France: pensions deadlock puts democracy under strain
Mass protests and strikes have mobilised in France ever since President Emmanuel Macron announced his plan to raise the retirement age. The anger intensified following his decision to push the change through without a parliamentary vote in March, calling into question his top-down style of governing. Incidences of protest violence have been met with a disproportionately violent state response, something long a problem in France. Ongoing anger at the government’s refusal to listen may further open the door to France’s far right. There’s a need for good-faith negotiations and a commitment to hold security forces responsible for acts of violence.
French President Emmanuel Macron surely knew his plan to raise the retirement age was going to be neither popular nor easy to introduce. He’d committed to doing so when he first stood for office in 2017, only to have to shelve his plan following large-scale protests. Mass protests and strikes have greeted any attempts by governments over the years to change pension and retirement laws.
Having won a second term in April 2022, Macron brought back his plans, insisting that longer life expectancy means the state can no longer afford rising pension costs. He pushed his plans through by using a constitutional clause that avoided a parliamentary vote. The consequence was a further intensification of mass protests, which remain underway – and are providing ample evidence of state repression.
A constitutional manoeuvre
Macron may have triumphed in the 2022 presidential election, beating far-right challenger Marine Le Pen, but his party went on to lose its majority in the June 2022 National Assembly election. In 2017, his supporters dominated France’s main parliamentary chamber, with 350 of its 577 seats. But in 2022 his party shed 101 seats, leaving it governing as a minority administration, dependent on the votes of other parties.
Unable to guarantee a parliamentary majority for its pension changes, on 16 March the government invoked article 49.3 of the constitution, which allows it to pass a law without a parliamentary vote. The use of article 49.3 automatically triggers a no-confidence vote, which the government narrowly survived. It wasn’t just the left and far-right that voted against the government in this, but also many of the centre-right politicians Macron hoped to win support from.
Macron has got his way. His plans to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 are proceeding. But the high-handed manoeuvring to circumvent democratic debate has only further inflamed anger.
On the day article 49.3 was invoked, opposition politicians disrupted parliament, singing France’s national anthem. But that was nothing compared to the anger on the streets. A spontaneous protest saw thousands gather in central Paris, and in multiple other cities. That was followed by the biggest protests so far in numerous cities across the country on 23 March.
If Macron hoped people would calm down and accept his change once it had been forced through, he was wrong. Mass protests and strikes have mobilised ever since the law was proposed in January, and millions continue to protest. His use of article 49.3 has helped recruit protesters, angry not just about the pension changes but also his manner of governance – including young people for whom pension changes once seemed a distant issue.
Women have been strongly represented in protests, arguing that the changes will penalise them for having taken career breaks to look after children.
France’s major trade unions have worked together – a rarity in an often disunited sector – bringing workers in fields as diverse as education, energy and transport out in successive rounds of coordinated one-day strikes. The result has been days when trains don’t run and schools close their doors, and even the power supply has been affected. The manual workers who would be forced to work the most additional years – since they tend to start working younger than those in white-collar jobs – showed how vital their work is. By March, longer strikes were seeing rubbish pile up uncollected in Paris and a slowdown in oil production and deliveries.
Around the world, strikes that cause disruption in everyday life are often unpopular, but polling following Macron’s use of article 49.3 showed that 63 per cent of people backed the protests and 54 per cent supported strikes. As many as 82 per cent thought it had been wrong to use article 49.3 and 71 per cent wanted the government to resign.
A violent response
Large-scale disruptive protests and strikes are nothing new in France, and violence – both sporadic protest violence and state force – isn’t new either. The 2018-2019 ‘gilet jaunes’ protests sparked by a planned fuel-tax increase saw incidences of vandalism, looting and rioting by protesters and a security force response that relied on heavy and indiscriminate use of tools such as teargas, pepper spray and water cannon, along with thousands of arrests. The state has clearly learned nothing from that.
International law is clear: even when there is sporadic violence by some protesters, excessive force isn’t justified and the rights of peaceful protesters must be protected.
There’s undoubtedly been violence during protests, mostly by fringe masked and hooded elements who have thrown rocks and bottles and lit fires. The police’s reaction has been teargas – sometimes with cannisters fired directly at protesters – and batons, often directed beyond those involved in violence. Police were recorded threatening protesters.
There have also been mass arrests, included unjustified, preventative arrests. Hardly anyone arrested has been charged with an offence, suggesting that people are simply being rounded up to remove them from protests. All this has been accompanied by state rhetoric focused on protest violence and dismissive of accusations of excessive police force. Interior minister Gérald Darmanin, for example, accused protesters of ‘wreaking havoc’ while maintaining ‘there is no police violence’.
Criticisms of protest policing have come from domestic and international civil society – and also from the Council of Europe and United Nations experts.
#France - Je suis de très près les manifestations en cours et rappelle que les manifestations pacifiques sont un droit fondamental que les autorités doivent garantir &protéger. Les agents des forces de l’ordre doivent les faciliter et éviter tout usage excessive de la force. 🧵 pic.twitter.com/2NILUyz15M— UN Special Rapporteur Freedom of Association (@cvoule) March 20, 2023
International law is clear: even when there is sporadic violence by some protesters, excessive force isn’t justified and the rights of peaceful protesters must be protected. But French security forces have long been criticised for their use of disproportionate force towards protesters, as well as towards Black people and other minorities. Little reform has resulted, and in 2021 a Global Security Law was passed extending police powers and potentially criminalising efforts to identify on-duty police officers, a change that could hinder attempts to hold them accountable.
Protests are set to continue after talks between unions and Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne came to nothing. Unions have criticised Macron for refusing to negotiate. They point to research that questions the government’s underlying narrative of a pension crisis heading beyond control, and wonder why potential alternatives to fund pensions, such as taxes on the wealthy and higher corporate taxation – which has been cut under Macron – can’t be explored. Many are proud of France’s pension system, which has Europe’s lowest retirement age, and aren’t persuaded by the idea they should level down to the same conditions as other countries.
Macron may well claim the pension change was in his manifesto at the presidential election – but many who backed him in the run-off vote only did so to stop Le Pen becoming president. Macron said as much in his victory speech in 2022, acknowledging that some voted for him not because of his ideas but to stop the far right, and promised to unite the country.
In invoking article 49.3, Macron is a beneficiary of the 1958 Constitution, pushed through by Charles de Gaulle when he took over a nation collapsing into crisis. It’s a heavily centralising constitution that created a strong presidency and weak parliament.
When Macron swept to power in 2017, it was on a public rejection of establishment politics. He promised to be different, but this looks like more of the same. He attracted particular criticism for a TV interview in which he said he wouldn’t back down and only regretted not being able to convince people of the need for his changes; protesters saw this as arrogant and dismissive. Long-running criticisms that Macron is a ‘president of the rich’ have been joined by taunts that he is ruling like a king – and the French haven’t tolerated a monarch since the early days of the revolution.
When he won his first election in 2017, Macron promised his changes would mean people would ‘never have a reason to vote for extreme candidates again’. But the 2022 presidential election was a closer result than in 2017, and now the main beneficiary of his current unpopularity will likely be the far right: opinion polls suggest Le Pen is seen as the person who most embodies opposition to the pension changes, and her party currently leads at the polls.
The protest momentum may ultimately wane, but French democracy will remain under stress. Presidents shouldn’t assume that legitimacy comes from winning an election once every five years, absolving them of the need to listen in between, with security forces on hand to repress protests. And Macron’s politics will have ultimately failed if the far right starts looking like the best alternative. There’s a need to acknowledge that the anger is legitimate, negotiate in good faith and commit to ending the violence. The alternative is only further division in which extremism will thrive.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
President Macron and his government should commit to genuine dialogue with unions and other relevant groups on the proposed pension changes.
The French government should commit to investigate all acts of security force violence against protesters and hold those responsible to account.
European and global human rights bodies should monitor abuses of protests rights in France and urge stronger security force accountability.
Cover photo by Thomas Samson/AFP via Getty Images