In March, a wave of street protests swept Paris and other French cities. Mass rallies in major cities of the country have already become commonplace, and videos of citizens dining peacefully in a restaurant against the backdrop of burning streets spread around the world. The reason why strikes and regular clashes with the police in one of the most democratic countries in the world cannot stop is the pension reform of President Emmanuel Macron. The French, who have a keen sense of social justice and a rich tradition of revolutionary protest, considered it a severe infringement of their rights and responded to the government with serious disobedience. However, it would be wrong to reduce the strikes to just another episode in the long struggle between the conditionally right-wing Gaullists and the left-wing socialists. The current situation is a vivid manifestation of the deepest socio-economic crisis sweeping Europe and threatens to put an end to the “welfare society” in which France and many other European countries have lived since the 1950s. These tectonic shifts are seriously changing the relationship between government and society making it much more conflictual. Only by understanding the profound nature of these changes can we clearly understand the causes of the protests and the consequences of pension reform in France.
The rollback of social guarantees at the turn of 2022-2023 spurred on by the economic consequences of COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine is not a purely French phenomenon. We have previously written about the blow to workers and employees in Britain last summer, and noted that this was not a forced, but a deliberate government policy. In the face of economic problems, the liberal regimes in Europe decided to optimize social expenditures and save money to stabilize the situation on the salaries and pensions of citizens. In addition to the current local tasks, these measures had an educational function: to wean the population from social paternalism and to make it clear that in the future you can only count on yourself, thus returning to the rules of the game of the early twentieth century. These trends began to emerge in France back in the mid-2010s, when the formal socialist in power, François Hollande, introduced a highly unpopular labor reform that deprived wage workers and trade unions of many rights. Such unpopular measures cost Hollande the presidency at the time, but by cleverly deceiving French society, the establishment succeeded in electing its finance minister, Emmanuel Macron, as president in 2017. In the first two years of his presidency, Macron tried to continue the line of his predecessor and even then to implement pension reform. In 2019, however, all changes had to be frozen: violent protests frightened Macron at the risk of electoral defeat in 2022. But in his last term, the French president no longer experienced this kind of moral and political constraints, and revealed himself to the fullest extent.
To be fair, Macron did not hide his intentions during the campaign. Paradoxically and shamefully, many leftists voted for him in the second round to prevent the “far-right” Marine Le Pen, whose social program was much softer than that of her opponent, from entering the Elysée Palace. The president’s election program last year was based on a promise to make the country’s economy more competitive in the world, including statements that France “must work harder.” This hard-right policy has its objective reasons, and they don’t just have to do with an aging population where fewer and fewer workers have to support a growing number of retirees. In the face of intensifying global competition and the loss of its informal colonies in Françafrique, the only source of investment in reindustrialization can only be funds withdrawn from the social sphere. Nevertheless, today’s “leftist proletarians” in France are quite distant from real industry and do not particularly care about its fate. Moreover, they are quite happy with a situation where they get their share of the exploitation of Mali or Niger through social payments, even though they do not like to advertise these motivations in public ideological slogans. This situation forced Macron not to seek a compromise with them and to take the toughest path.
Tension in society in anticipation of a high-profile reform has been building since January. The way in which the law was passed through the so-called “presidential ordinance,” which Macron inherited from Charles de Gaulle, also gave a special tinge of dictatorship. Against the background of a parliament not entirely under the control of the president, which would have blocked the initiative, an accelerated procedure was carried out in accordance with Article 49.3 of the French Constitution of 1958. It allows laws to be passed without a vote, which, according to the opposition, fundamentally violates the democratic foundations of the state. Active demonstrations and clashes with the police, to whom Macron has been providently raising their salaries in recent years, began as early as March 16, after Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne, who used to play the “good socialist grandmother”, officially confirmed the adoption of the resonant law. According to the law, the retirement age in France will be raised from 62 to 64 years in 2023. The law has already been passed, and 2023 will be the starting point of its application in practice: people of retirement age will be able to retire only at the age of 62 years and 3 months.
After realizing the inevitability of change, a wave of protest rallies swept the country. On January 19, the first trade union strike was held, which brought together 1.12 million people throughout the country, 80,000 of them in Paris. On January 31, trade unions of most major companies went on strike. So at TotalEnergies SE fuel bases, for example, between 75-100% of employees did not show up for work, depending on the location of the refinery. The capacity of nuclear power plants was reduced, leading to disruption of train services. On March 8, more than 1.7 million people took to the streets of French cities, which led to numerous clashes with the police. Rallies in France in 2023 led to the arrest of dozens of people. Scavengers joined the protests leading to a real collapse in the state. On March 18, new demonstrations were held in the country, triggered by Macron’s decision to pass a bill without a vote. During the protests, 169 demonstrators were arrested, 122 of whom lived in Paris. On March 20, only 30% of flights from Orly airport took place, and 20-60% of trains across the country were cancelled. University professors joined the strike, as well as major oil refineries, and firefighters joined the strike on March 24. And to date, there seems to be no end in sight to the end of the rallies.
The very attitude of the French toward the reform is also revealing. Thus, according to polls conducted by Toluna & Harris Interactive, at the beginning of January 44% of the population supported the reform, while 54% of respondents were against raising the age. But the poll conducted by Institut Elabe on January 25, showed that the ratio of respondents has changed dramatically, with 72% of citizens opposed to the bill. At the same time, 68% of French people supported a vote of no confidence in the government. However, all is not rosy for the protesters, and in the new authoritarian reality, the government is no longer so sensitive to public opinion. On March 20, there was a vote of no confidence in the government for “undemocratic implementation of pension reform,” and it was put up for a vote in different versions twice. It needed 287 votes to send it out of office. However, not one of the issues failed to garner a majority. Only 92 deputies voted in favor of Marine Le Pen’s resolution, and the LIOT initiative lacked 9 votes to satisfy it.
But the future failure of the protests, despite their massive and aggressive nature, has much more important and basic reasons than the balance of power in parliament. Pension reforms are now an objective economic requirement. Europe’s population is inevitably aging, which unavoidably affects economic well-being, so most countries in the region are forced to take such measures. The increase in the retirement age in France from 2023 is also an inevitable consequence of past French policies, when reforms were postponed for the sake of populism and, of course, could not help but become tougher. Between 2017 and 2020, Macron proposed other, slightly milder reforms, where the amount of pension payment was more stringently linked to length of service or depended on a chosen retirement date, but they were fiercely rejected by the left and the unions. Obviously, like Sarkozy in 2010 when the retirement age was raised from 60 to 62, Macron will make no concessions and suppress the protesters, waiting until they get tired of protesting and calm down. There is no doubt that up until 2030, the retirement age could reach 65, 66 or even 67.
But the key reason for the future failure of the protests, which could last for many months, lies in the political thinking of the protesters. They are based on the youth of the left, for whom protests are more of a hobby than a path to a sustained struggle to change society for the better. But even the part of the unions that is well aware of their goals can only extort concessions from the “capitalist government”. These tactics worked well in the 1980s, 1990s and even 2000s, when social democracy was in vogue and the budget was not in serious trouble. But today, the government’s harsh policies will simply put the left in a bind. They will be left to beat the police to no avail, burning thousands of cars of innocent French people and smashing up luxury goods storefronts, which will not add to their compassion from citizens. Perhaps they will have to wait for the elections of 2027, so that social discontent can lead to the election of an ultra-left or far-right president such as Mélenchon or Le Pen. However, Macron’s experience with skillful political techniques indicates that even these long waits could be fruitless. The main revolution that could take place in France today is a revolution in the thinking of the French left and labor unions. If the big bourgeoisie increasingly acts in the methods of the early twentieth century, the workers must also adopt the experience of the same historical period, if they do not want to remain on the historical margins.