What are the protests in France about?
By Julie Ngalle and Chloé Meley
This article was written in January 2020 and republished to Medium.
Since 2018, France has been experiencing a period of unrest, characterised by strikes and protests which have repeatedly paralysed cities and transport networks. It all started in November 2018, when thousands of people took to the streets across the country to protest rising fuel prices. In the capital especially, scenes of chaos unfolded, with protesters clashing violently with the riot police. Known as the CRS, that special police division was denounced for their brutality, indiscriminately firing tear gas and Flash-Balls at demonstrators. Although protests have considerably slowed down over the past year or so, the Yellow Vests have not completely disappeared, and the most recent round of demonstrations might reinvigorate a fragmented, withering movement.
So, what’s currently happening? In 2019, the government unveiled plans for pension reform, which aims to create a universal pension scheme to replace the 42 schemes that currently exist, which all obey different rules and exceptions depending on the professional occupation. The reform is based on a simple premise: every euro contributed to the social security system will result in identical rights for everyone, whether they were salaried employees, public servants, or self-entrepreneurs. It would essentially work as a points-based system, whereby every euro contributed through taxes over the course of one’s career would determine one’s pension. Moreover, although the retirement age would be fixed at 62 years old, people would most likely work until they are 64, as a bonus-penalty system would be introduced to incentivise them to work for another year or two.
Many are dissatisfied with this reform proposal, arguing it would significantly reduce their monthly pension income, and would also create a system in which they are expected to work later in life and for less money. The easiest way to understand objections to this reform is by breaking down the losses or gains for different groups. First of all, the two groups who would be most impacted by this new legislation are teachers and public transport staff. For example, it has been estimated that teachers would lose anywhere between 300 to 600€ per month, bringing their pension earnings down to around 1400€ per month. Another sector affected by the reform includes all senior management and liberal professionals. In their case, the fact that pensions would start being calculated on the basis of their entire career rather than their 25 most successful years means they would be losing a considerable amount on their monthly pension too. And to add to the discontent, the reform also states that liberal professionals would see an increase in the contribution they pay for public services. As for whom the reform would advantage, farmers, artisans and shopkeepers are likely to benefit from it, as the proposed legislation also promises a minimum pension wage of 1000€ per month, higher than what they currently expect to earn in retirement (anywhere between 580 and 960€ per month). Overall, however, it is believed that the reform would result in more meagre pensions for the majority of workers.
With so many sectors of society growing more disgruntled, it wasn’t long before protests started erupting. The first to manifest their disagreements was the RATP (Parisian transport network) and the SNCF (national railway system) groups, the biggest state-owned public transport operators in France. They scheduled a massive strike on the 5th of December to protest the new pension regime — which would drastically change their monthly pension revenue — and called the entire nation to join in.
Along with this, the health sector had also been striking for 8 months due to the lack of consideration and funding they had been receiving from the government. They were calling for a salary increase, better staff regulation, and better, more reasonable schedules. When it was announced the RATP and SNCF would be demonstrating on the 5th of December, it was quickly understood that the healthcare sector would be joining too.
Students had also been very vocal about their discontent. One of the key instigating events was the death of a student in Lyon, who set himself on fire on the 8th of November in a desperate attempt to call for governmental action to solve students’ financial insecurity. Living in stress, uncertainty, and poverty, financially disadvantaged students often struggle greatly during their journey through higher education. Keeping in mind that this potential reform is set to affect all people born after 1975, students and young adults are one of the main targets. It was therefore also expected for them to join the demonstrations on the 5th.
Finally, teachers, who have a bit of a reputation for taking to the streets whenever the government makes a decision they don’t fully agree with, are also one of the key groups participating in the protests. Last year, the government had already been playing with fire by implementing a contested reform on the French Baccalauréat, the diploma marking the end of high school, that the vast majority of the education sector disagreed with. Already displeased, teachers did not need much convincing to join the demonstrations against the pension reform. The conditions and advantages teachers get have been debated for years, as many consider the pay and benefits they get do not reflect the importance of their contribution to French society. And, as they will be one of the groups who suffer most from changes in pension schemes, it was unsurprising to see many teachers join the movement in December.
Originally supposed to be a one-day strike on the 5th of December, the movement extended to a week-long strike, which later turned into a month of protests. Transport all around the country was significantly reduced with entire metro lines shut, bus lines disrupted, and hourly cancellations of trains across the country. Secondary and high school students saw their timetables change daily with teachers either struggling to get to work or taking the day off to join the demonstrations. Universities were occupied and blocked throughout the entire month as well.
Protesters took a little break during the holiday season but not before pledging that the strikes would start up again in early January, and be just as, if not more severe than they had been so far. And this promise has been kept. Since the 6th of January, which marked the official return to school (and for many to work), the situation has gone back to what it was in the first few weeks of December. Moreover, more sectors were called to join the protests, notably lawyers.
Although protesters remain enthusiastic about their prospects, arguing that demonstrations have worked in the past and will work again, it seems the government, although open to negotiations, is still reluctant to budge. On the 24th of January, the government will present their pension reform to the Ministerial Council. Then, in early February, the reform will be examined by a special committee within the National Assembly. If the law survives parliamentary scrutiny, it will go onto the Senate to be voted into law. If all goes smoothly, the reform will be passed before summer.
However, even if the reform is implemented, it is unclear how much of a win that would be for the government, given that the population’s grievances extend way beyond pension plans and are unlikely to be appeased anytime soon. Indeed, the protests are not only about the reform itself but also about the government more generally, and Macron specifically. Since he was first elected in 2017, criticism has abounded about the President’s governing style. Many times, French citizens have called him out for being too set in his ways, failing to hear and consider the nation’s demands and needs. Deemed snobbish and unwilling to compromise, Macron is therefore far from being in the nation’s good graces. Although they disagree on whether he is too right-wing or too left-wing, both right- and left-leaning voters do seem to agree on one thing: his sense of priority and focus are not on the correct issues.
Already challenged by the Yellow Vests movement, this new round of demonstrations is another major blow to Macron’s presidency. Due to be in office until 2022, the president’s footing seems more and more precarious, and as such, so does France’s future. Indeed, with a rising anti-elitist sentiment, an increasingly fragmented citizenry, and a growing faction of disgruntled “left-behinds”, the situation is ripe for populist politics to thrive. The current dissatisfaction with a centrist government led by Macron notably raises the possibility of serious wins in the upcoming municipal elections for Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, which had already garnered significant support in the European elections of May 2019.
However, there could be another, more optimistic way to look at the current situation. Indeed, just like Rome wasn’t built in a day, France’s extensive system of social benefits wasn’t acquired in the blink of an eye. Rather, it is through a culture of revolt and persistent demands that the French progressively claimed and subsequently protected the social system they currently have. The latest round of demonstrations can therefore be seen as being inscribed within that culture, as yet another fight, this time to preserve the right to be treated with decency and respect in old age.
Most likely, the current unrest in France can be understood in both ways outlined above: as an omen for an imminent descent into populism as well as the latest iteration of repeated demands by the French citizenry to be regarded as more than a mere workforce. Both are somewhat true, and only in retrospect will be able to deem accurate one interpretation over the other.