If you have been on social media, you have doubtlessly seen footage of riots on the streets of Paris. Fires were started on the street and buildings attacked by impassioned protestors with viral footage on social media showing apparently unfazed diners continuing to eat whilst a blaze rages outside in the city of Saint-Etienne.
Whilst the disorder in Paris has gained the most international attention, demostrations have been taking place all around the country. Several nationwide protests have been called over 2023 by trade unions with tens of thousands attending. Disruption to vital infrastructure like airports and train stations has been used as a tactic by the protestors, as well as vandalism of public buildings. Refuse collectors in Paris also striked as part of the protests, although this has now been called off.
France has a reputation for demonstrations against government policy. Only recently had the ‘gilets jaunes’ (yellow vests) protests taken place with similar scenes of protest and riots, which began as anger over the perceived unfairness of the French tax system. So what has inspired these latest protests?
French President Emmanuel Macron, as part of his campaign to be relected in 2022, promised that the French retirement age would be raised from 62 to 64. He argued that the current system, due to an ageing population, is unsustainable in the long-term and needs reform. The policy is highly unpopular with the French people, with an opinion poll taken before last years election showing that 70% of the electorate opposed it.
Indeed, it has also been highly contentious in the government. Whilst the Senate, the upper-chamber, approved the law, Macron had to force it through the lower-chamber, the National Assembly, after his party Renassiance lost it’s majority. His government narrowly survived a vote of no confidence in March as lawmakers in the National Assembly booed and gave shouts of ‘resignation’. Both the far-left and far-right of France oppose the policy.
Macron’s use of special executive powers to force the law into being has further angered both protestors and the political opposition. Although the law could potentially be struck down by the Constitutional Council, which will meet on April 14th, many of the protestors still feel that their voice has been ignored and that Macron is acting in an undemocratic manner. Despite the riots, Macron remains defiant and has shown no signs of reverting the policy.
At the root of the outrage over the pension reforms is the feeling that the French government is ignorant of the suffering of the lowest-paid and most labour-intensive jobs. Protestors on the ground spoke of how the reforms were indictive of a deeply unequal system, where, they feel, the poorest must shoulder the majority of the burdens, which they noted is ironic for a country which has ‘equality’ as part of it’s national motto. The phrase pénibilité (arduousness), and Macron’s subsequent dismissal of the term as it ‘suggests work is a pain’, has for many protestors summed up what they feel is a callous attitude towards the most vulnerable in French society.