French Strike and March Over Pension Reforms…Again

Kari Lydersen

Stickers reading 'I, Class Struggle' are seen as people march in protest on September 23 in Paris, as part of a one-day national action against a government retirement reform bill.

The French public is once again showing its willingness to strike and take to the streets en masse to protest policy and law changes that chip or slash away at workers’ rights and citizens’ well-being.

On Sept. 23, a million or more French citizens protested President Nicolas Sarkozy’s pension reform proposals, including raising the retirement age from 60 to 62.

Teachers, transportation workers, employees in refineries and ports, and postal carriers were among those participating in an at least-24-hour strike that brought the country largely to a stand-still. Trains were running at a quarter to half capacity, and major airlines were canceling half of all medium and short flights. Tugboat operators in ports are reportedly planning to strike until Sunday.

A coalition of major unions is meeting today, and another one-day strike could be called immediately or in the near future. Just two weeks ago, another general strike over the pension reform plan disrupted rail and air travel, schools, postal service and various industries. (See photos here.)

The country’s lower house, the National Assembly, has already approved the retirement age hike. The Senate, France’s upper house, is scheduled to begin debate on October 5. Sarkozy has agreed to some exceptions to the hike, including for people who began working before age 18 and for people with disabilities.

The Socialist World described those concessions as a cynical political strategy:

These concessions were obviously calculated well in advance by the government in anticipation of having to come up with something in the face of mass mobilisations against the reform this month. It was an attempt made under pressure of the mass turnout to show that the government is supposedly open to negotiate’ and that Sarkozy has understood the preoccupations of protesters.

Sarkozy’s pension reform plan is driven in part by the requirements of the Eurozone, with a goal of reducing the country’s deficit from nearly 8 percent of GDP to 3 percent by 2013.

Meanwhile even the reforms look relatively generous compared to the state of Social Security in the U.S. The U.S. retirement age is 67 for full benefits for people born after 1959, and Congressmen including House minority leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) are calling to raise it to 70. Pensions paid by employers have generally been gutted in favor of 401(k)s that shrank during the economic crisis, leaving many people in their golden years wondering how they will put food on the table.

France leads the world in years spent in retirement, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), with men spending about 24 years and women 27 living on their pensions. The U.S. clocks in at about 17 for men and 21 for women, below Spain, Greece, Germany, the UK and Italy. The OECD also notes that the French spend much more time eating and sleeping than their counterparts in other developed countries.

But the French citizenry has seen this quality of life culture eroded under Sarkozy, as his administration has pushed economic and social policies seen as more indicative of cut-throat, U.S. corporate culture; while Sarkozy has also alienated ethnic minorities from Roma gypsy immigrants (whom he expelled this summer) to the Arab residents of suburban housing projects.

As Thursday’s strike shows, French workers are not taking such moves lightly, still holding on to the tradition of the legendary May 1968 general strike that ushered in a new era of French political and social culture. A middle-aged manager quoted in The Independent after the early September general strike said:

There is now a feeling that, under Sarkozy, things have gone much too far. People are sick of seeing the rich allowed to get away with everything while we are expected to give up the rights we have won over many years.

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

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