French protest strikes against president Emmanuel Macron’s reform of the pension system will enter their seventh week on Friday, a record since the May 1968 “revolution”.
The movement appears to be fizzling out, but the denouement of the crisis, which has cost the RATP transport and SNCF railway companies more than €1 billion, is messy and inconclusive.
Prime minister Édouard Philippe divided trade unions by announcing the “temporary” suspension of the “pivot age”, which would de facto raise the retirement age from 62 to 67 over the next seven years. The other reason the strike is subsiding is that few workers can afford to lose more pay, after 43 days on strike.
An umpteenth street demonstration disrupted traffic in Paris on Thursday, but was barely covered by French media. The next protest march is scheduled for January 24th, when the government will present the draft law on pension reform in cabinet.
The SNCF railway company said high-speed TGV traffic would be “almost normal” on Friday. Eight in 10 regional trains, three in four trains in the Paris region, and three in five inter-city trains are scheduled to run.
Fewer than 5 per cent of transport workers are still on strike, though 20 per cent of drivers are holding out. Except for rush hour, traffic on Paris buses, in the metro and on suburban RER trains remains erratic.
The government opted to raise the retirement age, which remains among the lowest in Europe
The government had three options to balance its pension budget, which will otherwise face a €17.2 billion deficit in 2025.
It could lower pension payments, but that would hurt living standards for the elderly. Raising the rate of worker and employee contributions to the state pension system threatened to raise joblessness and reduce French competitiveness. So the government opted to raise the retirement age, which remains among the lowest in Europe.
The Macron administration spent more than two years preparing the reform, but it failed to explain clearly what it was doing. The prime minister’s letter to union leaders on January 11th was so ambiguous that the reformist CFDT confederation cried victory, claiming the “pivot age” had been removed from the draft law. Unions opposed to the reform claim the opposite.
The draft law sent to the council of state and the social security administration makes clear that the government wants to prompt the French, “without forcing them, to work a little longer”.
Balances the books
Mr Philippe has asked opponents of the law to come up with any alternative to the “pivot age”, which the government calls “the age of equilibrium”, as long as it balances the books. He has given them until the end of April to do so, after which the government reserves the right to take whatever measures it deems necessary by decree.
The National Assembly is supposed to debate the law in the meantime, without knowing exactly what will be in it.
When he was confronted by a striking maths teacher this week, Macron scolded the grey-haired man in a black beret
The government’s claim to meld 42 pension regimes into a single, universal system has been eroded by concessions made to the police and military, teachers and lawyers.
Lawyers believe their pension fund, which has a €2 billion surplus, is threatened by the reform. They continue to protest by throwing black gowns onto the floors of courthouses around the country, and by boycotting trials, which then have to be postponed.
Distrust is so great that neither a verbal assurance by the prime minister nor a letter from the minister for justice this week, promising to allow the lawyers to retain their own system, are believed.
Macron left the reform to his prime minister while he “hovered above”, in the words of an adviser. His silence has strengthened his reputation for haughtiness.
When he was confronted by a striking maths teacher in Pau this week, Macron scolded the grey-haired man in a black beret, saying he lacked respect.
"To be heard, one has to shout sometimes, Monsieur Macron," the teacher replied. "Exemplarity is also useful," Macron countered. Giving the Legion of Honour to BlackRock was not a good example, the teacher said, referring to the US investment fund whose president in France, Jean-François Cirelli, received a medal from Macron.
Protesters claim private pension funds such as BlackRock have encouraged Macron to carry out the pension reform so they can profit from it.