French trade union leaders attend a demonstration in Paris on February 7, 2023.

French trade union leaders attend a demonstration in Paris on February 7, 2023.

(Photo: Antoine Gyori/Corbis via Getty Images)

French Workers Erupt Again to Fight Macron's Assault on Pensions

"Retirement should be a second life, not a waiting room for death," said one pensioner.

For the third time in less than a month, hundreds of thousands of workers across France participated Tuesday in strikes and rallies to protest President Emmanuel Macron's unpopular plan to force people to work longer before they qualify for a full pension.

The latest nationwide mobilization against Macron's assault on French retirement benefits brought at least 750,000 people to the streets, with turnout lower than on January 19 and January 31. Tuesday's walkouts and marches came one day after the National Assembly began debating legislation that would raise France's official retirement age from 62 to 64 by 2030.

"Those of you who support this reform don't understand how tough jobs are, what it's like to wake up with an aching back," Rachel Keke, the first cleaner in France to become a lawmaker, said during a tense debate in parliament on Monday.

"You don't understand what it's like to take medication to get through the work day. You don't understand because it's not a world you live in," the leftist continued, garnering applause from fellow opposition lawmakers.

During a Tuesday rally in the city of Nice, pensioner Bernard Chevalier echoed Keke, saying that "we're worn out by work."

"Retirement should be a second life, not a waiting room for death," he added.

Opposition to pushing back France's retirement age is widespread, with recent polling showing that approximately three-fourths of the population is against such a move. Nevertheless, many of Macron's allies remain determined to fulfill his campaign pledge to overhaul the nation's pension system.

Last week, Macron characterized his effort to hike the retirement age as "essential," while Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne claimed that doing so is "no longer negotiable."

On Tuesday, Labor Minister Olivier Dussopt dismissed opposition lawmakers' accusations that the government is in denial over the scale of protests and doubled down on the supposed need for change.

"The pension system is loss-making and if we care about the system, we must save it," Dussopt told RMC radio.

But as Agence France-Presse reported, "some of the government’s own experts have said the pension system is in relatively good shape and would likely eventually return to a balanced budget even without reforms."

Union leaders and left-wing lawmakers, meanwhile, "say the money can be found elsewhere, notably from the wealthy," Reutersreported.

Organized labor, for its part, intends to launch repeated waves of mass demonstrations until Macron and others who insist on the need to cut retirement benefits are defeated.

"This reform will upend the lives of several generations," Philippe Martinez, general secretary of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), said Tuesday at a march in Paris. "If the government stubbornly forges ahead, we will step up our protest with longer and harder actions."

Striking workers in strategic sectors—including electricity production, transportation, and education—disrupted multiple aspects of daily life on Tuesday, though to a lesser degree than they did twice last month.

Macron's bill faces an uphill battle in the National Assembly.

Notably, the New Ecological and Social People's Union (NUPES)—a coalition of four left-wing parties recently formed by Jean-Luc Mélenchon—won 131 seats in last June's parliamentary elections, denying Macron's neoliberal alliance Ensemble the absolute majority it needed to ram through his unwanted austerity agenda.

However, journalist Marlon Ettinger, citing French Communist Party lawmaker André Chassaigne, warned recently that "the government might try to pass the reform through a social security financing bill (known as PLFRSS), which would allow for a series of constitutional delays that would significantly limit the amount of time deputies can discuss the bill. It would also block the possibility for the opposition to present their own counterproposals."

In addition, "although Macron has no popular assent, nor a parliamentary majority for his reform, he does have constitutional tools he can use to push the package through," Ettinger explained in Jacobin. "One, known as 49.3 (after the article of the Constitution which grants the president this power), essentially lets him bypass the National Assembly. The constitution of the current Fifth Republic grants the president these authoritarian powers to hedge against any popular sentiment that might make its way into the lower house. The use of 49.3 would suspend the debate in the National Assembly, then send the bill directly to the Senate, which is controlled by Les Républicains."

Laurent Berger, general secretary of the French Democratic Confederation of Labor (CFDT), told a Parisian crowd on Tuesday that concessions offered by the government, such as allowing people who start working early to retire early, "are just patches."

"Increasing the legal retirement to 64 is the core of this reform and it is deeply unfair," said Berger. "It is a democratic folly for the government to turn a deaf ear to the protest."

Another day of action is planned for Saturday.

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