40 days of strikes show French fondness for revolution over reform

Public-sector strikes in France have gone on for more than a month, and they hinge on the government's proposal to raise the age of retirement. Germany instituted something similar with next to no resistance, writes Don Murray.

Public-sector strikes have hobbled country's public transportation

Protesters opposed to pension reforms march in Paris on Dec. 17. (Thibault Camus/The Associated Press)

Welcome to France.

Huge public-sector strikes hobble the country's vaunted rail system, its ports, its refineries and public transport in Paris. Buses and trains barely ran over Christmas, hundreds of thousands of people struggled to get home or paid heavily for flights or make-shift car-share deals.

The daily commute became the daily trudge, lasting hours for tens of thousands. The odd city bus trundling down the street resembled a human sardine can.

All the while, the rest of Europe looks on, amazed. This is "l'exception française," and the French are proud of it.

Once, in May 1968, the whole country went on strike for a month. It was a revolt, a festival, a challenge to the established order.

That mad month still resonates in the country. You merely have to look at the last 40 days in the streets of Paris and across France.

And what is the burning issue that has brought tens of thousands of workers into the streets to demonstrate and strike? A debate about raising the retirement age, in a law not yet passed, and only projected to go into effect in seven years.

Pension problems

The government of President Emmanuel Macron came to office proclaiming it would bring order to the country's 42 public pension schemes.

Last year, it announced it wanted to raise the general retirement age from 62 to 64 to find more contribution money to help cover runaway pension costs. Government figures suggest the public sector pension deficit could soar to more than $25 billion Cdn by 2025.

The government also wants to create a single points-based pension system for public sector pensions. Workers would accumulate pensions based on all years worked. It would be fairer, the government said.

A man brandishes a smoke bomb during a demonstration in Marseille, southern France, on Dec. 5. (Clement Mahoudeau/AFP via Getty Images)

The big public sector unions howled in protest. This was an infringement of acquired rights, they said. The rail workers, in particular, have a very advantageous deal, negotiated in the 1950s, which allows many of them to retire on a full pension at 57.

To outsiders, this confrontation seems puzzling, almost ludicrous. Just next door, the Germans have quietly raised the general retirement age from 65 to 67 as of the end of the decade, and are talking of raising it further to 69. There have been no strikes, no confrontations.

To help understand the difference between France and its neighbours, consider the insight of a well-known French political thinker, Raymond Aron, who once said, "the French, from time to time, organize revolutions, but never reforms."

Thus, May 1968. It was totally unexpected, coming in the middle of what the French called the "30 glorious years" — three decades of fast economic growth.  But unemployment was rising, particularly youth unemployment. And there was a feeling that society was frozen, with rigid, conservative elites clinging on at the top. Students started the strikes, and then almost everyone joined in.

Template set in 1968

It wasn't quite a revolution – in the end, it didn't even topple the government. The French simply dubbed it "the events of '68."

But "the events" became a template for future confrontations.

In the past 25 years, the scenario has played out on half a dozen occasions.  Successive French governments have introduced vast reform plans — to education, the labour code, the pension system.

French President Emmanuel Macron came to office promising to bring order to the country's public pension schemes. (Luc Gnago/Reuters)

In the 1990s, two French prime ministers had to abandon their plans after massive street demonstrations. One prime minister was chased from office. In the first 15 years of this century, two successive presidents tried again with labour and pension reforms. Both were forced into humiliating retreats, and both lost office after just one term.

The thread running through these revolts was the belief that these were reforms imposed by remote, technocratic elites on people who had had little say in drawing them up. Add to that the belief that French MPs are little more than straw men and women with little influence or power, and you have a recurring recipe for confrontation in the streets. And success has bred success.

Confrontation has often taken place in a sort of carnival atmosphere. As in previous strikes, I watched during the recent actions as crowds of strikers marched down a main boulevard that had been cordoned off by police. The marchers sang and let off smoke bombs. There were floats and small bands. Despite the problems caused by the strikes, those watching seemed remarkably unruffled, as if this was part of the price of being French.

France's labour secret

But things are changing. Under President Macron, there have been two massive public sector strikes. The first, against his labour reforms almost two years ago, lasted weeks and was a failure. The reforms went through. It became easier to hire and fire workers. The economy has picked up. Unemployment is dropping.

The second strike, going on now, has seen Macron keep to the background, forcing his prime minister, Edouard Philippe, to take the flak and make concessions to, among others, the police unions and — wait for it — the ballet workers. They will still be allowed to retire early.

The current public-sector strikes have been the biggest test for Macron since the Yellow Vest demonstrations, which began in 2018. (Kiran Ridley/Getty Images)

The prime minister may lose his job, but the reform is still on the table, and despite the closure of major ports this week, many trains are running again. The strikers are losing energy.

That's because France has a dirty little labour secret. The unions represent only eight per cent of workers, according to European Union statistics, and almost all union members are in the public sector. Germany has double the number of unionized workers, Britain almost triple. While this long battle has taken place, people in the French private sector have quietly trudged to work almost every day.

'We refuse this counter-reform'

It's all a far cry from 1968, when unions represented almost 30 per cent of French workers and the French Communist Party pulled in 20 per cent of the votes. Now that party is just shards and ashes, as is the French socialist party.

Strikers are slowly melting away, the unions are now split, but hard-line union leaders insist the battle will continue. More national days of protest are planned.

Standing in front of the Bank of France, where tellers who count bills had just joined the strike, Jean-Marc Caron, a union leader with the CGT (General Confederation of Labour), said, "we refuse this counter-reform.  It will lead to a drop in pensions for thousands of public servants."

The government doesn't deny this, but offers consultations to come up with a fair system.

There are still fighting words in the streets, but this massive strike may be one of the last hurrahs for such union confrontations.

Far different is the problem of the "gilets jaunes," the yellow jackets movement that ambushed Macron in 2018. This was a spontaneous populist revolt, springing from the disaffection of poorer people around the country.

Macron was able to blunt the ambush with a show of humility and large tax breaks, but he has not overcome the problem or won the trust of those people. That, however, is a confrontation for another day.

About the Author

Don Murray

Eye on Europe

A well-travelled former CBC reporter and documentary maker, Don Murray is a freelance writer and translator based in London and Paris.