We're Striking: Listen to Us!

by by Emily Gogolak

Crowds swarmed the cities of France this fall and chants echoed across the streets: “Fight, fight, fight!” With revolutionary fervor, millions of people joined in protest over a recent legislative measure to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62. In an effort to address a dire national deficit, the reform pits fiscal pragmatism against a legacy of robust state welfare, and French citizens have responded with a vengeance.

Protest is an inseparable element of French Republicanism: when dissatisfied with government, the French naturally take democracy to the streets. In an email to the Independent, Aleksander Glogowski, Paris spokesman for the French Socialist Party, explained the psyche of the French strike: “It’s not a ‘disease’ as most Anglo-Saxon free-marketers are telling […] We have a strong feeling of ownership on the State’s policies and are attached to a fair share of the burden.” The most recent strikes were no exception.

As much as the movement evokes the classic French symbol of the strike, the tensions also reveal a widespread national malaise and question popular confidence in the future of the Republic. What was most telling about the recent turmoil was just who was making the noise. Adults were not alone in their protest, as youth were perhaps the most vocal opponents to the increase in retirement age. In a globalized era characterized by burgeoning optimism and opportunity among the world’s young, France poses a striking contrast: with its youthful idealism clouded by a startling pessimism, it is uncertain how much longer “the Great Nation” can rest on its laurels before facing the times.

The Golden Number

Early retirement is a centerpiece of social welfare in France and a symbol of the nation’s progressive political culture. In 1983, Socialist President Francois Mitterand lowered the minimum retirement age from 65 to 60, which has since become a source of French pride. Social benefits, including subsidized state healthcare, the 35-hour workweek, and generous vacations are not seen as mere luxuries among the French, but rather, as their birthright. Early retirement is no exception. “We want to stop working at 60 because it’s something our parents, our grandparents, and even our great-grandparents fought for,” Eric Gilly, 50, a union representative for the Force Ouvrière (Worker’s Force), told the Associated Press. Many deem retirement reform an assault to an inalienable right and the first step in dismantling French social benefits in favor of an impending American capitalism—a national nightmare incarnate.

“The only logical option”

No stranger to strikes, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been on tough terms with labor since the start of his conservative presidency. Labor reform is hardly a surprising centerpiece to Sarkozy’s domestic political agenda, as he made the failed pension system a flagship issue of his 2007 presidential campaign. Elected on a platform of change, he claimed that only through a “rupture with the past” could France correct its budget, revive its work ethic, and reenergize its populace. Turning a new page in national history, Sarkozy promised a break from tradition and a brighter France to come.

The president did not forget his promise for change, but when the most recent strikes erupted, the French did seem to forget who they voted for. The trouble began in June, when Sarkozy first presented the plan to raise legal retirement and pension age from 60 years old to 62, in addition to other proposals to increase the number of working years required to receive a full pension.

Sarkozy’s reform was a direct response to France’s flailing fiscal position amidst the global recession. With economic woes running strong across the continent, austerity plans are becoming a European norm, and high debt burdens have recently led Greece, Britain, Spain, and Portugal to adopt unprecedented methods to scale back state spending. Many European nations are facing a battle between extensive state welfare spending and gradual rises in life expectancy, and as deficits run higher, the need for more revenue only grows more acute. According to a report by the Paris-based Pensions Advisory Council, in April 2010 the French state pension system was running an €11 billion deficit ($13.6 billion); by 2050, it will climb to €103 billion ($127 billion), about 2.6 percent of the projected gross domestic product. Furthermore, as the deficit has forecasted to spike to 8 percent of the GDP this year, France risks loosing the AAA credit rating that allows it to service its debt at the lowest market rates.

According to the French government, increasing retirement age was not a choice, but an economic imperative. When he introduced the reform in late May, Employment Minister Eric Woeth announced, “as one lives longer, it is only logical that your working life should also be longer.” As protests later escalated, he told the BBC, “we’re not here to do what’s easy, we don’t always have the people’s approval, but it has to be done.”

Democracy On the Streets

Mass resistance to the reform did not break out until early September, when the proposal passed through the lower house of Parliament. The Senate was to vote on the law in late October, and the movement gained speed as the decision approached. On October 12, the opposition saw its largest turnout with 3.5 million protesters, according to the unions (police claimed only 1.2 million were involved). Firefighters marched with university students and museum workers past the Sorbonne, chanting resistance songs ranging from la Marseillaise to Queen: “We will, we will rock you” echoed down le Boulevard Saint Germain.

Not all of the French disobedience, however, civil. In Lyon, the epicenter of violent protest, police used water cannons and tear gas to stop teenage protesters from burning cars and hurling glass bottles. West of Paris, in Nanterre, hundreds of masked rioters—again, nearly all adolescents—smashed store windows and threw stones at police, Reuters reported. “I saw 200-300 high school students pass by, some waving sticks. One of them had a crowbar. I find it hard to believe that you can go to high school with a crowbar like that,” Frédéric Géhin, Nanterre resident, told France 24 News.

Anxiety reached its height when workers blocked access to refineries and ports across the country. Despite strong warnings on the safety and financial consequences of the blockades—which stalled air travel, left motorists without gas, and threatened to paralyze the fuel-dependent industrial sector—the strikers only turned more militant. As reported by the UK’s Daily Mail, refinery employees armed themselves with pickets and burned tires, and formed a human chain around a plant in Grandpuits, east of Paris. “The protests are not stopping,” Jean-Claude Mailly, head of the Force Ouvrière told Paris Radio Monte Carlo, “we still think that demonstrating is not enough ... we have to ramp it up.”

Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux would have none of it. “We will use all means necessary to get these delinquents,” he threatened, including paramilitary intervention. Comparable to the US SWAT Team and with more authority than the French riot police, the paramilitary was never deployed, but the threat made clear that the government was not going yield.

What Lies Beneath

Amid ongoing strikes, violence, and fuel blockades, the reform passed in the Senate on October 22 and was written into law on November 9 after final approval from France’s Constitutional Council. The protests gradually lost speed after the Senate vote, although unions have since planned new strikes for November 23 in hopes of reviving the movement.

Though the retirement age has now been officially raised and a resurgence of protest is extremely unlikely, France is hardly free from its most recent bout of tensions because the real problem is not just about retirement. What is most troublesome about this year’s protest is the ironic demography of its participants: youth were at the center of the right against reform. “When one sees young high-school student representatives on French television explaining why they take to the streets (in order to defend their own future pensions), one is seized by a deep sense of fatalism,” Dominique Moïsi, senior adviser at the French Institute for International Relations, wrote in the New York Times. While energy and optimism run ablaze in the high schools of Mumbai and Beijng, ninth-graders in Paris are smashing windows and burning cars in fear of the future.

Call it melancholy, malaise, or fatalism, this trend should come as a warning to France: the future will only be as bright as the generation who will welcome it. This most recent demonstration of youthful hopelessness presents a grim view of the years ahead. In an interview with the Independent, Édouard, a 20 year-old philosophy student at the Sorbonne, put it well: “I don’t know what will happen next; but what I do know is that France just feels stagnant.” As Sarkozy attempts to deliver his promise of change, it is unclear how tightly the French will cling to the tradition he his vying to leave behind.

Emily Gogolak B’12 accidentally led a labor protest down Boulevard Saint Michel earlier this semester when she made a wrong turn on her bicycle.