OPINION: France’s winter of discontent may become a long, troubled and violent spring

OPINION: France's winter of discontent may become a long, troubled and violent spring
The strikes may be largely over, but hat doesn't mean there isn't more trouble ahead. Photo: AFP
It may be over but it’s not yet finished, writes John Lichfield. France has discovered a new form of social unrest: the chronic-but-not-crippling protest without end.

The ever-shrinking but never-disappearing rebellion by the Gilets Jaunes has entered its 63rd week. The disruptive-but-never-paralysing strike against pension reform is fading but mutating into a kind of social guerrilla warfare.

Trains and the Paris Metro are almost back to normal as men and women drift back to work after seven weeks of slackening strikes.

READ ALSO Paris breathes a sigh of relief as transport gets back to normal after strikes

The Metro is now running largely normally. Photo: AFP

And yet large parts of the Paris southern suburbs were plunged into darkness early today when members of a militant power union turned off the master switch.

Such hit-and-run actions – including two invasions of the Paris headquarters of the pro-reform union federation, the CFDT – will go on for many days. They are, in a sense, an admission of desperation and weakness.

The militant union federations, led by the CGT, have failed to bring the country to a halt and the government to its knees. They have failed to spread their promised “general” strike to other industries.

The only effective stoppages have been by rail and Metro workers and dancers and musicians at the Paris Opera. All enjoy taxpayer-subsidised, sweetheart pension regimes, which will be partially preserved by Emmanuel Macron’s allegedly “universal” new state pension system.

READ ALSO French government finally unveils its pension reform bill – but what's in it?

As well as some Metro and train drivers, ballet dancers are still striking. Photo: AFP

There have been scattered stoppages in other professions, services and industries and almost no protest at all in the private sector. At its height, I calculated that the “general strike”, other than on the six days of protest marches, involved no more than 0.2 percent of the French workforce.

Nonetheless, the militant unions have invested too much in their vastly overblown rhetoric against a messy and badly-explained reform to give up tamely.

Some of their grass roots – high on a bizarre cocktail of revolutionary fervour and self-serving hypocrisy – are now beyond the control of the national leadership.

For many of them, the protest has, from the beginning, been not just about pensions but about defeating the allegedly “ultra-capitalist” Macron.

So has Emmanuel Macron won? Yes, in some respects he has.

The pension reform, in somewhat bedraggled form, will go through the National Assembly and Senate from February to June. The jumble of special pension regimes, which resisted reform attempts by previous governments since 1993, will gradually vanish over the next two decades.

Leaks of the final text of the reform, which will go to a cabinet meeting on Friday, show that the core of Macron’s reform survives. The French, who work less on average than any other western country, will eventually be bribed and chivvied to work a little longer.

Pensions will remain stable or increase in real terms, so long as people work up to, or beyond, a “pivot age”, which will hover around 65 by 2037. Some very low pensions – for farmers, women and the self-employed – will increase from 2022, when the minimum will be established at €1,000 a month.

The present “legal” retirement age of 62 (the youngest in Europe) will survive.  But anyone choosing to retire at that age will be docked part of their pension for the rest of their lives.

READ ALSO How do pensions in France compare to the rest of Europe?

Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, left, with union leaders. Photo: AFP 

But wasn’t this “pivot age” dropped by the government 10 days ago at the insistence of the moderate and broadly pro-reform union federations, led by the CFDT?

No, not exactly. There is, understandably, much confusion on this point.

The CFDT objected to plans by the Prime Minister Edouard Philippe to bring forward the pivot age. Philippe wanted it to start in 2022 , imposing a “full” pension age of 64 by 2027 – bringing an extra €17 billion a year into the state pension system.

This plan has been withdrawn. The longer-term shift to a pivot or “full pension” age – not  spelled out in the draft law but de facto 65 by 2037 – remains.

This idea makes a rough kind of sense. As we live longer, something has to be done to stop all state pension systems from going bust.  A “de facto” later retirement date will allow  the French to have similar or higher pensions without increasing their contributions or destroying the system.

All of this has been very badly explained and poorly sold. The reform, theoretically merging 42 systems into one, is so complex that it offers endless opportunities for populist misrepresentation.

The failure of the government to sell such a landmark reform has been puzzling and unforgiveable. Emmanuel Macron, who thought of the whole idea for his 2017 campaign, has been more or less absent from the debate since September.

He may, or may not, gain some electoral credit for “facing down the unions” and imposing a necessary and much delayed reform. He scarcely deserves to.

The other great victor may prove to be the moderate CFDT union federation and its leader, Laurent Berger.

The CFDT supplanted the CGT as France’s most supported union federation in 2017. To consolidate that triumph, Berger needed to win symbolic victories over the government – and over the CGT. He needed to prove that his policy of belligerent but constructive engagement brings greater benefits than the CGT tradition of belligerent non-engagement.

The huge numbers seen during early demonstrations have faded away. Photo: AFP

PM Edouard Phillippe’s climb-down on the “pivot age” gave the CFDT this victory. In the long term, that may prove to be a significant turning point towards healthier industrial and union-government relations in France.

In the short run, the dispute will drag on and may become nastier as it fades. The CGT, like the Gilets Jaunes before them, paint Emmanuel Macron as not just a political opponent but an existential enemy –  a hate figure, a threat to the French way of life.

Without explicitly condoning violence, rhetoric of this kind encourages violence in the minds of a minority. The brutality of some French police officers, sometimes but not always under severe provocation, further fuels the flames.

READ ALSO Is there a problem with policing protests in France?

There has already been violence at the end of some union demonstrations, usually from black-clad hooligans. Photo: AFP

The government has more than enough parliamentary support to push through the reform. The blessing of moderate unions may gradually deflate public suspicion, still running at around 50 percent according to polls.

Nonetheless, France’s patchy winter of discontent may give way to a long, troubled and violent spring.






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