Maryline Cosset, 52, might be headed toward what the French government would call an “incomplete career.” Cosset spent her early twenties in part-time jobs: cleaning hotel rooms and working on an assembly line. Even after she started full-time work at age 27, Cosset had to stop working multiple times to care for her three newborns.
If she wants to retire with a full pension, Cosset can’t afford any further interruptions. In France, a full pension is reserved for those with “complete” careers — defined as 42 uninterrupted years of full-time work. It is a condition many French women, including Cosset, struggle to meet.
The situation is set to get worse under France’s controversial pension reform, which raises the retirement age from 62 to 64 and increases the contributions necessary for a full pension from 42 to 43 years of full-time, uninterrupted work. The reform — which was forced through parliament without a vote on March 16 — has ignited mass opposition, with a March 28 survey showing seven out of 10 French people disapproving of the change.
Since January, France’s labor unions have organized ten days of national action which have included mass strikes and protests opposing the reform; in response, the government has deployed a violent police response that has drawn criticism from observers worldwide. Undeterred, protestors are staging an eleventh general strike on April 6 to continue resisting the reform.
An attack on the most vulnerable
For Cosset, who joined more than 740,000 others to protest the reform on the tenth general strike on March 28, there is more at stake in the fight than two additional years of work. “This reform is going to hurt women — women in precarious situations, who do many part-time jobs, who are in single-parent families,” Cosset says.
Even before the reforms, the disparity is stark. French government statistics show that 44% of French women born in 1950 retired with an “incomplete career,” and that women still make up 80% of the country’s part-time workforce. French women’s pensions are already on average 40% lower than men’s because of career breaks and wage gaps; they also retire, on average, six months later. Critics say the reforms will exacerbate this inequality.
“Cashiers, nurse’s aides, women who take care of children, personal care assistants — these are jobs that are indispensable to the functioning of society, but totally devalued,” says Youlie Yamamoto, a co-founder of the feminist group Les Rosies, referring to jobs that are typically part-time or not formally recognized by the pension system. “These women will be the first victims of the reform.” A government report from January confirmed that if the reforms take hold, women would have to postpone their retirements by more than men.
Aurélie Lagaville, the deputy secretary general for the Paris chapter of the CFDT, France’s biggest labor confederation, says that in addition to women, the new law stands to harm “front-line workers and people with strenuous jobs.” The reform will delay working people’s retirement and shrink their pensions, says Benjamin Coriat, a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Paris VIII. “People who have a difficult career, without continuity, without stability … will never get their full pension,” he explains. In contrast, many people with higher education and more stable careers will not be affected. “The reform does not affect people who entered the workforce later — in other words, most management and executives,” says Henri Sterdyniak, an economist at the French Economic Observatory.
Down with meaningless jobs!
Although the protests focus on pension reform and inequalities within it, many are joining the movement because of deteriorating working conditions in general. “I think this movement in France is less about pensions … than work,” says Bruno Palier, a director of research at Sciences Po in Paris. “The reform is asking people to work more, and people say, ‘I don’t want to work more under these conditions.’ So it’s a protest against degradation of working conditions, meaningless jobs.”
Protestors speaking to In These Times at the March 28 strike echoed this analysis. Désiré Nogrette, an 82-year-old retiree who worked in the metallurgy and automobile industries, attended the protest in recognition of the growing pressures of work. “I started working at 14 and retired at 58. I worked a lot,” Nogrette says. “But even so, my work was less hard than work today.” Others also worry about the growing pressures of work. Diane Bousset, a 59-year-old employee at a bank, says she is protesting in part because “there are people who wear themselves out at work, who don’t ever reach the retirement age.” Physician Marc Lacroix, 62, shares Bousset’s concern and describes the suffering he sees patients facing. “People are broken at 50, 55,” he says. “That’s why I’m here.”
Palier connected the movement in France to the trend of “quiet quitting” in the United States and ongoing strikes in other European countries like Germany and the U.K. “We’re entering a new age concerning the workplace, working conditions, management of work and people,” he says. “Thanks to Covid, people have been living a period of distance from the workplace, and when they come back, they realize that some things are unbearable.”
“This is a first in France”
As the groups set to be affected the most, women and working-class people have been leading the movement against the reform. Transport workers and garbage collectors have led some of the most powerful strikes in the country, with spotty public transit and growing piles of trash in Paris becoming two of the most emblematic symbols of the anti-reform movement. Women, too, have been on the front lines of organizing. On March 8 (International Women’s Day), women’s rights groups like Les Rosies helped organize a “feminist strike” to highlight the unequal impacts of the reform on women.
Even beyond these groups, many say organizing against the reform has generated a unique solidarity between workers. “This is the first time that such a group of unions — student unions, worker unions — are all around the same table, leading a unique and united movement,” says Branislav Rugani, the confederal secretary in charge of the international sector of Force Ouvrière, France’s third largest union. Rugani points out that France’s eight major unions have collaborated to organize the protests and strikes, also receiving support from student unions and international unions. “This is a first in France. It has never been done before.”
Even so, getting the government to listen has been a struggle. On April 5, union leaders walked out of a meeting with the prime minister after failing to reach an agreement on the reform. “The reform is rejected by almost the entire population,” France’s eight major unions said in a joint statement after the meeting. “It must be removed.” According to the statement, union leaders are now looking to the Constitutional Council, the country’s highest constitutional authority, to put a hold on the implementation of the reform in an April 14 verdict.
In the meantime, protesters say they remain ready to act. “It’s our future at stake, and it concerns everyone,” Bousset says. “That’s why we’re all here.”
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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Nina Pasquini is a freelance journalist based in Paris.