France pension bill sparks resistance

The campaign to defend French workers’ pensions came to a head in the National Assembly on Thursday afternoon. The French government is pursuing an unpopular law which will raise the legal age of retirement from 62 to 64. During the session, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne invoked constitutional article 49.3 to bypass parliamentary approval and adopt the law without a vote. Borne’s move caused outrage in the chamber, prompting deputies of the left to leave their seats and drown out the announcement with a rendition of the Marseillaise.

In the evening, spontaneous street demonstrations broke out in Marseille, Lyon, Rennes, Nantes, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Lille, Strasbourg, Caen, Nancy, Orléans, and Cherbourg. In the capital, several thousand demonstrators gathered outside the National Assembly, however this peaceful group was violently attacked by the police, prompting clashes, and barricades of burning rubbish appeared in the streets around the Élysée palace. Large piles of rubbish were already present due to an ongoing Parisian bin workers strike. 200 arrests were reported.

On Friday morning, activists from the mining-energy section of the CGT union blocked three entries to the Parisian ring road. In Toulon, demonstrators walked onto the train tracks, cutting off the main line between Marseille and Nice. Workers at the national railway company SNCF have been on an unlimited strike since the 7th March, so the train service is already reduced.

Several education unions have renewed appeals for a coordinated teachers strike this coming Monday. Striking workers at oil refineries in Normandy and Donges voted to shut down the facilities at the weekend; there are strikes at other refineries such as Fos-sur-Mer and La Mède, although these remain operational for the moment. The port of le Havre was blocked. More demonstrations are being announced for cities across the country through the weekend.

General Secretary of the Communist Youth Movement (MJCF) Léon Deffontaines issued a statement on ‘the contempt for democracy’.

“If the President continues bullheaded with a liberalism which destroys everything in its path, to the point of destroying hope, he risks beginning a dark chapter in the history of France. No one knows how this will end.”

“It is up to us to rise to the occasion, to illustrate as rapidly as possible a lasting solution for young people and the world of labour. The foundations are laid, let’s continue to work, let’s take the front. We are standing at the crossroads.”

Pension reform was one of President Macron’s campaign promises in 2017, aiming to transition to a point-based system, while also ‘harmonising’ (eliminating) the various exceptions reserved for workers in hazardous and physically exhausting jobs. This first attempt was abandoned in 2020 due to the pandemic, as well as mass opposition from workers and unions. Following his re-election in 2022, Macron declared his intention to pick up where he left off, and this time focusing more directly on extending the age of retirement.

The government justifies raising the pension age out of necessity to save the social security system from a fatal deficit. However, the deficit could be easily made up with a simple 2% wealth tax on the top 40 French billionaires. Such a tax had been brought in by Mitterrand in 1982, but was abolished by Macron’s government in 2017. Others have suggested that the deficit could be resolved on its own just by recalculating it over a slightly longer period. Beyond that, Macron can only appeal to the neoliberal straightjacket which constrains all possible action within the bounds of what is acceptable to the financial markets.

When the social security law passed through the senate, the right-wing Republicans included an amendment seeking to transition to a system based on capitalisation. Many people see this as a step towards privatising the pension system entirely; an understandable concern given that earlier this month Macron invited representatives of the major private pension funds to meet him at the Élysée. Of course, representatives of the trade unions were not invited to any such friendly meetings.

The next step in the National Assembly will be to vote on a motion of censure against the government, and several parties have already submitted theirs to be voted on Monday. It will be difficult for such a motion to pass because the left correctly refuses to support any motion brought by the far-right National Rally, and vice versa. Macron’s government also relies on the informal support of the right, which fractures any potential oppositional majority. Outside of the parliamentary calculus, a flash poll on Friday by ‘Harris Interactive’ showed that 71% of French people wanted the government to fall.

The French Communist Party has renewed its support for the current strikes and mobilisations, and called for the pension reform to be put to a referendum. A poll conducted by the CSA institute in February showed that 67% of French people were against the reform.

Pierre Marshall, is the YCL’s International Officer

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