Learning from the French Left: Lessons of the Pension Reform Battle

Learning from the French Left: Lessons of the Pension Reform Battle

“Check your Rolex. It’s time for a rebellion.” In the fall of 2010, protesters against the reform of the French pension system lacked neither catchy slogans nor energy. For more than a month, unionists and a variety of left activists organized strikes and demonstrations that brought up to three million protesters onto the streets and disrupted public transportation and schools. Strikes and blockades in oil refineries created a serious gas shortage. Opinion polls showed that a majority of the population supported the movement. At the demonstrations, the phrase “Rêve générale”—a pun on the French words for “dream” and “strike”—was ubiquitous on signs and stickers. The protests were also a merry affair, with the usual dose of balloons, food, and music that symbolize people’s determination.

One did not need to march all the way to the Place de la République in Paris to sense the collective optimism that ran through the protests. Fueling the movement was the idea that the government’s proposal to roll back the retirement age from sixty to sixty-two, allegedly to save it from financial collapse, was fundamentally unfair. In France, the right to retire at sixty is a fairly recent victory—it was enacted in 1981 by François Mitterrand’s left-wing government—but it quickly became established as a social right. Although in the United States there were legal battles to abolish mandatory retirement, many in France see retirement in a positive way. To some, it is the complement of the eight-hour day: it offers workers a kind of emancipation from wage work. For others, it produces solidarity between the generations. At a time when the Left is mostly a defensive movement, the right to retire at sixty is an important symbol of its past ability to craft social norms and to impose them upon the capitalist order. Mocking Nicolas Sarkozy’s campaign slogan in favor of the work ethic—“work more to earn more”—protesters brandished signs proclaiming they should “work more to die before they retire.”

In response, Sarkozy and his allies on the Right made a simple case: as people live longer, the pension system will come under increasing financial strain unless both the retirement age and the number of years one needs to be a net contributor to the system evolve. Common sense, not politics, they argued, drove the change.

But protesters rejected this logic. They argued that the reform would only be a temporary fix; it would protect the system only through 2018, and a new review will be held in 2013—after the next presidential election—to propose yet another plan. Moreover, they maintained, the reform is grossly unfair to women, who often stop working to raise children and are at a disadvantage when it comes to validating forty-one-and-a-half years of net contributions. It was equally unfair to workers who enter the job market early, particularly those without a college degree. These worker...

Socialist thought provides us with an imaginative and moral horizon.

For insights and analysis from the longest-running democratic socialist magazine in the United States, sign up for our newsletter: