By Laura Bonjean

Nowadays, strikes in France are all over European and International discourses: it is present in the news and has become a common meme on some social media. However, whether it is through discussions I had with Euroculture students or by reading the news, I observed a massive gap between what is happening and how it is portrayed. Contrary to what is being said, people are not only angry because they will have to work more. There is indeed a special relationship between France and protests which is historically and politically rooted. The strike is the main mode of action for French people. And what is happening now goes beyond a refusal to work. It is about protecting social rights and maintaining discourses between a Republic and its citizens in a democratic country. This article will provide a historical overview of the evolution of the Right to Strike in France before diving into the current French turmoil.

Strikes, and France are now so usually followed by one another in the media landscapes that striking seems to be the new “baguette when thinking about French stereotypes. From being a TikTokmeme to being laughed at on international TV, French people, and their protests know how to capture the European media’s attention. But what is it with France and its strikes? And what is going on now? Being French, and supporting the national movement, I did not realize the lack of information about these protests. In this article, I shall try to shed some light on the current events happening (because no, we are not only striking because we do not want to work until 64 years old….).

First and foremost, why are French people so often easily associated with strikes?

France has such a long and complicated history of protests that plenty of sources can be found. In this article I will focus on two historical ones from Le Monde and France Culture (a French national radio website focusing on culture). Both journalists interview historian scholars, specializing in the history of France and protests, who provide a well-thought historical analysis of the situation. However, a lot more content on this can be found (mainly in French, unfortunately) and some links will be given below.

Contrary to what one might think, between France and Strike it was not love at first sight. In a video entitled  “Pourquoi les français passent pour des champions de la grève?(“Why are the French considered champions of strikes?”), published in May 2018, Stéphane Sirot explains the root of the relationship between protests and France. According to the historian of trade unions and social relations, the tendency for the French to protest was not natural. What started the habit was the prohibition of demonstrating by the Law Le Chapelier implemented on the 14 of June 1791. The core idea was that there should be no intermediary body between the government and its people. But, given the terrible conditions of the workers, striking became their way to make their demands for a better living situation, reached the government. Having to face the extremely violent response of the state through police forces (for instance, the Canuts Revolts and its approximately 600 deaths and 10 000 prisoners), workers started to gather clandestinely to organize themselves. Striking and protesting, became the only means for French people to make themselves heard by the state. This mentality that the strike belongs to the citizens was deeply rooted when it became legal in 1864. In 1884, trade unions became legal too, such as the General Confederation of Labour (Confédération Générale du Travail, CGT). And in 1906, the adoption of the  Charter of Amiens claimed the separation from trade unions to political parties and declared strikes the principal mode of action for workers. The fight for the right to strike went as far as becoming a Constitutional Right in the preamble of the 1946 Constitution under the IV Republic (art.7). Nowadays, the French Constitution does not have the right of striking explicitly in it, but it does claim its attachment to the preamble of the 1946 Constitution. Getting the right to strike had been a real struggle for French people, making them especially attached to it. 

 But the importance of protesting is deeply connected to the functioning of the French state. At the core of French politics is the idea that the government is the one deciding everything for its citizens, including social and economic rights, without resorting to trade unions. According to Stéfane Sirot, this strong centralization plays a great part in national protests: such an involvement of  the state leads to being more often called upon when people disagree. When people disagree with a new social law, they disagree with the state and resort to strike. According to the historian, in countries with less centralization, strikes are less likely to happen because people do not disagree directly with the state itself. In France however, strikes became the means to conquer social rights by imposing themselves on the government. In that sense, they are a symbol of social victory. Two main examples are studied in schoolbooks and are fundamental in French history.  The massive strike of 1936 happened just after the election of the left government of Léon Blum and brought 15 paid holidays as well as the 40-hours-week to workers. Later, the events of May 68, one of the most important social movements in France, managed to bring together students, workers, and academics. Its importance is such that it is possible to find it referred to in contemporary protests as the sign illustrates:

Translation: “You give us 64, we give you May 68 again”

Protests and strikes were a symbol of social victory and national unity. A time when the country would move as one to fight for what it wanted. However, according to Sylvain Boulouque, a French historian, a shift happened in the 1980s. In an interview given to France Culture, discussing the efficiency of striking (La grève ça vaut le coût?: Striking, is it worth it?), he analyses this change. If striking used to be a way to gain more rights, it became at the end of the 20th century the only way to protect their social and economic rights. 

What is at stake now?

Now that a brief overview of the historical background of strikes in France has been made, let’s dive into what is happening now. One important thing to acknowledge is how privileged France is. Although French people love to complain and, usually with good reasons regarding the current government (corrupted politicians, accusations of sexual harassment sexual, latent islamophobia…etc.) France has one of the best welfare states in the world, especially for older people. For instance, the poverty rate among old people is extremely low compared to other European countries: only 7% of old people are at risk of poverty. Cole Strangler, – a journalist based in Paris and writing for the Guardian – takes stock of the current situation for French People in the articleFrench workers cherish their welfare state. That’s why they’re striking”. Indeed, Macron’s politics of privileging rich people over the poorer is damaging the French welfare state.  “Retirement reform is only his latest effort to chip away at the welfare state. And this, is what is at stake right now: protecting what our predecessors fought to have and that could be taken away so easily. And that is why this reform would be damaging for a lot of people. Taking a look at the way European media address the French retirement reform, it seems that everything is about French people not wanting to work until 64-65 years old. Although that is indeed part of the reform, its consequences would be way broader. Looking at different sources, such as national radio, newspapers, or the channel by HugoDecrypt (a French YouTuber specializing in decrypting national and international news), I intend to make an efficient summary of what is at stake.

How does the system work now?

The retirement system works upon the contribution of people, which means that working people are contributing to the pension of retired people: the Retirement Funds. The only money that citizens get once they are retired is the money they contributed through their working years. To have a full retirement pension, people need to work for 42 years. If for some reason someone had to stop working (for instance injuries leaves are counted after 60 days, and pregnancy leave after 90 days ) they will have to work more time to compensate for the lost time. Due to demographic changes, fewer people are working compared to retired people, creating a disbalance. The French government claims that this system is not going to last and that something needs to be done, additionally, Macron would like to simplify the system by making it clearer. Indeed, they are a lot of different specificities. The main one is about “Special Regimes”. Their goal is to compensate for the difficulty of some professions by allowing them to retire earlier. One of these concerns is the physical difficulty of some work, such as work builders or movers who have to carry heavy weight. The French government wants to delete some of these regimes to create a more general system.

What would the reform change?

The reform concerns three main aspects:

  1. Nowadays, the official age is 62 and the government is aiming to delay the official age to 64. However, as mentioned above, retirement is not so much about age as it is about years spend contributing to Retirement Funds. Therefore, delaying the age of retirement means an increase in the number of necessary contribution years before being legally entitled to your full pension.
  2. In the current system, there are some special regimes. Their goal is to allow some professions to retire earlier. These special regimes also take into consideration the difficulty at work. They were at first created to compensate for the hardships of some labor, for instance carrying heavy weight. The French Government is deleting most of them to make one big system, keeping only some of them such as lawyers, marines, and employees of the Paris Opéra or the Comédie Française for instance. The reform will stop considering some working conditions as needing a special regime. This will also include the consideration of the difficulty at work.
  3. The last change concerns the amount of retirement pension. It is a personal calculation made on your past salaries and your number of working years. The media talked about a minimum wage of 1200 euros but in reality, this is the amount in gross, the net salary would be around 1000 euros which is an extremely low salary to live on in France.

What does it mean for French people?

Extending the retirement age will directly impact different sectors of society and will be especially harmful to poor people due to their shorter life expectancy: according to the Observatory, the life expectancy of the poor masculine population is of 71 years compared to 84.4 years for the wealthiest. 

Firstly, delaying the retirement age is not going to help the economy but only contributes to making poor people poorer. Indeed, it is more difficult in France for someone over 60 to find a job or to keep their current position. Therefore, instead of pushing the elderly to contribute to the Retirement Funds, they will end up in unemployed situations. Furthermore, according to the episode ‘Retraités ou presque” (“Retired…almost”) made by France Culture in their podcast “Les Pieds Sur Terre (“Feet on the ground”), most people dealing with precarious jobs have to handle a lot of different jobs. Juggling different works, and always seeking for new ones to make it through, they sometimes are not in the position of having their working years validated. This situation illustrates the discrepancy between the official age of retirement and the reality: people are already working way past 65 because of insufficient pensions. 

Moreover, suppressing special regimes and difficulty criteria is acting without any consideration for social inequalities. For people having a degree (20% of women and 16% of men between 35-year-old and44-year-old) the reform is not going to have such a huge impact. Those who will be impacted are those holding lower-paid jobs: which is the majority of French people. As Donal Hasset in The Irish Examiner writes: “The reform will particularly impact lower-paid workers, who often need the full pension to survive and thus cannot aspire to an earlier retirement.” Those people are the ones having more physical tasks and deleting special regimes is deliberately ignoring them. One shocking example resides in not considering the carrying of heavyweights as physically damaging. These people deciding the reforms, clearly never had to carry an adult body like nurses do or heavy furniture like movers has to. They are deciding things tucked behind their marble walls, completely disconnected from the daily reality of these workers. On Thursday the 16th March, the reform was imposed by the 49.3 article, which allowed the executive to act without consulting the Parliament. With this last action, Macron showed once again his disregard for the will of the French people. Acting as a king, relying on the fact that people elected him, he will continue to do as he pleases. The Constitutional Council has been called upon and it should deliver its answer on the 14th of April to decide whether or not the use of the 49.3 was legitimate. In the meantime protests are growing: more than protesting the reform, people are against the way the government is acting. In response to it, police violence reached its paroxysm. Videos and testimony reached the European Union which expressed concerns about French police, calling its violence excessive and unnecessary.

To conclude …

… France indeed entertains a special relationship with strikes and protests. However, right now it is not about loving to say no or complaining to complain. What is at stake now is protesting against the imposition of a neo-liberal system and the disregard for what people want. The reform, the 49.3, the protests, and the police violence are creating a golden path for the extreme Right, the winner of this period. Right now it is not about laziness, it is about real concerns for French democracy. And considering the importance of France in the history of Europe, and the rise of populism in Europe, observing such concerns about French democracy should be a wake-up call. This is the moment to reflect on the state of Europe and on what European citizens might be taking for granted.

Some useful links:

Photo Credits: France3-regions; Alotrobo

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