After Macron Raised Retirement Age, French Unions Promise Largest Strike Yet on May Day

French workers striking in Nantes over Macron raise in the retirement age (AP)

In France, unions are vowing to continue a series of strikes after French President Emmanuel Macron raised the retirement age from 62 to 64. Strikes have already seen millions of workers in the streets against the changes and are likely to grow.

“All the labor unions are calling on the President of the Republic to show some wisdom, listen and understand what is happening in the country and not to promulgate this law,” the leader of the CGT Union Sophie Binet said in a statement upon Marcon enacting the reform last week. 

Despite Macron moving to promulgate the law, public opinion polling shows that the law is still unpopular and that lawmakers who supported the reforms are likely to be voted out of office. With public support behind them, labor leaders vow to hold more strikes. 

“We have to continue mobilizing until the end, until the government understands there is no way out other than withdrawing this reform,” CGT Union leader Sophie Binet said in a statement. “We can’t move on to anything else until this reform is repealed.”

Unions in France have called for a massive strike on May Day as part of the beginning of a huge wave of strikes that could overturn the unpopular retirement age raise. 

“We won’t give up. There will be a great May 1st,” 65-year-old teacher Gilles Sornay told Reuters last week. 

French labor experts say that given past battles, French labor leaders feel confident that they can overturn the retirement law changes. 

“There’s actually a precedent for that in 2006, with the youth employment contracts, and so protesters are kind of hoping that the government in the face of the protests may decide to suspend the application of the reform, because there’s too much opposition and too much protest,” says Cole Stangler, a Sorbonne-educated American labor reporter, whose worked extensively both in the US and France. 

While it remains unclear whether Macron will back off from raising the retirement age, the protests have inspired many watchers in the labor movement here in the United States, with both mainstream and left-leaning outlets running pieces on these protests. Stangler says that the American labor movement could learn a lot from the French labor movement. 

“I think the labor movement has a sort of cultural presence in people’s lives, and they have this sort of presence in people’s lives that I think isn’t doesn’t [sic?] really apply in the United States,” says Stangler. 

France has a very different labor system than the United States, which relies on “sectoral bargaining.” In “sectoral bargaining,” unions bargain union contracts that set bare minimums for the entire system. 

Also, in France, unlike in the US, multiple unions can exist within one workplace, and workers can change their unions. Unlike in the US, where AFL-CIO rules for members unions strikingly forbid competition between unions for members within workplaces, French unions are forced to compete within workplaces to get individual members to sign up. 

With more workers protected by union-crafted collective bargaining agreements and unions being forced to be more responsive or lose their members to the union, the French labor movement is known for being militant and aggressive in its actions. 

“There’s something like 95% or more of the workforce is covered by labor agreements. People are protected by collective bargaining agreements, even if they’re not union members,” says Stangler. “And I think there’s also a system that gives unions a kind of institutional presence and weight that gives them power. And I think they can mobilize people because they’re just more of a presence in people’s lives and in their workplace”. 

As a result of gains made by the labor movement in France in the 20s, 30s, and even the post-war era, retirement security is much stronger in France. In the United States, 15% of elderly people live in poverty, whereas in France, only 3% of the elderly are living in poverty. 

“If you look at the rate of senior poverty, comparing France to the US, France has one of the lowest rates of senior poverty in the industrialized world,” says Stangler. One of the most significant differences between the US and France is that in France, retirement is almost financed entirely by public tax dollars. French workers pay approximately 14% of their taxes to the pension system. 

“In the US, people tend to have separate private pension schemes, maybe they have like a 401k, or like an IRA or money saved up in the stock [sic?] from the stock market, that they’re kind of devoting to retirement,” says Stangler. “For people to have these private schemes on the side, it’s very rare in France. People have been paying into the system their entire lives, usually at quite high rates. And so sort of part of the social contract, this is kind of the only retirement system that people have in France.” 

Stangler says that it’s created a different mentality about the value of retirement in France versus in the United States, where retired workers are often forced to get other jobs to survive. 

“The ability to retire with dignity and have some time at the end of your career to enjoy life, to spend with your family, with your friends, to have that kind of free time, at the end of your career,’ says Stangler. “And so, in the French mindset, I think the right to retire with dignity is part of this longer, you know, history.” 

However, many workers worry that raising the retirement age will deny them that dignity. 

“I was looking forward to retiring in two years’ time and now the government wants me to go on for two more years,” a 60-year old worker named Christine told France 24. “I can’t take any more; I’m beyond exhausted.”

Not only do workers say that it will be physically and emotionally harder to work at older ages, but many seniors say it will be challenging to find jobs. 

“We’re being told to work more, But it’s almost impossible for older people to get jobs because companies in France won’t hire them.” 59-year-old Christine Jagueneau, who was recently laid off, told the New York Times. 

Unions in France are fighting back and have called for a major mobilization on May 1st to show that the strike wave will continue. With public opinion showing that voters are firmly on the side of the strikes, trade unions in France could bring down Macron’s government in the next elections. 

French trade unions say they are prepared to dig in for a long fight until the retirement age is repealed. 

“We will not give up, there will be no truce,” says CGT Union president Sophie Binet. 

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About the Author

Mike Elk
Mike Elk is an Emmy-nominated labor reporter and alumni of the Guardian. In addition to filing nearly 2,000 stories from 46 states, Elk traveled with Lula from Sáo Bernando do Campos all the way to the Oval Office in the White House. Credited by the Washington Post for being the first reporter to track the strike wave systematically, Elk started Payday Report using his NLRB settlement from being illegally fired for union organizing in 2015. He lives in his hometown of Pittsburgh and works frequently in Rio de Janeiro, where he attended college at PUC-Rio. He speaks both Portuguese and Pittsburghese fluently. His email is [email protected]

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