In France, Huge Protests Fail to Stop Pension Cuts. What Happened?

In September and October, France was rocked by some of the country’s largest protests in recent memory as workers struggled to prevent cuts to their public pensions.

On seven occasions, millions of workers filled the streets throughout the country in national demonstrations. Gas shortages arose as strikes and protests blocked access to the country’s oil refineries and depots.

Air, rail, and car traffic was slowed considerably several times as airline and rail workers struck and as truckers ground traffic to a snail’s pace on busy highways. More than 100,000 students joined demonstrations.

Some French people wondered aloud whether the country was on the verge of an explosion of grassroots energy sufficient to turn the tide on decades of cutbacks.


On seven occasions, millions of workers filled the streets throughout France in national demonstrations to prevent cuts in their public pensions. But as the government inched closer to passing the pension cuts, the movement lost steam. Photo: Jason Stanley (4)

But as the government inched closer to passing the pension cuts, the movement lost steam. In the last national demonstration, November 6, turnout was a third what it was several weeks before. While 53 percent of rail workers joined a rolling strike October 12, participation declined to 12 percent on October 25. The blockade of oil and gasoline collapsed on October 29 as workers voted to return to work.

This left no barriers to President Nicolas Sarkozy’s austerity agenda. On November 10, the cuts were signed into law, moving the minimum age of retirement from 60 to 62 and the age for a full pension from 65 to 67.

Sarkozy claimed the cuts were necessary because of shortfalls in the public pension funding, but refused to consider increasing contributions for employers or taxing investment income—much less addressing the 10 percent unemployment that has devastated the program’s income.

What happened to the movement? How could such an upsurge turn into rapid demobilization?

WOULD NOT BUDGE

Sarkozy refused to back down even when his popularity hit an all-time low of 29 percent as the movement hit its peak. Big employers stood by him as he refused to budge.

At first, this enraged protesters and stimulated more people to come out for demonstrations. But as time wore on, Sarkozy’s intransigence took a toll.

The country’s major union federations also played a contradictory role. On one hand, they were the organizers of unified national demonstrations against the cuts. This mobilized millions of workers across union lines.

On the other hand, union leaders refused to push for bolder action, even as rolling strikes began to spread. This was most obvious in the CGT, France’s largest union federation, where the general secretary ignored calls from rank-and-file activists to push for widening strikes, preferring instead to seek consensus with more conservative unions, which opposed expanding strikes.

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Strike participation was also hurt by recent defeats. In previous nationwide struggles against austerity measures, rail, education, and postal workers were among the earliest and most militant strikers. But this time around their participation was muted, particularly as time wore on.

Workers at the national rail company had endured a crushing defeat in early 2010 after striking for two weeks in an effort to fend off job cuts and privatization. Postal workers and teachers were also still recovering from hard strikes against similar threats. These fights left many tired and unwilling to lose more income to strikes.

On top of this, the government had passed laws in 2007 requiring workers to maintain a minimum level of service in public transportation and schools during any strike. While the strikes against pension cuts never grew large enough for these laws to kick in, their mere existence was a discouraging factor.

Together, these issues made it difficult for the movement to sustain the level of participation and energy that it achieved at its peak in mid-October.

WHY THE SIZE?

In fact, some workers are not surprised that the movement lost steam. Early on, Sarkozy staked his presidency on a promise to cut pensions. Leaders of the major union federations had long abandoned militancy in favor of “dialogue.”

At the same time, years of high unemployment, increasing use of contract and part-time workers, and diminishing unemployment benefits had led to a dramatic decline in strikes over the past several decades.

The question is not why the movement lost steam, but how and why it gained such enormous momentum in the first place. What provoked the upsurge of anger and energy?

If recent defeats took their toll on participation, the memory of big victories had the opposite effect. French workers and students all remember the 2006 battle against the government’s effort to make it easier to fire younger workers. In that case, the bill was passed by Parliament and signed into law, but the movement continued pressing until it forced the president to retract it.

And in 1995, mass mobilization and strikes halted the government’s efforts to push through cuts to public pensions. The memory of these victories gave workers confidence in the power of strikes, civil disobedience, and pressure from below.

Frustration at recent cutbacks in some sectors of the economy also played a role in provoking discontent. For oil refinery workers who blocked access to oil and gasoline with strikes, and for rail workers who blocked key arteries on several occasions, this struggle was as much a reaction against austerity and privatization in their own sectors as it was against pension cuts.

In this fall’s demonstrations, workers and students were protesting insecure jobs, high unemployment, and growing inequality, as well as the pension cuts. The population’s anger at decades of austerity is clear.

THOUSANDS JOIN UNIONS

The movement failed to prevent this round of pension cuts, but there are signs of progress. Activists say thousands of workers have joined unions in recent weeks. In a country where union membership is entirely optional and where all workplaces are open shops, this is an important step forward. Others highlight the solidarity built across union lines as workers formed inter-union strike committees.

These gains will be important in the next round of battles. Sarkozy is already attacking the public education and postal systems. Everyone also knows that this round of pension cuts won’t come close to filling the pension fund deficit, making it all but certain the government will launch a new offensive in the near future.


Jason Stanley is in France researching cutbacks to government benefits.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #381, December 2010. Don't miss an issue, subscribe today.