In November 2018, a wave of popular anger was unleashed in France by the gilets jaunes (yellow jackets) movement. Largely composed of rural and small town private sector workers, the gilets jaunes eventually forced the Macron government into raising the minimum wage and abandoning its proposed fuel tax hike.
Just over a year later a second wave of popular anger began to build, this time composed of urban workers in the public sector. Triggered by proposals to reform the pension system, which would result in harsh pension cuts for many workers, in December 2019 a strike wave began across France.
Everyone from transport workers to opera dancers to lawyers have joined the strikes, which show no signs of stopping.
One group that will be particularly hurt by the proposed pension reforms is teachers. On 24 January, public sector workers in the northern city of Reims marched through the city centre as part of the strike. Novara Media spoke to several of the teachers participating.
‘Teachers could lose over a thousand euros a month.’
Although teachers – and other less protected groups in the public sector – receive lower wages throughout their career, the current system calculates their pension based on their final six months’ salary – typically their highest. It’s been this way since 1947, but the government’s proposals would create a ‘universal’ points-based system with each day worked contributing to the points total.
“Teachers could lose over a thousand euros a month when they reach pensionable age,” explained Yohan Odivart, the representative for the National Syndicate of Secondary Education, the teachers’ union at his school in Reims.
The pension system in France varies among different public sector workers, with pilots, police and the military receiving certain privileges and ‘special regimes’. “They have leverage that we don’t necessarily have,” said Odivart.
The reform is part of Emmanuel Macron’s plan to take the country’s economy in a direction that would see it more closely resemble the UK. Yet the French government has repeatedly said people don’t understand what they are trying to achieve. Education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer argued that the government was acting to create a simpler, more equitable pension system for generations to come” and that “some people are on strike because they don’t understand it at all.”
Pensions minister Jean-Paul Delevoye, who was brought in to enact the reforms, echoed Blanquer’s words: “I consider [them] part of a formidable project to strengthen the unity of French society.” Delevoye has since been forced to resign over conflicting interests.
When asked if they trusted Macron’s government, several teachers shook their heads. “People are now understanding that what Macron calls ‘modernising the economy’ actually means destroying all the social systems,” Ovidart explained. “I know a lot of people who voted for him because they hoped he would change things for the better. But now they have seen he only changes things for the wealthy.”
‘We will become even more precarious.’
At present, the system has a ‘solidarity mechanism’ connected to employee contributions. In essence, this means that workers aren’t punished for periods of inactivity or part-time work, such as parental leave. The solidarity mechanism is considered a full and complete pension right. But the proposals aim to separate employee contributions from the solidarity mechanism, which would leave the solidarity budget vulnerable to cuts meaning women will be hit hardest.
Marthe Leman, a teacher in the humanities department of a local sixth form college, took leave to raise her three children. “What they are proposing is to replace the system with a percentage that is based on the amount that you have contributed,” she said. “Because women spend less time in the workforce because of children and because society pays women less, we will become even more precarious and will depend more on men if we want to retire [under the proposed system].” Leman expects to lose €700 a month if the reforms go ahead.
The changes stand to effect women across the public sector, particularly widows and divorced women. According to Collectif Nos Retraites, a group dedicated to defending the existing pension rights, the proposals include the abolition of the ‘survivor’s pension’, which compensates widows and divorced women who raised children instead of working while they were married. Bruno Chretien who works for the Institute for Social Protection, a think tank also opposed to the reforms, found that while single mothers could stand to benefit somewhat from the reform, it would be at the expense of couples with one or two children as they would no longer be compensated via the pension system for time missed from work due to childcare.
‘We have a united front.’
Education historian Claude Lelièvre has called the strike historic. Levels of union participation are unusually high compared to previous years and the strike is now the longest industrial action since 1968. However, in absolute terms the unions are still weak- only 15% of teachers are members.
So far, the relationship between workers and the unions has been a positive one. “I was at the front at the beginning of the demonstration, because we have a united front – the CGT, Solidaire, FO and us (SNES). So we are four unions working together to demand the end of this reform,” he said, underlining the solidarity across different sectors. “There are disagreements with other unions of course, but they’ve stayed at home. They are trying to negotiate, it seems, by not doing anything. Clearly that has not worked so well these past few years.”
With that said, there are still tensions. “The situation is tricky because people are wary …and engagement is low,” English teacher George Cardot explained, “Not everyone here is in the union. The strike is extending beyond them”.
‘We are not lying down.’
After several years without much success, France’s unions are now engaged in the biggest wave of strikes the country has seen since 1968.
Yet Cardot remains cautious and raised concerns about the intransigence of Macron’s government. “I hope it’s going to be successful, but I doubt it because they are really determined. Once the decision is made, they just pretend they’re listening.”
Ovidart was more optimistic, though he had some reservations. “At the beginning of the strikes, a majority of people were opposed to the government’s reforms and now, two months later, there are even more people who oppose it,” he said. “The demonstrations are not necessarily what is changing the balance, but at least we are not lying down to let everything be taken from us. They won’t bring victory, but it’s a step to make the government understand.”
Aside from whether or not the teachers and other public sector workers will win, the strikes have an energy that has not been seen in French union action for some time. The recent history of the trade union movement does not provide the strikers with much cause for hope, but the gilets jaunes took on Macron and won. Perhaps the unions can do the same.
Olly Haynes is a journalist and Politics and French student at the University of Exeter.