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Jacobin - December 17, 2019

"The battle is set to continue and even intensify in coming days. Indeed, the trade-union confederations that have initiated the movement — the General Confederation of Labour (CGT), Solidaires Unitaires Démocratiques (SUD), and the teachers’ union, FSU — have called for a one-day, cross-sectoral strike and for mass demonstrations on December 17. With the CFDT joining in, it looks likely that the numbers will be even bigger than on December 5. But significant concessions cannot likely be expected from the government so long as the strike remains limited to the railways and public transport networks in Paris, and only occasionally supported by single days of action at a more generalized level."

Just as the opponents of Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform planned, the actions on December 5 have kick-started the biggest wave of strikes and street mobilization France has seen in more than a decade. Over the last week and a half, railways across the country and public transport in Paris and its environs have remained at a standstill.

Although only these two sectors have gone on indefinite strike, other workers have also taken strike action in significant numbers for one day or more. Education, oil refinery, and energy workers have taken action just like firefighters, dockers, and health workers — on December 5, no less than 3,500 private-sector workplaces were affected by strikes or work stoppages.

Both on that first day of action and on December 10, hundreds of thousands took to the streets (1.5 million on the fifth and 800,000 on the tenth), displaying their strong will to fight. Students also joined the demonstrations, although the mobilization has been uneven and discontinuous across different campuses.

A majority of workers haven’t yet joined the strike movement, especially in the private sector. But a solid majority of public opinion (54 percent to 68 percent, according to opinion polls) does support the strike. Notwithstanding the difficulties entailed by the lack of public transport and the hostility coming from the media, popular support for the movement is still on the rise. But the crucial issue for the days ahead is whether this supportive sentiment can take an active form.

The Government in Trouble

The government’s initial plan was to isolate the strike in the transport sector alone. The idea was to render it unpopular by presenting it as a fight in defense of “corporatist privileges” while talking as little as possible about the actual content of the pension reform. Yet that plan clearly failed — and the government was forced into maneuvers.

One aspect of its approach was simply repressive, as it sent the police to break the picket lines in many bus depots and in the ports. But on December 11, prime minister Édouard Philippe was also sent out to provide a more detailed version of the planned pension reform. While his speech was mellow in tone, the content of the reform was in fact even harsher than expected.

Philippe confirmed that the existing system would be replaced by an allegedly “universal” points-based one, comparable to the Swedish and Italian model, with the consequence that all existing sectoral pension schemes (like those of railway and public transport workers) would be abolished. This change would mean that the current defined benefit pension scheme, based on a redistributive principle among all those who contribute, would be replaced by one depending on individualized contributions. The pension level currently calculated on the average of the twenty-five best years of a career would instead correspond to the average across their entire active period. This would automatically bring down pensions, especially for all those who have been through periods of unemployment and precarious work. Philippe insisted that such a change was non-negotiable.

But he went even further: for although formally the legal retirement age would remain unchanged at sixty-two, to get a full pension, you will now have to work two extra years. He also offered convoluted statements trying to present the reform as advantageous for most categories, particularly for women. Yet undermining his own claim that the new scheme is “universal,” he was also keen to reassure the military and the police that little, if anything, will change for their pensions.

The least that can be said is that Philippe failed to persuade France of the merits of the reform. According to opinion polls, 61 percent of those who saw his intervention found it unconvincing. Even worse, by announcing a two-year extension of the age threshold for a full pension, the government lost its sole lenient interlocutor in the trade-union movement, the “moderate” French Democratic Confederation of Labor (CFDT) that supports the principle of a points-system-based pension reform.

Commenting on Philippe’s announcements, CFDT secretary general Laurent Berger declared that “a red line [had] been crossed” and called for the CFDT to join the day of mobilization for December 17. In other words, Macron and Philippe succeeded in reestablishing the unity of the notoriously fragmented French trade-union movement. Berger did quickly express his good intentions in reaching a compromise and stressed his opposition to rolling strikes like those currently affecting the railways and public transport. Yet he repeated that he wouldn’t accept anything less than the withdrawal of the two-year extension of the age retirement for a full pension.

The bad news for Macron didn’t stop there. An avalanche of media reports revealed that Jean-Paul Delevoye — the minister in charge of the pension reform — had “forgotten” to declare in his statement of interest that he is involved with the think tanks and boards of some eight companies. Many of these latter are direct beneficiaries of the proposed reform, for instance the training institute of the confederation of insurance companies or the national railway company’s foundation. As a consequence, on December 16, Delevoye — a key figure in government policy-making and the entire setup of Macron’s La République En Marche! party — was forced to resign. He thus delivered a serious blow to the French president at the most difficult moment of his term in office. ...
Read full report at Jacobin