Why France's youth are so set against pension changes

Violent clashes with police follow President Macron's controversial overhaul

Youths kick tear gas grenades during a demonstration in Nantes, western France. AP
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In calm, precise tones she might use in lectures at her elite Parisian “grande ecole”, a student explained to a television reporter why she was smashing illuminated advertising signs during riots over President Emmanuel Macron’s contentious pension reforms.

“I think violence is unfortunately necessary,” she said, using a heavy implement to smash glass to cries of encouragement from others, unseen.

“I don’t attack cars or shop windows. I attack advertising.”

Not all those involved in an escalating series of anti-government demonstrations throughout France — more than a million were expected to take to the streets again on Tuesday — are quite as selective about their targets.

Cars have been set on fire, businesses and public buildings vandalised and police officers attacked in France's worst riots since the “gilets jaunes” or yellow vest movement earlier in Mr Macron’s presidency.

Strikes and blockades have severely disrupted everyday life, leading to massive queues for petrol, especially in Paris and Marseilles, and hundreds of people have been arrested, amid well-documented instances of grossly excessive force by police. A state visit by Britain’s King Charles III, his first since succeeding Queen Elizabeth II, was cancelled because of security fears.

The president has condemned “violent armed activists” for the trouble. And yet opinion polls consistently show widespread support for those taking to the streets.

One survey, published at the weekend by a Sunday newspaper, Le Journal du Dimanche, found 68 per cent hostile to the reforms, though only 21 per cent believed Mr Macron would be forced to abandon them. Other polls have recorded even greater opposition.

France, one of the most beautiful countries of the world, is not currently a pretty sight. Thousands of tons of rubbish are piled high on the streets of Paris, contempt for authority is rampant and the public is turning increasingly to extremes of left and right.

The prominence of students in the protests carries echoes of the so-called Paris spring of 1968, when France was paralysed by strikes and riots against the then president, Charles de Gaulle.

Successive French governments have attempted to address the issue of pensions, always provoking strong resistance from unions.

Viewed from almost any neighbouring country, the President’s reforms seem a model of reasonableness. In the UK, the state pension becomes payable at 66 and this will rise to 67 by 2028, 68 in the 2040s.

Under Mr Macron’s plan, the age of retirement in France will rise from 62 to 64 in stages between now and 2030 and people will need to work longer to qualify for full pensions.

What are known as “special regimes” allowing some workers to retire much earlier will be abolished but those doing jobs considered dangerous will still benefit from concessions. The striking rubbish collection crews in Paris are an example; their grievance is that retirement will be at 59, not 57 as now.

At the heart of the crisis is the importance of the work-life balance in the French culture. From early in their working lives, people talk about their future pensions as the British, for example, discuss house prices. They want to work less, not more.

When a former president, Nicolas Sarkozy, proposed lifting tax on overtime to encourage employees to work more and earn more, there was uproar.

But Mr Macron has made the reform the cornerstone of his second and final term of office. He says that without such change to take account of people living longer, rising deficits will overwhelm the pension system.

But without a parliamentary majority since the legislative elections of last year, he has had to rely on a deeply controversial decree known as article 49,3, to force through his bill. Unions and other opponents of the reform have seized on this as evidence of an undemocratic, even dictatorial approach.

“The government is trying to make savings on the backs of millions of workers,” says one militant supporter of the protests. “They spend hundreds of millions on war, do nothing to deal with tax havens and work against the interests of the French people.”

“The level of hatred towards Mr Macron is astonishing,” says Jacques Reland, a French analyst and commentator specialising in European political, economic and social issues.

“He handled Covid well, has been strong on Europe and Ukraine, the economy is doing quite well and France has suffered a lot less than say, Britain from the energy crisis and yet he inspires this animosity.”

Mr Reland, a senior research fellow at the London-based Global Policy Institute, says France has a historic taste for confrontation that has played a part in the ferocity of opposition to the reforms.

“The French are very attached to their social advantages. In addition, his policy was badly packaged, very badly presented and the timing — in the midst of a cost of living crisis with companies announcing big profits — could not have been worse.

“Part of the trouble is that Mr Macron is acting as if he still had a parliamentary majority and while 49.3 has been used in the past, forcing the reforms through in this way has caused great anger.”

Resentment at the use of the decree was also cited by some of those participating in an otherwise unrelated demonstration, over plans to build new reservoirs, that led to scores of injuries to police, protesters and journalists at Sainte-Soline, western France at the weekend.

Although Mr Macron has ruled out an about-turn of the fundamentals of his reforms, ministers say they are willing to talk to union leaders on a range of related issues. But they are adamant that there will be no “pause” on implementing reform, as demanded by one union.

Olivier Dussopt, France’s labour minister, insists immediate action is needed to avoid the annual pensions shortfall spiralling to a “cumulative deficit of 150 billion euros” by the end of this decade.

“Do they imagine that if we pause the reforms, we will pause the deficit?” he said on BFMTV, adding in another interview that while the changes required “effort” from the French, “there will be no losers because pensions will not go down”.

So far, there is no sign of either side backing down. Given his unpopularity, and that of his centrist Renaissance party, he seems unlikely to gamble on new parliamentary elections.

Mr Reland calculates that if the president holds firm, insisting as he did in a television interview last week that the national interest mattered more to him than popularity, the best solution would be for the constitutional council — France’s highest such body — to reject all or part of the bill.

“But I’m afraid it looks like getting worse before it gets any better,” he said.

Updated: March 28, 2023, 12:31 PM