Strikes and Protests Subject France to Gridlock

Throughout December and January, France’s longest transportation strike in over 50 years brought major cities to a grinding halt. The strike and coinciding protests across the country, held in response to an attempted overhaul of the French pension system by President Emmanuel Macron and his administration, have had widespread economic effects while compromise still remains unreached.

Reforms to the pension system, if enacted, would consolidate the current scheme offering 42 different pension plans to French citizens depending on occupation and region into a single, universal system for every pensioner which would award benefits based on the length of time each citizen works. Additionally, the new plan would force citizens to work longer in order to receive full pension benefits, with an intended increase of the legal retirement age from 62 to 64 starting in 2027. These changes would go into effect fully for those entering the workforce in 2022.

According to Macron and French Prime Minister Édouard Phillippe, the overhaul would bring France’s system more in line with other European countries, most of which have higher retirement ages and spend far less on retirement benefits. The administration also claims that the reforms would be a victory for women and social justice in general by assuring all French citizens pay the same amount into the pension funds and receive the same benefits.

Despite promises of nationwide improvements, many find issues with the reforms and Macron and Phillippe’s reasoning. For example, French women’s organizations refute claims that the new plan will benefit women. A spokesperson for Nos Retraites, an organization opposed to the reforms, said, “[The proposal] calls into question the financial independence of women, who are sometimes forced to stay with their husbands in order to avoid financial uncertainty,” citing figures that suggest both mothers of families and divorced women stand to lose out on pension funds.

The biggest complaints come from public sector workers in the transportation industry, who previously could receive full pension benefits much earlier than other workers within some of the 42 separate plans. In fact, under certain circumstances, some public sector workers could retire as early as their fifties.

With widespread objection from the French public, strikes and protests began nearly immediately. Dec. 12, 2018, the day after Phillippe unveiled the proposed changes, marked the beginning of the transportation strike which reduced or stopped the function of all public transportation, including metro lines, buses, trains, trams and even air travel.

The strike dragged on for over a month, with disastrous effects across the country and especially in major cities like Paris. The combination of severe road closures due to protests and tourists’ fear of being stranded has been “catastrophic” for restaurants and hotels, according to GNI, an association of independent hotel and restaurant workers in France.

In a Jan. 16 report, the GNI said, “In total, the loss of turnover for the HCR [hotel and restaurant] sector is around 800 to 850 million euros since December 5, 2019,” a figure equating to between 880 and 935 million American dollars. Businesses that ordinarily benefit from tourist spending over the busy holiday travel season saw huge losses.

Transportation workers were not the only ones striking, either. Other public sector workers, including hospital and school staff, staged strikes also. Schools closed, union protestors forced electricity blackouts across Paris and opera performances were cancelled as their singers joined the protests.

Both sides, French labor unions and governmental officials, stated that they were open to talks and some compromise, but progress in this regard was slow, neither wanting to concede their main goals.

Macron reaffirmed his intent to continue pursuing the reforms, saying that backing down would be “a betrayal of our children, their children after them, who would then have to pay the price for our giving up.”

Many protestors, unions and common citizens alike remained unimpressed by meager attempts from the government to negotiate in late December and early January. Philippe Martinez, general secretary of the General Confederation of Labor union, said, “The government’s strategy, its conception of dialogue and listening are not likely to appease the level of dissatisfaction and mobilization that exists in our country.”

The strikes came to a reluctant and uncertain end on Jan. 20, but demonstrations continued. Within a week, protests had reached new heights, with dozens of demonstrators forcing the Louvre museum to close. Likewise, protests by public workers caused the Eiffel Tower to close earlier in the month.

Along with severe economic damage and inconvenient gridlock in many major cities, conflict with protestors has taken the stage in international media, the world watching as police have been forced to disband chaotic protests with rubber bullets and tear gas.

The French strikes and protests, with unrest still ongoing, is indicative of a global culture turning more and more toward viral demonstration. Similar nationwide protests with varying degrees of violence have occurred recently all over the globe, perhaps suggesting the 2020s will be a decade of worldwide protest.

Image courtesy of Wall Street Journal

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