Strikes in France: Is it a tactic that actually works to change the government's mind?

FILE: People take part in a demonstration in Nice, southeastern France, on March 7, 2023
FILE: People take part in a demonstration in Nice, southeastern France, on March 7, 2023 Copyright AFP
By Euronews
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Strikes in France: Is it a tactic that actually works to change the government's mind?

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France has been hit by another wave of strikes this week, the sixth day of mass industrial action called by unions to protest against controversial pension reforms which, among other changes, would increase the retirement age from 62 to 64. 

Unions are hoping to bring the country to a standstill on Tuesday with trains and buses, planes, education, energy production and garbage collection all impacted. 

In 2020 and 2021, France had among the highest number of days lost due to strikes, 79, of any European Union country. 

But is it an effective tactic, and will industrial action force the government to walk back its pension reforms? 

"During every protest in the past there was either an abandonment or an amendment; concessions were made to the various unions which had mobilised", explains Bruno Palier, Research Director at Sciences Po university in Paris.

Here's a look at some of the biggest strikes in France in recent years, and the impact they had:

1995: Civil service pension reform strikes 

The strike of 1995 remains the biggest success in swaying the government policies in favor of the masses.

The strikes were in protest to a plan from PM Alain Juppé which aimed to align the pension system for civil servants and employees of public companies (including the SNCF and RATP transport companies) with those of the private sector. The prospect of working for 40 years, rather than 37 and a half, in order to benefit from a full pension, triggered discontent that led to mass demonstrations by unions nationwide which ultimately paralyzed the country’s transport networks.

After three weeks of paralysis, the government ended up abandoning the project which had stirred up the protests.

2003: More pension reform plans

Eight years after the last attempt, PM François Fillon tried again to reform pensions for civil servants, and ensure greater alignment with private-sector pension contributions. 

But this also triggered widespread industrial action. 

Following several weeks of strikes and demonstrations, which brought together more than a million people in Paris on 13 May, 2003, the reform was finally adopted after an agreement was reached with the reformist unions.

“The unions did not launch a protest, but sought to obtain concession points from the government, which they obtained, in particular on the calculation of pensions for women and early departure schemes for those who started working earlier," says Bruno Palier.

2010: Retirement age raised from 60 to 62

The reform led by former minister Eric Woerth, the latest attempt at reforms would have raised the legl retirement age from 60 to 62 in order to preserve the financial balance of the pay-as-you-go pension system. 

Workers would have had to work for 41.5 years to benefit from a full pension. 

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The project led to a wave of demonstrations, including that of 12 October, 2010 which brought together more than three million people in France, according to the unions (although the ministry of interior's figure is much lower). 

Strikes and blockades at refineries and fuel depots had a direct impact on motorists, who were facing petrol shortages at service stations. 

Despite the industrial action it did not have the desired impact. 

But it did not have the desired impact: "In 2010, there was a lot of mobilization. But, the main measure - namely the shift in the legal retirement age from 60 to 62 -- was not called into question," recalls Bruno Palier.

2023: What’s different now?

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Unlike the past movements, the strikes of 2023 is characterised by a united front on the part of the trade unions. 

"Never before on the question of pensions, have we had all the unions united to oppose the project", notes Bruno Palier, who compares the last mobilisation with that of 1995. 

"The 1995 reform attacked special and particular regimes, such as professions which had an earlier starting age; these are the same professions which had carried the movement. Whereas in 2023, it is the entire population that is concerned by the main measure, namely the postponement of the retirement age from 62 to 64 [...]"

"Today, clearly, the government hopes to be able to pass its reform in parliament by making concessions to the right, without seeking to make concessions to union mobilisations.

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