Spotlight: Protests over retirement system reforms in France
Paris: Let’s start with the most crucial point: the debates that have been agitating the country for the past few months stem from “the reform of the retirement system”, a political project led by the President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, and his government.
Macron’s reform pushes the age to draw full pension to 64 from present 62, through a legislation.
In a country where the opposition between left and right is very structured, Emmanuel Macron has often portrayed himself as a centrist political figure: so-called neither left nor right. This strategy allowed him to create the reputation of an outsider candidate, which earned him his election. However, this description is far from true, as the actions of the current government are part of a neoliberal political continuity that started with the (former British Prime Minister) Margaret Thatcher era in Europe. This policy, to quote a famous sentence from Pierre Bourdieu, can be summed up as “a programme to destroy collective structures that could obstruct the logic of the pure market.” In other words, it aims to redefine the democratic pillars of society from a perspective where market interests take precedence over everything else, including those of citizens.
Many images of French protests have circulated around the world in recent weeks, and according to a video made by an Italian YouTuber, it seems that enjoying a croissant in the French capital is not as peaceful these days.
Another striking image taken on April 13, 2023, shows an army of police officers (specifically a “CRS” company, who are typically present during protests) positioned in front of the French Constitutional Council (Top photograph).
In light of this, this article aims to provide some contextual insight for our readers around the world.
A long-standing social history
One of the most remarkable characteristics of capitalism is to concentrate significant amounts of wealth to generate large industrial projects. This concentration also promotes great inequalities between – to put it simply – work and the exploitation of workers. In this system, owning capital means having the power to make people work for one’s own benefit and to enrich themselves through their labour. This fundamental characteristic of capitalism is at the root of the inequalities that structure our world. It also explains, centuries later, how the fortune of one person can now represent millions of years of salary for another. This contradiction lies at the heart of our contemporary societies: how to put in the same political system such concentrations of power with the democratic principles claimed by most OECD (The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries?
The answer to this question is the result of several centuries of social struggle. The secret of democracy does not only result from the general principle of granting equal power to each citizen, as this would be illusory, given the complexity of society and the inequalities that structure it, as we have seen. So it also involves debating and inventing systems of counter-power to seek a balance. The political and social system in which we live is therefore the result of several centuries of opposition and compromise between the workers who produce wealth and the owners of capital. However, while many important dates are part of this long-standing history, one in particular interests us when discussing retirement laws: 1945.
1945: Social security and retirement through solidarity, a major change
We are then in the aftermath of the war. Europe is a field of ruins and everything needs to be rebuilt. This historical situation is decisive in France for two reasons. First of all, because the country is destroyed and capital too, in a sense at least in part. The means of production (factories, workshops, etc.) as well as a large part of the real estate stock need to be rebuilt. As a result of this context, a large part of the country’s economic resources is deployed for a time in favour of workers and circulated in the “real economy”. As Thomas Piketty has clearly demonstrated, this economic distribution contributes to what we call in France the “30 glorious years”: an era associated with economic prosperity and the rise of the middle class. The post-war context also brings about a new political situation. During world war II, France was governed by a fascist regime that, among other things, did not tolerate economic counter-powers. As a result, many left-wing activists, unionists, and communists joined the resistance movement in clandestinity to fight against this power. After the war, this same coalition came to power to rebuild the foundations of society. This project was called the “National Council of Resistance”. It is in this context that a revolutionary system was born in 1945, led by the communist Ambroise Croizat, who was then the Minister of Labor: social security and a pay-as-you-go pension scheme.
To understand the importance of social security, I would like to cite the example of a friend who lives in China and who, a few years ago, suffered a cerebral aneurysm. Unfortunately for him, this misfortune happened between two contracts, and he was not covered by health insurance. In order to obtain the operation that would save his life, he had to come up with $50,000 US dollars within a few days. Fortunately, this friend is very likeable and is surrounded by equally friendly people who were able to raise the funds to save him. However, his life depended on the generosity of the people around him, as well as on their good economic situation. In a way, then, he was lucky. But what if he had been a peasant in Guizhou, would he have had the same chances? Probably not. It is to solve this equation that social security was created based on a simple principle: the cost of solidarity is not borne by a few close individuals but is spread across the entire country. If you fall, if you are struck by illness, the solidarity contributions of workers from the entire country support you.
Contrary to a widespread idea, this system does not rely on government assistance, but rather on a social contribution fund funded by workers’ wages. In France, according to the law, employees receive a double salary: a direct salary that goes into their bank account, and an indirect salary. It is this indirect salary that finances the French solidarity system: health care, vocational training, and also… retirement. This principle of solidarity is essential to understand the interests of workers. It associates each person with a right derived from their work and the qualifications associated with that work, regardless of the vicissitudes of life. This measure is therefore an extremely important counterbalance against the interests of capital holders, as it ensures a certain autonomy for workers who no longer depend solely on the goodwill of capital holders to manage their economic system and their lives.
For this same reason, the life of this solidarity system itself will not be smooth sailing. It will be constantly fought against by capital holders. Now the lines ahead might appear slightly technical, but they are crucial. As early as 1947, a complementary system, AGIR-ARRCO, gives certain workers the possibility to opt for a points-based complementary pension scheme. This points-based system creates a breach in the principle of solidarity, as it individualizes workers by differentiating the amount of their pension based on their personal career rather than the fruits of the solidary system. The law also provides for the abolition of most of the special pension schemes that have emerged from the specific histories of professional fields. These special schemes are explained by the fact that different professions have different constraints and therefore require specific solidarity measures. For example, in 1947, sewer workers lived on average 17 years less than other workers. Over the years, some of the constraints associated with these professions have diminished and have led to adaptations. Until 2005, for example, there was a coal allowance for transport employees, considered outdated due to the transition to electric trains, so many people agreed to repeal it. However, the 2023 law provides for the elimination of almost all special regimes with a few exceptions, notably including the army and police forces. This characteristic has not failed to be commented upon, as the police forces are responsible for maintaining order, which is perceived as repression of social protest by demonstrators.
The debate in France revolves around two opposing arguments. On one hand, reformists want to change the system to address the ageing population. The larger the demographic share of elderly people, the greater the burden on the active population. Therefore, it would be necessary to increase the number of years of contribution to balance the system and, in the process, generalize the points-based retirement system. The problem with this system, as seen by its opponents, is as follows: it weakens workers, especially the most vulnerable ones. What happens, for example, to people who work in professions that do not provide continuous careers? What happens, especially, to women who are expected by society to dedicate years or even a lifetime to domestic tasks outside of paid work? It is precisely this organization that weakens the most vulnerable.
Is the ageing population an insurmountable horizon that justifies extending the working years for the active population? No, say the critics of the reform. On one hand, it is entirely possible to increase contributions by increasing wages. For that, it is necessary to rethink the distribution of wealth between labour and capital in a context where – for example – tax evasion alone in France costs between 60 and 80 billion euros per year (which could cover the national public deficit). Moreover, they remind us that there is also a form of work outside of capitalist exploitation of labour. Retirees, once they are retired, are not excluded from economic life, just like stay-at-home women: they do indeed produce economic value by performing daily tasks in service to society, which may not be considered by capitalist accounting norms (because they do not generate exploitation and therefore profit to the capital owners), but which still exist. This is the principle of use value. In other words, the solidarity system creates freedom for workers to engage in activities that can generate wealth while being autonomous from capitalist power. The fundamental debate is therefore about the distribution of income from labour and income from capital.
Beyond the retirement crisis, a democratic crisis
With these arguments, we can see that from the perspective of objective interests, the reform proposed by President Emmanuel Macron favours a tiny portion of the population who lives off capital gains. Therefore, it is indeed a democratic issue when a government acts against the interests of the majority. It is true that sometimes people may vote against their own objective interests (after all, did those who voted for Donald Trump in 2017 objectively have an interest in being politically and economically represented by someone who earns 548606 times their monthly salary?). However, the opposition here leaves little ambiguity, as according to a recent poll conducted on March 27, 2023, nearly 70% of French people support the mobilization.
Moreover, as we have seen, democracy is built with counter-powers. However, many political and economic checks and balances are mobilized against Emmanuel Macron’s reform, including opposition parties, trade unions, and a significant part of the legislative power in the national assembly. Most of these counter-powers have expressed their opposition to the retirement reform. How then is it possible for a government to impose a reform against the general consensus in a democratic context? Thanks to Article 49.3. Unfortunately, 49.3 is a well-known number for the French in recent years in the general context of neoliberal reforms passed against the opinion and objective interests of the majority of French people. It is an article of law that allows a government to impose a law without going through parliamentary debate. The Parliament can oppose a vote of no confidence within 24 hours, but in practice, it must garner a majority willing to engage in a deep institutional crisis. A vote of no confidence must also be supported by parties whose political directions are generally antagonistic. One of them recently failed by 9 votes. In other words, Article 49.3 is an easy way for the government to bypass democratic debate.
These contextual elements shed light on the intense and brutally suppressed protests that have resulted in these often difficult-to-decipher images. These images may give the impression that the protesters are violent, but the in-depth analysis we have presented here demonstrates that these are citizens engaged in democratic values against the authoritarian turn of their country. They also explain the massive presence of anti-protest police in front of the Constitutional Council, which is to decide on the constitutionality of the retirement reform law. Many people see it as the embodiment of an increasingly authoritarian government that must resort to institutional and physical brutality to ensure the normalization of economic brutality.
* Vincent Delbos-Klein, PhD, is a Paris-based researcher and has his doctorate in visual sociology. The views expressed are personal.