French President Emmanuel Macron narrowly survived two no-confidence votes after he forced through an unpopular pension reform law that raises the retirement age from 62 to 64. Macron’s decision to invoke article 49.3 of the constitution, which gives the government power to bypass parliament, has enraged many across the county and led to mass protests of millions of people across France.
The working-class protest movement led by French unions and the left bloc in parliament has nearly brought France to a standstill, with closures of schools and airports, in addition to a three-week garbage strike in Paris. Talks between union officials and the government on April 5 failed to reach an agreement on withdrawing the pension age increase.
France’s Constitutional Council will review the pension reform legislation on April 14. Although it has the power to strike down the bill, or parts of it, there’s little hope they’ll scrap the measure entirely. Labor unions and their allies have announced a 12th day of nationwide strikes on April 13. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Jeffrey Mackler, astaff writer for Socialist Action, who assesses the French protests against President Macron’s attempt to impose the retirement age increase against overwhelming popular opposition.
JEFFREY MACKLER: Well, the demonstrations against his January announcement that he was going to change the French pension system to increase the retirement age from 62 to 64 have been unprecedented. This coming Tuesday will be the 12th round of nationally coordinated strikes and protests and blockades by workers and students alike in France that have reached numbers almost unprecedented in the modern era.
Every major union in France—normally divided and fractured off in different political tendencies—has united to call these demonstrations that have brought literally millions of people into the streets on a regular basis. What’s key is the unity displayed by working people. They are mobilizing throughout France, closing down rail lines, subways, public transportations, airports, oil refineries, schools, universities, every form of corporation in French life is under attack.
That’s where we stand today. We’re looking at the largest demonstrations in French modern history, probably since 1968. And the outcome will be determined by the decisions of the French working class, who now are beginning to say, “Rather than the intermittent rolling strikes that have been called for 11 different occasions, should we close down all of France? Should we organize a general strike in the country—which basically not only poses the question to Macron as to whether or not he will withdraw—which is the main united demand of the unions—but whether or not his government can survive.
SCOTT HARRIS: Jeffrey, I did want to ask you, why have these changes in the French pension system struck such a nerve with the majority of people in France, given the fact that many other democracies and industrialized nations in the Western world have higher retirement ages than France does?
JEFFREY MACKLER: Today, the average French person lives some 23, 25 years after retirement, a good portion of their lives. Under the old system, they were lucky if they survived two years after their retirement. Today, the French can expect-because they have a good health care system to live a wholesome life. They don’t consider work the end of their life rather than retirement and by the way, French retirement provides for a standard of living of the French population, which is higher than the average person
In the United States, when you think of someone retiring, they usually can’t survive on Social Security. Their quality of life and standard of living is generally reduced. In France, French people retire on 75 percent of their last highest income. And not only that, but they have other retirement benefits and they also have less expenses. The French people don’t want to give that up.
The government says, “Well, we can’t afford it. We have to cut back on your retirement, on the benefits, and also on the number of years required.” The French people say, “Why should you cut our lives back? Why not tax the rich?”
And Macron literally says, “Well, if we tax the rich, that’ll hurt the economy,” as if his first and only consideration, the welfare of the rich, is primary and not the lives of millions of French working people.
It’s shaping up to be a major battle of historic proportions. The French working class wants to live a decent life and that includes the young people who understand that if this is passed, their retirement will also be dramatically affected, not to mention other factors in the context of the French retirement system, and that is the nature of the work dispensation for very difficult work.
The government wants to eliminate all of that, and the French people are saying no. And I think the people of the world, including Americans, are looking at the French.
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