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French protesters see threat to social justice in Macron’s reform

Huge crowds marched across France on Tuesday as part of a new round of protests against President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to raise the retirement age, marking the opposition’s success in presenting the pension debate as part of a wider fight against an economic platform they see as unfair.

While police and union data differ, there is general agreement that the number of demonstrators has increased since the first round of protests on January 19, increasing pressure on the government, which is struggling to convince voters of the need for a pension overhaul, which includes an increase in the statutory pension age. age from 62 to 64 years.

In Paris, where about half a million people took to the streets, tens of thousands of demonstrators were still waiting for the march to begin when daylight faded in the sprawling Place d’Italie hours after the protest began. Reflecting the degree of opposition to reform, the mass rally was attended by union veterans and newcomers alike, young and old, including those who said they had never participated in a protest before.

“I have never protested before, but this time the government is going too far,” said Geraldine, 58, a laboratory assistant at the nearby Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital, who declined to give her full name.

“I have been working for 38 years, [Covid] including the pandemic and I am absolutely exhausted,” she said. “The government wants us to work for more than two years. That’s two more years of ever-deteriorating conditions – and at an age where most of us are no longer fit for the job.”

People like Geraldine, who first took a full-time job at 20 and then worked part-time to raise her daughter, would stand the biggest loser from the proposed reform, which would require them to work longer hours to qualify for a full pension.

So did unskilled workers like Ayed, a stock inspector at a local supermarket, who wore a red Force Ouvrière union vest while marching through Paris. “I’m 42 and my back is already broken from carrying heavy loads all day – how am I supposed to continue walking 20 years from now?” he asked.

>> ‘I can’t take it anymore’: Working-class French complain that Macron is pushing for raising the retirement age

The government has signaled that there is room for maneuver on some measures as parliamentary committees begin consideration of the bill this week. But promises to improve conditions for people who started working very early, or for mothers who cut their careers short to look after children, have failed to offset perceptions of the reform as affecting vulnerable populations the most.

Talk of a gender imbalance in the text has taken on new urgency, not least after one of Macron’s ministers admitted last week that it would “leave women a little punished” in one of several PR blunders that have marred the government’s efforts to promote it. increasingly unpopular to make plans.

“We always knew that women get fucked, but the fact that they are so casually admitting it is just confusing,” said 16-year-old Mia outside her high school in Paris, where students showed up at 6 a.m. In the morning, hoping to block the building, they discover that the riot police got there first.

Elsewhere, students have managed to occupy several schools and university buildings while a nationwide strike, backed by all of France’s key unions, has disrupted public transport and oil refineries, with more strikes expected in the coming days and weeks.

“Unnecessary and unfair”

Macron has gambled on his reformist convictions with the passage of his flagship pension reform, which polls now oppose to about two-thirds of French people — a figure that has steadily risen in recent weeks.

“The more the French learn about reform, the less they support it,” Frédéric Daby, a prominent sociologist at the Ifop Institute, told AFP. “It’s not good for the government at all.”

While Macron and his government insist on the merits of their proposed cost-cutting reform, their opponents have managed to frame the debate in a much broader context, focusing on questions of how wealth is distributed under Macron and whether the poorest will bear the burden. . his suggestions.

“The pension plan is both regressive in terms of quality of life and economically unfair – that is, it is fundamentally contrary to our vision,” Sophia Chikirou, an MP from the left-wing Insubdued France (LFI) party, said at a rally in Paris.

As 21-year-old protester Lali Jeffreyod put it: “It’s not just about pension reform—it’s about broader opposition to the direction this country is headed.”

>> Will Macron’s strikes force him to abandon pension reform in France?

The government says its proposals are needed to keep the pension system solvent as French life expectancy has risen and birth rates have fallen. But unions and parties on the left want big companies or wealthier households to invest more instead to balance the pension budget.

Adding to the government’s concerns, his main argument was refuted earlier this month when the country’s independent pension advisory council told parliament that “pension spending hasn’t gotten out of control – it’s relatively limited.” The assessment only reinforced the widely held view that reform requires unnecessary sacrifices from the French at a time when they are battling an inflationary crisis and still recovering from the Covid pandemic.

“This reform is completely unnecessary — besides being unfair,” said Mireille Kunio, 69, a retired scientist who came to the rally on Tuesday with dozens of other women dressed as Rosie the Riveter in her iconic blue jumpsuit.

She added: “This is a reform that does not change anything for the highest paid and falls entirely on the more vulnerable – you simply cannot make it more unfair!”

Protesters dressed as feminist icon Rosie the Riveter at a rally in Paris.
Protesters dressed as feminist icon Rosie the Riveter at a rally in Paris. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

Talk of the alleged unfairness of the reform was a recurring theme of protests far from the left.

“The most shocking thing is the injustice; the working class pays the most,” said primary school teacher Eric Schwab, who has described himself as leaning towards the centre-right. He held up a banner that read: “I refuse to spend my life making a living.”

Schwab took issue with the government’s habit of comparing France’s legal retirement age – one of the lowest in Europe – with that of its neighbors, noting that existing regulations already require many French workers to retire well past 62 in order to have entitlement to retirement age. full pension.

“They only compare us to other countries when it suits them,” he said. “What they don’t admit is that the Germans who do the same job as me earn twice as much and the classes are half as much.”

The proposed changes are not just about raising the retirement age, Schwab added, denouncing the “ultra-liberal” economic platform geared towards the rich.

“After the 2008 financial crisis, governments somehow found billions of euros to bail out the banks,” he said. “They know where to find money when they need it, especially when they’re spending our money.”

Macron's critics accuse him of promoting the same neoliberal agenda as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Macron’s critics accuse him of promoting the same neoliberal agenda as former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

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