Amid a year of the Gilets Jaunes protests, France is currently on its final day of national strikes in response to pension reforms.
In the last few days, France has been brought to a grinding halt as industrial action being taken by unions enters the final of three days. Hundreds of train journeys and international flights have been cancelled, leaving many in France and abroad facing disruption.
Described as France’s largest strikes in a decade, the unity shown by thousands of workers across France is a further sign of anger held by the French population over Macron’s reforms.
This week’s protests are an evident extension of the Gilets Jaunes protests, which marked their first anniversary 2 weeks ago. Beginning with the taxation of fuel which was quickly overturned by the En Marche leader a year ago, further backlash has erupted across France in response to Macron’s pensions reforms.
Unions representing millions of people both in the public and private sector are displeased over a planned overhaul of the pensions system, which would force employees to work for longer hours or face cuts to pension payouts during retirement. Those worst hit are expected to be the young, who will face the consequences of such actions years into the future. A recent poll found that 69% of 18-34-year-olds support the strikes.
Dangerous games or relevant reform?
It is a common question asked by those outside of France as to why protests have ignited once more.
Currently, France has a complex pensions system, involving approximately 42 pension plans. Macron plans to unify this, potentially simplifying the system. The way benefits would be calculated also plan to change. Currently, private sector pensions plans are calculated off an employee’s 25 highest-paid year, while the public sector is calculated using payments made within the last 6-months before retirement. Instead, Macron expects to reward workers for each day worked, with points received being reflected in future pension payouts.
However, this isn’t being done without close examination of the current system. In November, a report commissioned by France’s Prime Minister Edouard Philippe concluded that, under the existing system, the country’s pension deficit could be as high as €17.2bn ($19bn; £14.5bn) by 2025, giving a suggestion that these reforms would reduce that. This also comes from a place of concern for the President over France’s ageing population and the number of payouts expected to be made in the near future. Already France has one of the highest spending percentages of GDP being put towards pension plans, currently standing at 14% putting it just below Greece and Italy, according to the OECD. People in France also retire earlier in comparison to other European countries, for example in France the retirement age is 62, whereas in the UK it is 66, meaning that people are receiving pension payouts for longer.
Mr Macron has stated that the new plans would help economic spending in France as well as be a much fairer system.
But why are people still angry?
A unified, points-based system would take away many advantages of a range of jobs across different sectors, including lawyers and even opera singers.
However, the main vantage point is that workers in France, particularly in the public sector, would have to work for long past the current retirement age to reap the benefits of the new system. The current system in France also allows many public sector workers to retire a few years before the state pension age and still have the right to claim their pension. Under the new system, many fear that they will lose that right.
There is however an anomaly at the centre of the clashes. Many CFDT members have not participated in the recent strikes, with the union stating that the current system was unsustainable and that reform was needed and that the new system may actually improve the situation for women. The new system would also see people not being penalised for taking sick days or for going on maternity leave. Instead, employees would be offered compensation points.
In reality, 75% of people asked in a survey said that the reforms were needed but only a ⅓ believed that the government could deliver, which begs the question towards France’s faith in their government while providing a clearer picture for why protests have been continuing for so long.
The likelihood of protests making a dent in the government’s plans seems unlikely when compared to previous strikes and continued outcry over pension reform over the past two decades. Strikes are expected to last beyond today, with unions planning a second strike on 10th December. But this doesn’t come without fear that France may become crippled during one of the busiest periods of the year.