were distributed to the shareholders of the CAC40 companies. To protect these ‘most important’ economic sectors, this government has made the political choice of creating a new tax on labour and on employees. This is done by increasing the length of one’s working life through postponed retirement. This increases the pension contributions by two more years – for those who will of course have a full career – and thus finance other public policies [we are told] such as the National Education or Ecological and Energy Transition. It absolutely does not take into account people who, from the age of 50, find themselves rejected from work because they would have become unprofitable or too expensive. At the end of their active lives, these find themselves without a job and without a pension, in great precariousness, with the social minima as only resort. Nor does it take into account the reality of work for women who have the largest share of precarious jobs, with wages well below those of men. A large number of them cannot claim a full pension even at 64, and will have to work until they are 67 or older to be entitled to a decent pension allowing them to live with dignity.

This Pension Reform is the last straw, especially since all the arguments put forward by this government have no solid or clear base in proven and fully verifiable figures. This was demonstrated in the National Assembly debate when the Prime Minister and the Labour Minister were unable to provide the facts and figures to convince that there was urgency to legislate and how the reform was going to bring progress.

And so, the deputies of the New Popular Ecological and Social Union(Nupes)[3] went to look for the figures where they are, at the Directorate of the Social Security Services. They demonstrated the lies of the Labour Minister Olivier Dussopt: Out of the 2 million French persons receiving the minimum wage (smic) at the end of a complete working life – who according to Dussopt should benefit from a pension of €1,200 p.m.gross – the number of these persons fell to 125,000, then to 40,000, and now stands at 13,289 according to the data given by the services in question!

Importance of trade union and political unity

In France, the trade union organisations have been weakened for thirty years by the deindustrialization and the de-localisations linked to the cost of labour; and also by the dwindling public services and the precariousness of jobs. The unions no longer have the strength they used to have in sectors like metallurgy, the automotive industry or the railways, even if the workers of these sectors still have a significant weight in the strikes and mobilisations.

This situation has led to large national union organizations losing part of their representativeness in both public and private sectors. There has been a significant reduction in the number of unionised members, leading to forms of competition between them, a bureaucratization and apparatus manoeuvres, instead of defending common interests.

It is at local level that the situation is quite different. It is there that one can find organizations able to oppose the concessions made by the national trade union organizations. There, one can build up strong pressure on the trade unions’ federations to oblige them to fight; an not just only for better wages or working conditions, but against the injustices, the inequalities, the harmful consequences of the capitalist system in terms of the environment. To oblige them to be more in touch with the realities experienced by the workers and actors in the field.

The progress of technology has led, for its part, to a significant shift in the world of work, towards a society of services and the tertiary sector. Uberization has transformed salaried staff into independent workers, without an employment contract, while remaining subject to a boss – and teleworking has cut off all collective relations.

These new forms of alienation at work have developed a much greater awareness of the need to link social issues to the political and ecological ones. This is expressed in different ways. More and more people not only question the meaning of work and the place it occupies in society, but they also take new actions. This is the case of the mobilisation of the workers on digital platforms, like the VTC[4] drivers or the meal deliverers, who have created their own union to obtain rights. In some areas, they have organized themselves into cooperatives.

Today’s trade union unity at national level has been imposed by the base. It is extremely important to create a balance of power conducive to winning the battle against the dismantling of the whole social system and the destruction of everything that the workers conquered. The unity of the eight largest trade union organisations[5] was achieved in this fight to keep our pension system as it is. It enabled five major waves of strikes and demonstrations throughout the whole of France, and maintained its high level of mobilisation throughout the entire period.

This success comes also from the active support of left-wing political parties in the streets and in the National Assembly debates, which have made it possible to amplify the mobilisations with the incorporation of young people from colleges, high schools and universities, teachers, artistic and cultural sectors, and in some places the craftsmen, the traders, the small agriculturers.

The second round is to come

The 2nd round of struggles is scheduled for March 7 and 8, once the holiday period has passed. It is not going to be easy to keep up. The unity will have to be maintained with actions more spectacular than simple demonstrations. The intersyndicale[6] has called for other forms of struggle with the halting of the country and the targeting of points of blockage in the economy. The CGT, for its part, has come out in favour of renewable strikes with blockades of refineries, of the railways, or of the Paris metro. It is only in the fragilisation of economic power that it will be possible to create enough of a balance of forces to make the government give in.

The debates on this Pension Reform project remained unfinished in the National Assembly and now they are coming up at mostly ultraliberal Senate level. But what the Nupes deputies achieved – through bitter and sometimes violent confrontations in the Assembly – was to demonstrate the flaws of the reform, the lies of the ministers and the merits of the enormous resistance of the population. This has created great unease among some of the right-wing deputies. In their constituencies, they are now going to face a sum of anger that they had not bargained for, challenging their roles as elected officials, questioning the support they gave to this reform.

Any demonstrator that you find in the street will tell you:  No to the extension of the legal pension age from 62 to 64! Total withdrawal of this bill! No to this reform which brings no improvement to the population, but total regression!

Other countries in Europe have already borne the brunt of these political and social transformations. They see for themselves how this pension-age postponement – which in some countries has been voted beyond 67 years – means only more precariousness and poverty for an entire layer of the population.

It is necessary to continue the fight in the greatest possible unity, be it in the trade unions or in the left-wing political parties. One must demonstrate that other financial ways are possible to preserve the conditions for a just pension of solidarity. We must tax the richest, the super profits of the corporations. Growth in the volume of the social contributions needs the wages raised, the imposition of good working conditions for everyone, an equitable level of taxation on all the companies, and in particular, parity of remuneration between women and men. The length of the working life must be reduced to let the young ones find jobs. Workers with a difficult job must be able to retire at 60 on full pay and regardless of the number of quarters actually worked. It is through the struggles that one must impose the measures of social transformation that benefit all the women and the men.

Les Posadistes – February 25, 2023

Photo: Paris 31.1.2023: Demonstration against pension reform

[1] From the brand name Uber. The service intermediary between the seller and the buyer (for example, an app on a mobile phone). Companies that provide services. Consumers who buy services.

[2] Ambroise Croizat, 1901-1951.  French Trade Unionist and Minister of Labour 1945-47. Was general secretary of the metallurgy section of the CGT. Was one of the main originators of the French Social Security system. 

[3] NUPES: This New alliance of the French Left is led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon. This ‘Nouvelle Union Populaire Ecologique et Sociale (Nupes) was created as an electoral united front for the 2022 legislative elections.

[4] VTC: Wikipedia says: VTC is the Spanish acronym for a private hire vehicle. The passenger decides the starting and end points of a trip (unlike other transportation services like buses, for example). In France, it may mean Voiture de Tourisme avec Chauffeur, where the driver makes it easy for one to travel or explore places or destinations.

[5] Jean Marie Pernot of the European Trade Union Institute describes the ‘eight’ in this way: “Thus, in 2009, after the government announced its plan to combat the crisis, eight trade unions (CGT, CFDT, FO, CFTC, CFE- CGC, UNSA, Solidaires, FSU) produced a joint document entitled ‘For an alternative policy: urgent measures to promote employment, better pay and government policies supporting economic recovery’. Although their efforts had no direct effect on the policy being pursued by the government at the time, they nevertheless brought the debate on inequality, fiscal policy, wealth distribution and so on into the public eye

[6] The Intersyndicale in France: In addition to company or sector intersyndicales, since autumn 2008 there has been an interprofessional intersyndicale in France bringing together CGT, CFDT, FO, CFTC, CFE-CGC, UNSA, Solidaires and FSU. It has created the bases for joint action and has carried out large-scale national struggles since then.

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