What to know about France's nationwide strike over pension reform

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By Lauren Chadwick
Leftist union leader Philippe Martinez at an earlier protest in October.
Leftist union leader Philippe Martinez at an earlier protest in October.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Thibault Camus

France's trade unions have joined forces to call for a mass mobilisation on Thursday against the government's pension reform plan.

More than 200 protests are expected across the country, according to one of the main trade unions, with a national strike that is expected to heavily impact the public sector.

Here's what you need to know about the situation.

Who is going on strike in France?

France's eight main trade unions have united against the government's retirement reform plan unveiled last week and called for protests across the country, with many denouncing the plan as unfair.

Strikes have been called in multiple sectors with teachers, nurses, railway and police unions all calling for workers to join the movement. Some energy and refinery workers are expected to strike as well.

Geoffroy Roux de Bézieux, president of the employers' union, said that while he could not predict how many people would strike, he expected the movement to be strong in the public sector but not necessarily big within private companies.

What is the government's proposed plan for pension reform?

Emmanuel Macron's government has proposed to raise the legal retirement age from 62 to 64 by 2030, with a new law to enter into force in September 2023.

In order to receive a full pension, the government's proposal says it will be necessary to work for at least 43 years. By age 67, workers who haven't been active that long will still receive a full pension.

Those who started to work earlier will be able to retire earlier, while disabled workers will be able to retire early. Injured workers will also be allowed to retire early, the proposal says.

The current special retirement plans for some public workers will no longer be applicable for new recruits but the new proposal would raise the minimum pension by €100 per month.

This is the second retirement proposal during Macron's presidency. The first project attempted to create a universal points system but faced heavy opposition and protests before being suspended in March 2020 as the government imposed restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Without an absolute majority in parliament, the government, led by Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, would need some right-wing Les Républicains MPs to vote with them in order to pass the law through the lower house of parliament.

Otherwise, they would likely have to resort to a constitutional loophole to pass the law without a vote.

AP Photo/Daniel Cole
Protesters march during a demonstration against Macron's pension reform plan in Marseille, Thursday March 5, 2020.AP Photo/Daniel Cole

Why do trade unions and leftist parties say the plan is unfair?

The country's trade unions and left-wing parties say that the proposed changes are not needed in order to fund France's pension system. Some have argued instead for higher employee and employer contributions and a crackdown on tax evasion.

They claim that the plan will penalise those who are most vulnerable and increase inequalities.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a leftist who came third in the country's presidential elections last year, had argued in favour of reducing the retirement age, saying that the country would save on unemployment benefits for older individuals.

Critics of the proposal also say that most French people are against the reform. Indeed, a recent poll by IFOP published by the JDD (Sunday newspaper) found that 68% of French people were against the government's plan.

Douglas Webber, an emeritus professor of political science at the INSEAD business school, pointed out that this is not the first time there has been a strike against retirement reform.

"Every attempt by French governments to reform the pension system, in particular by raising the retirement age, has provoked similar kinds of protests," said Webber.

"The strikes or protests are highly disruptive because they are heavily concentrated in the public services, especially public transport, but they are normally fairly brief."

Socialist President François Mitterand adopted a law bringing the retirement age down to 60 years of age from 65 back in 1982, a social measure to which the left has been "attached" ever since, Webber explains.

He added that the last time unions forced the government to back down completely on reforming the retirement system was in 1995.

But the retirement age was raised to 62 in 2010, when Nicolas Sarkozy was president, in the aftermath of the financial crisis.

Since then, there has been a large increase in the number of people over the age of 60 seeking employment in France.

AP Photo
French President Francois Mitterand, right, with his Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy during a meeting in Paris, on May 8, 1981.AP Photo

How will France be impacted by the strikes?

Travelling in France will be difficult on Thursday with many trains cancelled and public transport disrupted.

In Paris, only two automatic metro lines will operate normally, while most metro and bus lines will have reduced service. On average, two out of three buses will be circulating.

Public transport in other major cities such as Lyon and Marseille is also set to be largely impacted by the strikes.

French daily newspaper Le Parisien reported, meanwhile, that more than 500 trains would be cancelled by the national public railway company.

"The strike will cause very strong disruption on Thursday in buses, metros, trains; flight cancellations are expected at Orly (airport). When possible, we will cancel or postpone our trips," tweeted Clément Beaune, France's transport minister.

French interior minister Gérald Darmanin said that more than 10,000 police would be mobilised across the country during the protests.

"Traditionally, relations between the government, employers and trade unions have also been more antagonistic in France than in most other European countries," says Webber, adding that pension reform tends to be unpopular in many countries.

He said that typically changes to France's welfare state are enacted or defeated "only after a trial of strength between the two sides involving strikes, protests and demonstrations."