By TRNN and Brandon Jourdan / The Real News Network
Schools closed and transport systems were thrown into chaos on Jan. 19 after France’s eight major unions joined forces to call a multisector strike against President Emanuel Macron’s proposed pension reforms. The unions and left-wing political parties are calling for the immediate withdrawal of the reforms, which would raise France’s retirement age from 62 to 64. This video is part of a special Workers of the World series on the cost of living crisis in Europe.
Production, videography, editing: Brandon Jourdan
Associate producer: Daniel Murphy
This story, with the support of the Bertha Foundation, is part of The Real News Network’s Workers of the World series, telling the stories of workers around the globe building collective power and redefining the future of work on their own terms.
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Brandon Jourdan [narrator]: On January 19th, 2023, millions of people across France went on strike in opposition to the government’s plans to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. The General Confederation of Labor, or CGT union, estimates that 2 million people flooded the streets across France with 200 demonstrations nationwide, including at least 400,000 people marching in Paris.
Christian Colinet [protester]: We are here today in protest because firstly, increasing the retirement age by two years is unacceptable for us in our jobs the transport of goods, passengers, waste. So it’s impossible for us to work up to 64 years of age with highly strenuous jobs. So that’s why we are all here today to demonstrate, to say no to raising the retirement age no to contributing longer.
Clara Stemper [protester]: Yes, we already have professions that are extremely physical, that are very tiring, physically and psychologically We have colleagues who are exhausted. We have colleagues who are injured, who have back pain, knee pain or pain everywhere. We already have colleagues who have to retrain because physically they can no longer do the job. And now we are being asked to work even longer while we still have a job that is very physical and that demands a lot from our body.
Priscillia [protester]: In any case, we, in our environment, our sector of activity, medical care, they are trying to raise the retirement age to 64-65 years old. Already since COVID, it’s very difficult. People no longer want to work in the retirement home even in hospitals. Even us, the permanent staff, we cannot do it. Working up to 64 years old is not possible, physically and psychologically
Youlie Yamamoto [protester]: In fact, this pension reform, it is unjust, unjustified, illegitimate, ineffective. Why? Because in fact, this reform is a shortcut to the cemetery. They want to raise the retirement age even though it is not economically necessary to reform the pension system. It is an attack on our social security. That is to say, the retirement system, currently is a system of solidarity, of redistribution, which allows a majority of people to have a dignified and happy life after retirement, and so it is in fact a question of what kind of society do we want? It is also an extremely unfair reform because it will first hit the working class who have a shorter life expectancy, who have low-paying careers and who will already be dead [at retirement age] because at age 65, 23% of the poorest are already dead in fact.
Brandon Jourdan [narrator]: While strikes are common in France, this strike was unique in that it brought all the country’s. major unions together in a united front, resulting in one of the largest mobilizations in recent history. It was the first time in 12 years that the eight largest unions came together to take coordinated action.
Youlie Yamamoto [protester]: It’s going to be a big movement. It’s historic because, already in France, what is very important is what is called the intersyndicale. It is when there is a unanimous, consensual coalition of unions, of all the unions, with all their different opinions. So we are on very broad, very solid very powerful political ground.
Guillaume Leonardi [protester]: Already that this was an inter-union mobilization is very strong, it means that all unions, as long as they are representative, so the five majorities came together. This is a strong message to the government. And today it is also a strong message to say that we are, all these unions, highly mobilized.
Brandon Jourdan [narrator]: Striking workers, paralyzed public transport, halted train traffic, grounded international and domestic flights, impaired production at oil refineries, shut down schools and reduced power supplies.
Youlie Yamamoto [protester]: There are also strike notices absolutely everywhere, especially in very strategic sectors, including gasoline refineries. So, we know we have the means to hold on and bring down this reform.
Christian Colinet [protester]: Our comrades of the RATP transport, the public service sector quite important strike movements. So blocking transportation is the first step. I think in other professions like teachers, such as the territorial civil service, the state civil service or the SNCF, the RATP [transport], I think it is also a way to put pressure on the government so that we can be heard. This is to tell them that we do not want this reform
Brandon Jourdan [narrator]: Despite the protests, President Emmanuel Macron vows to go forward with the proposed pension reforms. The vast majority of France is vehemently opposed to the reforms, with a recent poll showing 80% in opposition. The proposed reforms come at a time where rising food and energy costs are reducing the buying power of workers throughout Europe.
Youlie Yamamoto [protester]: So people are indignant. There are still 80% of the people who are against this reform. Again, the pension system, is the right to a dignified and decent life after a lifetime of work. So necessarily, given that there is this inflation crisis, This economic crisis is getting harder and harder for everyone. The end of the month is difficult so if life is hard, life after work is hard. It’s a catalyst, it’s not acceptable. And why is it not acceptable? Because there is a lot of wealth, there is a real issue of wealth distribution. We know that there, the figures for the CAC40 have fallen 80 billion paid out in dividends. In France, there is assistance to companies, 160 billion per year in aid to businesses. So there’s a lot, a lot of money circulating but not being shared. And the government prefers to fund that, rather than finance social security. So it’s deeply unfair. When you know that there is a lot of money that is circulating and that we can act on it, notably by taxing superprofits.
Brandon Jourdan [narrator]: Since Francois Mitterrand cut the retirement age to 60 in 1982, there have been multiple attempts at pension reform, with many failing after being met by mass opposition. In 1995, President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Alain Juppé abandoned their plans for pension reform after weeks of militant strikes that were supported by the vast majority of the public. In 2010, President Sarkozy pushed the retirement age up to 62, following weeks of strikes and demonstrations. Macron’s earlier attempt to push through the pension reforms was derailed by the COVID 19 pandemic.
Guillaume Leonardi [protester]: When there is a force, a counter powerlike the trade unions which are normally this counter power which allows a dialogue that engages together all the expressions, the direct expressions of the workers when they are powerful, when they are important, and we have seen it in our country on the most big reforms, when there are many people in the street, well, the governments have heard us. Mitterrand heard us when at a time we were very much in the street and we maintained in 1995, we were heard because we were in the street a lot, because many people have said that the Juppé reform was not fair. And today, I think that to make them hear us we are going to have to mobilize more than the so-called 7% of employees that we represent.
Brandon Jourdan [narrator]: At the large demonstration in Paris, small clashes occurred near the front of the march between the black bloc and police. Police fired tear gas into the crowd, prompting angry chants:
[Everyone hates the police!]
[Everyone hates the police!]
After police retreated, the march continued. With Macron vowing to make pension reform a signature policy of the final term of his presidency, the workers are united in their plans to carry out a series of large strikes over weeks, with another large mobilization planned for January 31st. The CGT union has called for workers in the petrol sector to go on to 48 hour strikes in the weeks to come.
Clara Stemper [protester]: Afterwards, if they want to stick to this reform and continue to go in that direction, we will continue to mobilize because it is for us, and for our older colleagues for those of us who are younger, it’s for our children it’s for everyone in fact.
Christian Colinet [protester]: So we try to mobilize as many bodies as possible whether from the public or the private sector. We need to be all together and all the trade unions need to put pressure on the government.
Guillaume Leonardi [protester]: And now we’ll have to, if the government doesn’t listen we’ll have to stand our ground and show that we, we will fight to the end so that they will listen to us.