France on strike as millions of workers walk out, block streets
Some 3.5 million workers in 270 locations in France demonstrated March 7, called out by the coalition of trade unions leading the struggle. This was the largest of seven actions since Jan. 19, as millions of French workers have hit the streets to protest President Emmanuel Macron’s attempt to reduce France’s retirement benefits, the so-called reform.
The General Confederation of Labor (CGT) says many workers went on strike on March 7 without demonstrating, and on March 11 a million protesters came out for the same issue. The CGT is the largest union group in the coalition that has called for major demonstrations throughout the country for the day the French parliament votes on increasing the age of retirement from 62 to 64 years old. The vote must take place on or before March 26.
French workers have a constitutional right to strike. Public sector workers usually must give advance notice. Private sector workers may walk out for any length of time, with rare exceptions for essential public services that the private companies may provide. The CGT reported about a metal working plant in Loire where workers went on strike for 15 minutes every hour in the week leading up to March 11.
Most active workers at the seven demonstrations were also striking. Retirees joined them, as did students and youth yet to join the workforce. Five of the seven major marches were held on weekdays. In smaller cities and towns, workers protested for a few hours and then returned to work.
On March 8, International Working Women’s Day, mass demonstrations continued to target the government’s attempt to decrease pension benefits. The CGT reports that this change to the retirement system still leaves women, on average, getting a pension 40% lower than men get.
The government of President Emmanuel Macron faces no imminent financial crisis regarding pensions. The system is pay as you go, and no deficit is projected until 2032 at the earliest.
Macron’s plan would increase the full retirement age from 62 to 64, increase the total number of months retirees must have worked for wages and make it harder for workers whose jobs involve harsh conditions to qualify for special treatment. Such conditions include working outside in bad weather, using strong chemicals, working on roofs, doing sanitation work, night or on-call work. This is an attack on workers’ living standards.
The CGT points out that by raising the minimum wage and setting a wealth tax, the government could increase revenue to the retirement system enough to lower the full retirement age to 60.
The issues are clear. Polls show over 80% of the public supports these protests.
More than marches
In Paris, over 700,000 active workers, retirees, youth and self-employed people marched March 7 from one huge square to another, with music, dancing, street theater, puppet shows, all making the point that the reform was unacceptable.
French television (TV2) that night showed some dramatic vignettes: When the march along a limited-access highway approached a drawbridge, demonstrators got it raised and locked before continuing. Other contingents occupied traffic circles — setting up burning barricades — held sit-ins across tracks in train stations or used cars to conduct slow-moving traffic jams.
A detachment of union electric workers cut the power to the construction site for the Olympic Village for the 2024 Olympics and some major computer networks. The unions involved used a smoke screen to hide the identities of the workers who acted. The national leader of the electric workers section of the CGT said that if the government withdrew the pension reform, the workers would take no similar actions. (France.tv, March 9)
In Paris and other big cities, sanitation workers who pick up tons of garbage every day have continued their strike, which began March 7. The garbage has been accumulating, and only cold weather has kept the smells down.
Workers at the French oil refineries and distribution networks have been on strike since March 7. There have been scattered but significant walkouts in mass transit, on the railroads and on the docks.
The Senate approved President Macron’s pension reform bill March 11.
A joint committee consisting of lawmakers from both houses of the French Parliament (the Senate and National Assembly) is currently scheduled to meet on March 15 to review the text of the bill, with the final votes occurring in the Senate and National Assembly after that date.
If the government doesn’t have the votes to pass the bill, it can invoke a procedure in the French constitution called 49.3 that lets the government declare the bill a law, without a parliamentary vote.