France: the pent-up anger

France: the pent-up anger

A year ago, in November 2018, the Yellow vest movement broke out throughout France with occupations and demonstrations on roundabouts and streets. The movement, triggered by the government’s decision to introduce a new fuel tax, quickly emphasized the need for an increase in purchasing power, in particular the minimum wage, the rejection of a society run by and for the wealthy, the restoration of wealth tax for the rich and the need for a democracy in which the working class is heard. The Macron government was confronted with social anger caused by austerity policies since the 1980s.

This anger led to the attack and collapse of the two parties who have been running the system since the 1960s, the Gaullist party (LR – Les Républicains, the Republicans) and the Socialists (PS – Parti Socialiste) during the 2017 presidential election. . Macron, who took over the reins of capitalist management, thought he had his hands free to show arrogance and class brutality and to implement capitalist system reforms: to intervene a strong state and a liberal economic policy in favor of the big capitalist groups. He also thought he had his hands free, without fear of social confrontation, to implement “Thatcher-style” reforms in which all previous governments had failed,

In the aftermath of his election in the fall of 2017, with a weak reaction from the trade unions, five regulations were issued. One of them broke the system of employee representation in companies, in particular by halving the number of representatives. Another has definitely broken with the priority rule of the sectoral agreements in companies, which encouraged social dumping. It has also become easier to dismiss people by making it more difficult for employees to bring a case before industrial courts.

A few months later, in the spring of 2018, the statute of the SNCF (the French railways) and that of the railway staff were violated by the National Assembly. In 2020, the SNCF will be split into several public limited liability companies, opening up the rail network to competition with the planned abolition of thousands of kilometers of railways. The status of railway staff from more than a century ago will be abolished as of January 1, 2020 for new employees. This status provides in particular the employment guarantee and the acknowledgment of the hard and difficult nature of the railway work by a retirement age of 52 for mobile workers and 57 for non-mobile staff. The 2/5 tactics imposed by the trade union combination (CGT, FO, UNSA), 18 strikes of 2 consecutive days over 3 months have used up a lot of combat power, without creating a power base against Macron. Based on the successes, unemployment insurance was attacked in the autumn of 2019, making it more difficult to obtain the right to unemployment benefits. In addition, there was a major attack on the national education system, with the last two years of secondary education reformed and social selection in access to higher education increased.

In the autumn of 2018, the French trade union movement actually refused to recognize the Yellow vest movement as an important step for the working class and was therefore unable to make a joint effort from the outset to organize a powerful movement against social injustice and austerity. . This separation, even though it was subsequently corrected by the most militant parts of the trade union movement, could also lead the government to believe that the social opposition could no more unite than the political opposition to block its attacks.

A historic attack

Macron and his government also believed that they could start a project that was always postponed by French capitalists: calling into question the pension system set up in 1945.

The balance of power that the working class in France has created over decades of social struggle has made it possible for public spending to still represent 56% of GDP in 2018. In France, government social spending represents 31.2% of GDP, the highest figure in the OECD (on average 20.1%), even though they have fallen by nearly 1% since 2016. This mainly concerns pensions (13.9%) and health care (8.7%), making France one of the leaders in Europe, despite the numerous attacks on these two systems. The OECD average for government expenditure on pensions is 7.5% of GDP, with the Spanish government spending 11%, Germany 10.1%, the United Kingdom, Switzerland 6.5% and the Netherlands 5.4%.

This level of government spending makes France, together with the Spanish state and Italy, one of the three countries with the highest life expectancy in Europe (82.7 years).

In France, according to Eurostat, even though one million pensioners live below the poverty line, only 7% of pensioners are at risk of falling into poverty (ie an income of less than 60% of the median wage), compared to 19% in Germany and the United Kingdom.

For example, France is still lagging behind the level of social decline achieved in the main European countries. It is a new part of this social model that Macron wants to attack, where all his predecessors failed.

The recipe is simple: to maintain the share of pensions in government spending at the current level, below 14% of GDP, while the number of pensioners will increase by 1.5% by 2050. From a mathematical point of view, with a constant euro, this would lead to an equal distribution of the money supply over a growing number of pensioners, as a result of which pensions would fall and pensioners would become poorer.

The pretext for the attack on ‘special arrangements’

To achieve this goal, the government has made a proposal that destroys all current pension systems, which are labeled as unjust and unequal, with “special schemes” that cost billions.

More than 84% of the labor force currently falls under roughly two pension systems:

– employees in the private sector (19 million employees) who now receive 50% of their average reference salary as a pension from a public pension fund based on a pay-as-you-go system, plus around 20% from a national supplementary pension system (ARRCO-AGIRC) with a point system. [1]

– State and local government officials (4 million employees) paid directly by the state and by a local government pension fund.

In both these schemes, the reference salary calculation is not the same, but has a comparable replacement rate of 72 to 74%.

In addition, around 500,000 employees are part of a dozen ‘special schemes’, inherited from very specific professions and agreements that often date from before the Second World War (railway staff, gas fitters, electricians, notaries, employees of the Paris transport sector, employees of the Paris Opera, etc.).

All of these pension plans have guaranteed accrued rights: an employee knows as his or her career progresses how much his or her pension will amount to. This is in contrast to point systems, with guaranteed premiums, where you only know how much you contribute, not how much your pension will be!

In addition, 3.4 million working people are self-employed, with or without fully autonomous systems to prepare for retirement.

The proposal is therefore aimed at a single point pension scheme that replaces all pension schemes, whether employed or not, basic and supplementary schemes. With the argument that ‘one euro in premiums must give everyone the same right to a pension’. A system in which nobody knows what his or her pension will be worth, or even what it will be worth from year to year.

Sweden introduced such a system of fixed contributions in the 1990s to reduce the share of pensions in GDP. Macron calls that the example that deserves to be copied. Year after year, Swedish retirees see their replacement rates fall and women suffer from increasing inequality.

To justify the urgency of the project, the government had to dramatize the situation

The Macron government, with the support of all major media, launched a major propaganda campaign to expose “the benefactors of a pension system on the brink of collapse.”

This meant that Macron had to cancel its own words from 2017 on its campaign website:

“After more than twenty years of successive reforms, the pension problem is no longer a financial problem … For the first time in decades, the financial perspective allows us to look to the future with a reasonable serenity.”

To create a climate of tension and urgency, the government has therefore explicitly commissioned a new report on the official joint pension structure, the COR (Pension Orientation Council). This organization had issued a report that was not alarming last June and, as candidate Macron noted, found that the level of pensions paid out in 2017 had unfortunately fallen as a result of the attacks on pensions since 1993, and that system was not compromised in any way.

The COR’s new report, published in November and based on a significant reduction in government payments by 2025, introduces a possible deficit of € 17 billion (out of a budget of more than € 300 billion). The government and the media took this hypothetical shortage as if there was an explosion of spending!

The problem is that Macron’s proposal quickly caused a growing hostility among employees … and non-workers!

In July, a report was published by JP Delevoye, the High Commissioner for Pensions, to prepare the draft bill, after discussing it with moderate trade union and professional discussion partners.

When reading this report, lawyers, flight attendants, railway staff, gas fitters, electricians, and teachers understood that they had everything to lose. In addition, many studies have very quickly undermined government propaganda by praising the merits of this new system, especially for small pensions and women. The points system, on the other hand, further increases the pay and career gap of women and precarious employees.

The professions that are eligible for ‘special arrangements’ (railway staff, firefighters) quickly understood that the proposed system would invalidate all accrued rights with regard to their employment conditions. Even the police threatened to strike the government.

The organization and activation of railway workers

In September 2019, in order to avoid a further defeat and to learn lessons from the failure of 2018, the SUD Rail, Solidaires and UNSA Rail unions, followed by FO and the CGT, launched a call for a renewable strike against project presented in the Delevoye report. Even the CFDTT employees of the railways called for a strike on December 5. Parallel to the calls in the energy sector, trade unions in all sectors of government, lawyers’ unions and youth organizations launched calls for strikes and demonstrations. Even the police unions announced ‘a symbolic closure of police stations’. A national interprofessional call for December 5 was launched by all trade union federations (except CFDT and CFTC).

Based on its previous successes, the government hoped that December 5 would be a kind of “stormy passage”, inevitably, but without a follow-up, a day of strikes by the “special arrangements”, the SNCF and the RATP. But she was soon disappointed. With 800,000 demonstrators according to the police and 1.5 million according to the CGT, the strength of the demonstrations and strikes reminded us of the strongest days of strikes and demonstrations in all sectors, especially in 1995. But on December 5, 2019, more demonstrators were on the scene then street on the first day of the demonstrations on November 24, 1995.

An impressive strike percentage at the SNCF, 90% of the trains were canceled, only the automatic metro lines in Paris were driving, an equally impressive percentage among the teachers (70% first and second level strikers) who quickly understood that they were the most important losers of this reform.

But above all, the government did not expect the railway staff everywhere to vote in favor of extending the strike until Monday, December 9th, thus breaking past trade union tactics.

To extinguish the fire, the Prime Minister tried to fight several resistance points on Friday:

– convince current employees of “special arrangements” that they will not be affected “immediately” by the reform;

– assure police officers that their accrued rights will not be affected because they “risk their lives every day”;

– make sure that teachers (… in 2021!) receive wage increases so that there will be no reduction in pensions.

The problem is that the government still has not submitted a bill. She wanted to wait until Thursday, December 5, to see if she had to move after the storm had passed. She now wants to wait until December 11 to announce the bill, hoping that after December 10 there will be a slowdown in teachers’ strikes and signs of recovery in transport and no expansion to other sectors.

The construction of a broad movement

In all sectors, militant activists have understood that it is now necessary to build a real power base, not to let it go, and to extend the strike beyond the transport sectors. The goal for the coming days is of course a merger of sectors around the same requirement: the withdrawal of the Macron project against our pensions. The pressure from the base forced the leaders of CGT and FO to call together with Solidaires and the FSU for a new day of strike and demonstrations on Tuesday 10 December. The speed with which the RATP and SNCF workers voted in favor of the continuation of the strike and the cross-sectoral actions, would mean the continuation of the strike in the public sector and the extension of the strike to the private sector (which on 5 December very present in the streets),

Whatever the expansion in the coming days, this movement benefits from the progress that has been made in recent months in terms of fighting spirit. In the past year the Gele Hesje has given the entire social movement a boost with dozens of dynamic, combative demonstrations that break with the routine character of many earlier demonstrations. Moreover, this movement has recently been the only movement that has quickly received concessions from the government. Thanks to the commitment of 10 billion, barely a month after the start of the movement of spontaneous and offensive demonstrations from December 1, 2018, a fresh wind has blown through the social movement. [2] A social movement that feels that it has not yet reached the end of its possibilities. All categories of hospital staff, in the emergency services in particular, massive action was taken last year without the government being able to stop the movement. She is still present today, with numerous demonstrations on November 14, with 10,000 people in Paris. In recent weeks, many high schools and faculties have also taken students into action against their precarious situation – which dramatically manifested itself on November 8 in the attempt of a student from Lyon, Anas K., to set themselves on fire .

On various occasions there was also talk of a combination of climate demonstrations and that against violence against women. On November 23, demonstrations against gender violence brought in more than 100,000 people. New generations, with many young people and especially young women, have taken action over the past few months. For example, in the past year the protesting social movement has shown a political dynamic that reminds the elderly of the 1990s, when the struggle for women’s rights, against racism, before the right to housing and the rights of the unemployed coexisted. That was at the start of the anti-globalization movement.

The notable difference now, not only in France, is the great difficulty of bringing these social movements together with common and offensive political perspectives.

The Socialist Party and the Gaullists respond with maximum silence to the current movement. They hope that Macron will fail, but at the same time his project will of course get their approval. The RN (Rassemblement National, formerly FN – Front National) continues its attempt to bet on two horses, such as during the Yellow Hesjes movement: to nurture the dissatisfaction of the population while trying to hide their program’s compliance with that of Macron.

The left of the SP has gathered forces several times in recent months in appeals against security policy, to denounce Islamophobia and to support the movement against pension reform. The NPA (De Nouveau Parti anti-capitalist , New Anti-capitalist Party) formed the core of all these unity initiatives .

But we are still far from a common anti-capitalist response that is forged in the heat of social movements and that is not the reconstruction of an election machine. In many local initiatives, which form the core of the actions within the current social movement, there is the possibility of moving in this direction. The pension movement directly raises the issue of the society in which we want to live, free from exploitation and oppression, democratically organized to meet social needs. The promotion of this perspective in the coming days will depend on the strength of the social movement.


1] A ‘pay as you go’ system means that current pensions are paid from current contributions and is therefore a form of solidarity between the generations, and is opposed to a ‘capitalization’ method whereby each individual builds up his own pension fund .

2] See “The movement of the Yellow vest and the workers’ movement”

Postscript: Meanwhile, the French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe Wednesday, December 11th known finicking t how reform will see the pension out. The trade unions have announced new actions. 

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