Social Conflicts in France: Toward a Winter of Discontent

December 5 was a day of massive strikes in France. The demonstrations, which brought together between 1.2 and 1.5 million people in more than 200 cities throughout the country, were even more numerous than those which marked the beginning of the 1995 protests, which remain among the most powerful that France has known in forty years. Is this wave of strikes and demonstrations specific to France? In fact, we can see that in recent weeks there has been a renewal of social protest throughout the world. Think of the demonstrations in Hong Kong, the ones that shook (and continue to shake) Chile and Colombia, or those that occur in Lebanon. We can see that the movement, even if it has specificities in each of these countries, is a worldwide phenomenon.

This phenomenon actually started in France, through the Yellow Vests movement. It was launched by those in society thought of as the forgotten and the despised, those who only rarely manifest themselves. This movement, which has been going on for more than a year now, has produced results. The government was forced to give in on several of the stated demands. But if it gave in, it was obviously under the influence of fear. This is particularly the case of Emmanuel Macron. The demonstrations of the Yellow Vests in November and December, with their violence, also reminded everyone that if repressive violence is the ultima ratio for kings, the pavement remains the ultima ratio of the people. More specifically, social violence, regrettable as it may be, is inevitable and one of the factors in the construction of social institutions.

This lesson of the Yellow Vests has been heard well beyond the borders of France. Wearing a safety vest, a so-called yellow vest, has become a symbol. But it also resonated among other groups at home in France in the form of the movement that began on December 5.

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This movement, as we have said, has been massive. It surprised the government in terms of its magnitude, as much as it did the unions leaders who had called for the strike and the demonstrations. These unions, which had been thought of as marginalized and in disrepute, found themselves once again at the heart of the action.

The reason is simple: the current government project for pension reform has united various categories of workers who reject it. While railway workers and transport workers have been at the forefront of this movement, we must not forget the executives present in the demonstrations, the teachers – whose strike is historic in its magnitude – and also the employees of the private sector, refineries and workers of the car-making industry, farmers and fire-fighters and even police. There is, however, in this strike much more than a mere rejection of the new reforms, as questionable, even as unfair, as it is. The day of December 5 was marked by multiple strikes in the transport sector, but also among public service workers, as well as in the service sector and in businesses. This day saw the concentration in it all the anger that has amassed, rightly or wrongly, towards Emmanuel Macron and his government.

This anger is as much about form as about substance. Regarding the latter, it is clear that this President has implemented multiple measures that have largely made things worse for the vast majority. Changes in the labour code, tax laws and the status of SNCF all take the country in the same direction: they take from the poorest and give to the rich. The expression “President of the rich” who now sticks to his skin, is here fully justified. These measures had the pretext of boosting growth, which has nonetheless continued to slow down: 2.3% in 2017, 1.7% in 2018 and probably 1.3% in 2019. But these measures were also accompanied by a disregard for the most disadvantaged segment of the population and arrogance on the part of this young President towards unparalleled institutions and intermediaries. This is also what explains the extent of the social movement.

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The initial reason for this movement is therefore the rejection of the pension reform. The administration claims that the system under the proposed changes promotes more equality, by removing what are called “special schemes,” and will lead to more sustainability because, according to the government, the current deficit of the pension system is untenable.

But this deficit was actually exacerbated by the same government, which reduced contributions to offer – he says – purchasing power to the French. In fact, he has bled the pension system, and now claims his reforms will patch it up. The manoeuver is a bit of a stretch. We gave Prime Minister Edouard Philippe an inch and he took a mile.

The other argument is that of equality. Abolishing the special schemes would make the pension system more understandable and fairer. But, have we stopped to consider the reason our constitution provides for these famous special regimes?

We do not all work under the same conditions. Some work is particularly painful, either physically or in terms of nerves. It is therefore logical that they have different pension conditions. On the other hand, “special pension schemes,” which seem to offer some benefit, are sometimes only the counterpart of lower wages. Without these “special regimes,” some sectors would have some trouble finding workers. In short, if there are a multitude of cases which, and this is true, make it difficult to interpret the pension system in its entirety, it is because the same nuances play out in real life. But yes, you know, this a reality that seems quite foreign to the technocrats who reflect in their bubble – a multiplicity of situations. True equality is very often obtained by an apparent inequality.

So, whether through the famous “age pivot” or any other invention, the French have understood that the purpose of the reform is to make them work longer, and in many cases for pensions lesser. While overall life expectancy has increased significantly in recent years, this is not the case for “healthy” life expectancy. But it is the latter that must be taken into consideration here. It shows that workers are now exhausted by their retirement age.

The reform we are promised will therefore be unfair, especially for women, who are likely to be the big losers, and particularly destructive for all those who work in conditions of hardship. This will naturally justify a great social movement. The French understand this, which is why this strike has generated much support. They also understand that behind the reform of the government, behind its desire to reduce spending, there are European orientations that aim to achieve the unity of social protection from below.

But in this strike of December 5, there was more.

As it was said at the beginning, this strike was also the manifestation of a huge upswell of social anger rising from the depths of the country. The number of categories of workers sharing this anger overflows, from farmers to hospital workers, teachers to SNCF employees. All this promised to make December 5 a very special day. And we have seen the results!

The union leadership felt it, and now are doing everything to keep control of this movement. But, no-one is obliged to achieve the impossible. One can think that this strike will have important consequences, even could be transformed into a social movement settling in the duration. It’s been a year since the start of the Yellow Vests crisis, and while the latter is far from over, was opened on December 5 Act 2 of the social protest. It might well announce, except that the government was deciding to withdraw its reform, a winter of discontent.

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