In the volatile streets of Paris, Macron may be winning his war of attrition against the unions
Battle over French pensions comes down to quality-of-life issues, say demonstrators
Amid the sea of political flags, balloons and posters carried through Paris streets this week by opponents of President Emmanuel Macron, it was one by France's small Communist party that perhaps most accurately captured the mood of the giant demonstration.
"Macron is scornful of the Republic," it proclaimed, featuring a stone-faced president, dressed in royal regalia channelling France's King Louis XIV, a monarch who centralized power and who his critics complained liked to bask in his own glory.
"King Emmanuel I," as Macron is now referred to by many of his detractors, has been waging an existential fight with the country's powerful labour movement for the better part of three months, with each side trying to exhaust the other into capitulating on the contentious issue of pension reform.
The country and its capital, Paris, were rocked by yet more enormous protests on Tuesday resulting from the 10th general strike called by union members. Unions say upwards of two million attended, whereas France's Interior Ministry puts the figure at 750,000.
Whatever the figure, the cumulative impact on France's economy of the disruption has been significant.
On Tuesday, businesses were shuttered, train and transit systems were closed and famous tourist attractions such as the Eiffel Tower became off-limits, infuriating visitors and depriving the economy of much-needed post-COVID tourism revenue.
France's government even asked Britain's King Charles III to postpone his visit, robbing Macron of the chance to greet the monarch in the Palace of Versaille, France's old royal residence.
Macron, 45, a former investment banker, has said his goal is to make France's economy more internationally competitive and ensure the long-term viability of the country's cherished public pension plan.
His intentions aren't a surprise: He made a run at pension reform during his first term as president but abandoned it in the wake of street protests and the COVID-19 pandemic.
'Where's the limit, here?'
The latest contentious overhaul would mean most people would have to work for two extra years until they're 64 before collecting any benefits.
While that's younger than in Canada, where most people can qualify at 65, French union members argue the country has much higher productivity rates than other industrialized economies.
Opponents say that means Macron is forcing French employees to double down, and work both harder and longer before they retire.
The legislation would also extend the length of time people must contribute to draw a full pension from 42 to 43 years. However, the lowest-income pensioners would also see their income increase by up to five per cent.
"It is much better to block the country for two months than to have to work for two extra years in harsh conditions," said Santiago Kadeyan, 21, who was marching on Tuesday with his 17-year-old sister, Amanda, as part of a group called International Socialist Alternative.
Kadeyan, a medical student, says young people fear Macron wants to privatize much of France's social safety net — including pensions — and there will be little left when his generation needs it.
"In 2010, we already had the pension age raised from 60 to 62, and now from 62 to 64. When I'm, like, 60, are they going to tell me they will raise it from 85 to 87? Where's the limit, here?" he said in Paris's Place de la Republique, where protesters gathered at the beginning of their march.
It was a theme CBC News heard time and again when talking to the younger people at the Paris demonstrations who made up a sizable portion of those on the streets.
"A lot of my friends are having burnouts," said Marie Elebe, 27, who was marching alongside members of the city's LGBT community.
"We are working for less money than our parents. We are not sure that we can afford to have children, and we are angry because we are not living a good life. We don't want to just work for life."
Bill already approved
France's parliament has already approved the pension bill through the rarely used section 49.3 of the French Constitution. Rather than submitting the legislation for a parliamentary vote, on March 20, Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne tested the entire government with a non-confidence motion.
Macron's side won by a narrow margin, but the move was incendiary — driving more people into the street several days later and transforming the pension issue into broader outrage against what Macron's opponents claim are his authoritarian tactics.
The next key moment is expected to come on April 14, when France's highest judicial court will rule on whether some or all of the new legislation is constitutional.
Even as polls suggest Macron's popularity has plummeted to as low as 30 per cent, his supporters insist there is no turning back.
"Each time you are reforming the pension [system], you have a lot of demonstrations," said Christopher Weissberg, a member of Macron's party in France's National Assembly who represents French citizens living in Canada and the United States.
"If you want to get things done, at some point you have to go through this."
Weissberg says the protesters are correct to be concerned that older workers over 60 are finding it increasingly difficult to hang on to their jobs, especially those working on assembly lines and in manufacturing.
But he said Macron has a plan to address that, too.
"They'll see that the next reform, for instance, will be on how to raise salaries. I hope they'll see that after pensions, which was mandatory to maintain our system, they can gain on other things," Weissberg said in an interview.
Others who have studied France's pension system aren't as convinced.
Bruno Palier, a professor and researcher at Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques in Paris, says France's union movement is attempting to lead a workplace revolution toward a better work-life balance.
More than two decades ago, France shifted to a 35-hour workweek, down from 40 hours, with the idea that if people worked less, there would be more jobs to go around, Palier said. Instead, he says what happened is that people simply worked harder, and once older workers retired, younger workers didn't replace them.
That in part explains the deep skepticism over Macron's pension overhaul, he told CBC News.
"Workers have been demanding a reorganization of work so that personal life can have a bigger place," Palier said.
"I think we have a noisy way of saying there is a revolution going on at work."
Fight may be tilting Macron's way
The most immediate beneficiary of the standoff has been the country's far-right movement and its parliamentary leader, Marine Le Pen.
One recent poll indicates it has gained five points since the start of the protests — even though her National Rally's populist message has been intensely anti-union in the past. Those same polls suggest Le Pen is now in the best position to replace Macron when his second term expires in 2027 and he is prohibited from running again.
Still, while the Supreme Court's ruling will play a major role in determining the future of pension reform, there are subtle hints that the fight may slowly be tilting in Macron's way.
While supporters and opponents may disagree about the numbers, the crowd was smaller than the previous general strikes earlier in March.
Many unionized employees who had participated in previous protests, including a majority of teachers, opted to stay on the job rather than attending the protest and losing a day's pay. The union representing garbage collectors also called off its three-week strike that had left Paris streets with mountains of uncollected rubbish. Violent incidents between police and protesters were also fewer on Tuesday than in the past.
Borne also offered to meet with representatives of eight powerful unions ahead of the next round of national strikes, which have been called for April 6 — an offer that was accepted.
But on the streets, the most ardent opponents are vowing to keep up the challenge until Macron pulls the legislation completely.
"If there's enough blockage [of the economy] that even the CEOs, leaders of companies start telling Macron, 'it's not worth it, we're losing too much, there is too much chaos' — that's the only way we're going to make him stop," Kadeyan said.
- An earlier version of this story contained a photograph that misidentified Santiago Kadeyan.Mar 30, 2023 5:29 AM ET