French protesters see threat to social justice in Macron’s reform

Huge crowds marched across France on Tuesday in a new round of protests against President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to raise the retirement age, signaling the opposition’s success in framing the pension debate in the part of a larger battle against an economic platform that she perceives as unfair.

Although police and union figures differ, all agreed that the number of protesters had increased compared to a first round of protests on January 19, putting pressure on a government which is struggling to convince voters of the need to an overhaul of pensions which includes an increase in the legal pension. age from 62 to 64 years old.

In Paris, where around half a million people took to the streets, tens of thousands of marchers still waited to leave as daylight waned in the vast Place d’Italie, several hours after kick-off of the event. Reflecting the extent of opposition to the reform, the mass rally included both veteran and novice trade unionists, young and old, some of whom said they had never participated in a protest before.

“I never used to protest, but this time the government is going too far,” said Géraldine, 58, a lab technician at nearby Pitié-Salpetrière hospital, who declined to give her opinion. Full Name.

“I have already worked for 38 years, [Covid] pandemic included, and I am absolutely exhausted,” she said. “It’s not just two more years that the government wants us to work. That’s two more years in ever-deteriorating conditions – and at an age when most of us are no longer fit for work.

People like Geraldine, who got her first full-time job at 20 and then worked part-time to raise her daughter, have the most to lose from the proposed reform, which would force them to work longer to qualify for a full pension.

The same goes for unskilled workers like Ayed, a stock controller at a local supermarket who wore the Force Ouvrière union’s red vest during his parade through Paris. “I’m 42 and my back is already broken from carrying heavy loads all day – how am I supposed to carry on in 20 years?” He asked.

>> ‘I can’t take it anymore’: Working-class French lament Macron’s push to raise retirement age

The government has signaled there is wiggle room on some measures as parliamentary committees start considering the bill this week. But promises to improve conditions for people who started working very young, or for mothers who took career breaks to care for children, have failed to offset the perception of a reform that the most harm to the most vulnerable.

Discussions of the text’s gender imbalance have grown in popularity, especially since one of Macron’s own ministers admitted last week that it would ‘leave women a bit penalized’ – in one of many mistakes by Macron. public relations that have tainted the government’s attempts to plan.

“We always knew women would get screwed – but the fact that they would have to admit it so casually is just baffling,” Mia, 16, said outside her high school in Paris, where students gathered. presented at 6 a.m. morning in hopes of blockading the building – only to find that riot police had arrived first.

Elsewhere, students have managed to occupy a handful of schools and university buildings, while a nationwide strike backed by all major French unions has disrupted public transport and oil refineries, with further strikes expected in the days and weeks to come.

“Useless and unfair”

Macron has staked his reformist credentials on passing his landmark pension overhaul, which polls indicate around two-thirds of French people now oppose – a figure that has risen steadily in recent weeks.

“The more the French learn about the reform, the less they support it,” Frédéric Dabi, a prominent pollster at the Ifop institute, told AFP. “It’s not good at all for the government.”

While Macron and his government insist on the cost-cutting merits of their reform proposal, their opponents have managed to frame the debate in much broader terms, focusing on issues of the distribution of wealth under Macron and if the poorest will bear the burden. of his proposals.

“The pension scheme is both regressive in terms of quality of life and economically unfair, which means that it is fundamentally at odds with our vision,” said Sophia Chikirou, an MP for the left-wing La France Insoumise (LFI) party. ), during the Paris rally.

As 21-year-old protester Lalie Geffriaud put it, “it’s not just about pension reform, it’s about broader opposition to the direction this country is going.”

>> Will strikes force Macron to back down on French pension reform?

The government says its proposals are needed to keep the pension system solvent as French people’s life expectancy has risen and birth rates have fallen. But the unions and left-wing parties rather want large companies or wealthier households to get more involved in balancing the pension budget.

Adding to the government’s woes, its main argument was undermined earlier this month when the country’s Independent Pensions Advisory Council told parliament that ‘pension spending is not out of control – it is relatively contained’ . The assessment only reinforced a widely held belief that reform requires unnecessary sacrifices on the part of the French, at a time when they are grappling with an inflation crisis and still recovering from the Covid pandemic. .

“This reform is completely unnecessary – in addition to being unfair,” said retired scientist Mireille Cuniot, 69, joining dozens of other women dressed as Rosie the Riveter in her signature blue overalls on Tuesday.

She added: “It is a reform that does not change anything for the highest incomes and which weighs entirely on the most vulnerable, it cannot be made more unfair!”

Protesters dressed as feminist icon Rosie the Riveter during the rally in Paris.
Protesters dressed as feminist icon Rosie the Riveter during the rally in Paris. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

Talking about the perceived unfairness of the reform was a recurring theme at the protest, which extended far beyond the ranks of the left.

“It is the injustice that is most shocking; it’s always the lower classes who end up paying the most,” said elementary school teacher Eric Schwab, who has described himself as centre-right leaning. He held up a banner that read: “I refuse to waste my life trying to make a living.”

Schwab challenged the government’s habit of comparing France’s legal retirement age – one of the lowest in Europe – to that of its neighbours, noting that existing rules already force many French workers to take their retire well after the age of 62 in order to benefit from a full pension.

“They only compare us to other countries when it suits them,” he said. “What they don’t recognize is that Germans who do the same job as me earn twice as much and with half as many classes.”

The proposed changes go beyond raising the retirement age, Schwab added, decrying an “ultra-liberal” economic platform stacked in favor of the wealthy.

“After the 2008 financial crisis, governments somehow found billions of euros to bail out the banks,” he said. “They know where to find the money when they need it, especially when it’s our money they’re spending.”

Macron's critics accuse him of promoting the same neoliberal agenda as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Macron’s critics accuse him of promoting the same neoliberal agenda as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

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