French citizens protest pension reform, causing nationwide strike and deepening division with the government.

On January 19, over one million marched and disrupted services to voice opposition to increasing the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 years.

Growing anger against the government’s reforms manifested in the second nationwide strike on January 31, disrupting electricity production, public transport and schools.

The government defends pension reform as a means to address the deficit by 2027. But at a closer look, there are several local and geopolitical factors, particularly the EU involvement in the Ukraine war and the financial contributions made to humanitarian and defence needs, contributing to the growing civil unrest in the country.

Strikes disrupting public life, tensions in the Elysee presidential palace, and an uptick in violence all point to unstable days ahead.

Popular protests

While the protests are centred on the disdain of citizens towards the suggested pension reform, another central issue is that the government is placing pressure on the population to correct the deficit in the pension budget. 

The majority of the population believes that it is not their responsibility to pay for what they believe is governmental mismanagement or lack of fore/oversight of the fund. Labour unions and other actors believe that the government instead should increase their contribution to the pension scheme. 

This resulted in the multi-sector strikes – including public transportation, teachers and public health services – to mount pressure on the government. 

While public protests may seem trivial to many in different national contexts, the French have been fighting this battle since before the Covid pandemic. Pension reform has been in discussion for some time now, and previous plans were scrapped in order to address the pandemic. 

Individuals and organisations are criticising the government for placing too much pressure on workers who already contribute approximately 80 percent of their own pension through social security/employment payments, while the remaining 20 percent is provided through a variety of government schemes. 

A report from the COR (the national pension council) explains that the pension deficit is not caused by an unstable economy or inflation nor by shifting demographic trends but essentially by the state’s withdrawal and reluctance to increase their portion of the contribution.  Furthermore, as the pension fund actually had a surplus at the end of last year, the deficit itself is a prediction made by analysts and the reform is to be implemented in order to prevent their forecasts. 

Trade unions on both sides of the political spectrum are vehemently supporting the popular protests, which puts the government in an even more precarious position; even Macron’s usual allies among the trade unions are siding with the popular movement.

Since the pandemic, France’s economic and social situation has deteriorated, particularly in the context of quality of life. 

The combined effects of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine have caused financial strain on the government but are felt more heavily in households. While inflation is marginally increasing, the rising cost of gas and electricity, besides goods and services, is causing new strain on individuals. This, too, has been a driving factor in the popular protests. 

Essentially, this series of protests is an unofficial continuation of the 2018-2020 Yellow Vest movement that made the same demands – economic justice and political reform. The Yellow Vest movement came to an abrupt halt in 2020 due to the pandemic without any resolution, leaving the anger to simmer. 

Internal politics

While international media outlets have covered this unrest, other under-reported internal tensions are brewing. 

Emanuel Macron has been praised, at the very least, internationally, due to his innovation with respect to the economy and economic overhaul, the very reason that many voted him in for a second term. 

But the financial situation for the everyday individual has not improved in the same trajectory. As he loses popular support (and cannot run for a third term),  tensions are brewing in the presidential palace amongst his ministerial team. 

The Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire has been openly vying for the presidency and does not seem keen to wait for the next round of elections to make this clear.

The tensions between the two politicians are becoming increasingly public with snide commentary from the two sides. The disagreements on certain economic matters have caused Le Maire to effectively make public announcements that the President intended to make himself. 

One article succinctly explained the situation, “Aurore Bergé, the head of Macron’s party Renaissance in parliament, summed up Le Maire’s attitude to Macron on this issue more crudely: “Basically he’s saying ‘I’m Bruno Le Maire and screw you’.”

Being undermined publically by his own team portrays a poor image of Macron’s stature within his own cabinet and with the people. 

Racist attacks

But Macron’s problems – and failures – have manifested on multiple fronts.

In December last year, a French citizen's racist attack killed three people and seriously wounded several others.

The attacker was found to be a self-confessed ‘pathological’ racist with a history of violence. But instead of being sent to prison, as people of other ethnicities with similar criminal backgrounds would be, he was sent for treatment at a psychiatric facility. 

This kid-glove handling of people with violent tendencies has led to growing right-wing and racist attacks in France in recent years. 

In the past week, 38 right-wing extremists went on trial in Paris for an alleged plot targeting Arabs, Muslims and/or supporters of the Moroccan football team. The brain behind the murderous plot was identified as the well-known neo-Nazi, 24-year-old Marc de Cacqueray-Valmenier.

The group is accused of plotting to attack supporters of the Moroccan football team during the recent FIFA World Cup semifinal match between Morocco and France. Some group members carried bags filled with ski masks, tear gas canisters and other equipment that could be used as improvised weapons. 

This month, yet another group of far-right extremists went on trial for an alleged plot to assassinate the French President in 2018. One man was arrested before the attack, and “a commando-style knife and a military vest” was found on him. In Facebook posts, Jean-Pierre Bouyer had called on his followers to “eliminate those who want to harm you” and called Macron “a little hysterical dictator”.

Individually, all these instances are unsettling. Together, they paint a more problematic picture of the social fabric of France. 

There is a slow social descent into chaos and an apparent disjuncture between the government and the people. The increasing fragmentation in France and pressures on household finances dictate that individuals will seek to hold someone accountable.

While some are focusing their ire on the government proactively, others are obviously utilising ignorant and violent measures to redraw French society in their likeness.

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Source: TRT World