Breaking down French fury: what’s going on in France?

8 mins read

One of my more controversial musical takes is that Panic on the streets of London is by far the best song ever to come out of The Smiths. The bizarrely insensible and yet perfectly articulated lines: “but there’s panic on the streets of Carlisle, Dublin, Dundee, Humberside” make no attempt to fane conspicuousness. Yet, once understood in the purest sense, the chart-topping single of 1987 graduates to a song not only of intrigue but meaning.

In the latest edition of panic, I’m going to take a closer look at the country that is the current embodiment of that word. So, pop on a bit of the Smiths whilst I attempt to break down the panic in the streets of Paris.

At the heart of French discontent is president Macron’s decision to raise the age of retirement from 62 to 64. Along with this, he is making 43 years the minimum period of work required to receive a state pension. The increase of the pension age by two years would, if approved by the French constitutional body, implement an increase of 3 months per birth year. It has the aim of achieving an end goal of 64 in 2030. This means that in 2027, you will be able to claim a state pension at the age of 63. Subject, of course, to a minimum period of work of 43 years.

Certain future workers, such as those working for the RATP (Paris’s metro system), or the EDF (the nationalised French electrical network) will see changes to their pension regimes. Others will see no changes. Care workers and those with military service fall into this category. Also those who began work before reaching 21, who can take early retirement.

Despite the ease at which we can break down the innocuous nature of the well-debated reforms, the reality of French pension reform is far from simple.

Though populations of many other Western European countries did indeed adopt higher ages of retirement long before France’s parliamentary crisis (with Ukraine and Malta the only countries either matching or beating its relatively low pension age) the indignance demonstrated by protests from Marseille to Calais has its roots, to put it figuratively, in more than one pot.

The current wave of dismay at the 2023 reforms has been record-breaking no matter which way you look at it. The CGT, France’s largest trade union, recorded 2 million protesters countrywide on the 28th March. To many on the other side of La Manche, recent goings-on are quite familiar. Apathetic with austerity measures imposed throughout the latter half of the 1970s, François Mitterand rose to power with the pledge of decreasing the age of retirement by 5 years: from 65 to 60. Though concern from unions lead to a decision to increase the longevity of the minimum contribution period, consecutive governments since have struggled to make any significant changes. The last subtle changes took place in 2010 under Nicholas Sarcozy.

Streets of discontent (Credit: DW News)

Unlike the Gilets jaunes protests of 2018, those aged between the ages of 40 and 60 do not dominate protests. In February, one lecture theatre in a Parisian university was occupied by around 60 students, all against the reforms. In a report by Le Monde, one student questioned the legitimacy of the seemingly meagre increase: “I’ll be 66, 68 years of age by the time I’ve worked for the minimum contributory period”.

French students are invested in a subject that seemingly will only impact them in 45 years time. As I suggested earlier however, the current wave of protests are about far more than the age of retirement. At the Tolbiac protest, some students talked not just of the life of work, but of the whole substance of it.

Young people globally prioritise climate change as a key issue. It seems that pension reforms are a final nail in the coffin in what they see as a universal derogation of their future prospects. The response: “do we want to keep destroying our planet, which is evidently suffering from our system” was one way in which the question of the age of retirement was answered rather profusely.

Some would argue that abstract answers to practical propositions are futile, including Macron, who regards his reforms as “essential”. However, it is undoubtable that those aggrieved by the reforms are not so minded for aggrievance’s sake, but as a result of a genuine concern for the precedent Macron’s reforms set. The Prime minister’s spokesperson, Oliver Véran insisted on the 26th March that “retirement reform does not mean the retirement of reform”. He hinted that future “unpopular legislation” could still be introduced if necessary for “the future of the country”.

Yet, more than a fair share of France’s population disagrees. In a recent Ifop poll, only 32% of those surveyed supported the reforms; more striking still is the age disparity. Those under 35 were the most likely to oppose the reforms, something which echoes the general sentiment nationwide. The unremitting polling figures will prove ever more challenging for a French government that is, so far, not for turning. Macron’s decision to skip out an entire stage of legislative scrutiny through a constitutional loophole even prompted unease from Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne.

Macron remains resolute (Credit: France 24)

The union-centred anti-retirement reform movement in France is multipolar. Those set to be impacted by the reforms in the near future see this an attempt to take away workers’ rights. The younger demographic of France’s direct action movement think pension age reforms provide a stark reminder of what they think is a country abandoning its own principles. Climate change is only one facet of this displeasure.

What next for a France in turmoil, you ask? Well, in the short term, that’s simple. On the 14th April the constitutional council will make a decision on whether Macron was allowed to pass the bill in the way he did. They will also look at the constitutionality of the bill itself. The general consensus is that the ruling will ratify the legitimacy of some segments, while ruling against others.

And in the long term? That’s a question many will try to answer, and most will fail. In Panic, Morrissey wonders whether life could “ever be sane again”. To answer his question in the context of France: no Morrissey, no it probably won’t.

Featured Image credit: Imzefyr, Instagram

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