Flying back to France on the U. S. Labor Day weekend, we arrived in time to join hundreds of thousands of French who were protesting President Nicolas Sarkozy?s proposal to raise the minimum retirement age from sixty to sixty-two and the maximum retirement age from sixty-five to sixty-seven. The demonstration/national strike of September 7 was a success, according to the trade unions that sponsored it. Bernard Thibault of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) claimed that 2.7 million people participated all across France, exceeding labor?s expectations. Police estimated 1.12 million in 220 sites across the country, with 80,000 in Paris. What I saw were two long columns of marchers following different routes from the Place de la Republique to the Place de la Nation. The first marchers left from Republique a little after 2 p.m.; the last were still arriving at Nation around 8 p.m.
By any standard, it was a big turnout in a mainland of almost 63 million people that has a private-sector unionization rate of 5 percent and a public-sector rate of 15 percent (although there are many fellow travelers who don?t pay dues but benefit from union gains).
This was a different crowd from the one that demonstrated in 2005, forcing the government to back down from a proposal to establish a substandard labor contract for young people entering the labor market. In 2005, unions of students led the march and the workers? unions supported them. On September 7, I saw an older group–those who had jobs and were nervous about their chances of collecting a pension. The issue crystallized many sources of discontent: anger at Sarkozy?s imperial manner, at his management of the economic crisis, at job cuts in the public sector, at forced overtime. The mood of the demonstrators wasn?t so much one of anger as one of concentration on the months to come. The unions don?t want anger to get out of hand; the placards along the route of the march were more overtly angry than those in it. Many more were from managerial unions than is common at such manifestations. In addition to the usual bank employees, there were managers from data processing and information technology firms, even accounting services companies. The ?new economy? provides a lot of jobs with managerial classifications?and a lot of stress, as dramatized by the thirty-four highly publicized suicides by relatively well-paid and well-educated employees of France Telecom in a two-year period.
Nurse-anesthetists marched in their green scrub suits. Their jobs have been made harder by the government policy of only replacing half those who leave jobs in the public hospitals, which provide the bulk of hospital beds and surgical services. ?Hire more workers, don?t make us work overtime,? they said.
Like the others, the nurse-anesthetists carried signs demanding the maintenance of the status quo, that is, the effective right to start to collect a pension at age sixty. Although this right was promised in 1945, the amount provided was not enough to live on. Over the years, labor won enough gains so that it had become a real right by the time of economic crisis of the 1970s, when early retirement was used to get older workers out of the job market in order to make room for ?the young.? Pensions had become one of the most important dimensions of France?s social contract. Now those ?young? are being forced out of their jobs in their fifties but are not able to collect their pensions.
Over the last twenty years, successive governments (starting with a Socialist cabinet in the early 1990s) have nibbled at pension rights. Pensions are indexed to inflation, in theory, but they have not risen as rapidly as inflation. The number of years of social security contributions required to obtain the maximum benefit at age sixty has been increased from thirty-seven-and-a-half to forty-and-a-half currently (and will rise to forty-one-and-a-half in 2020). These changes in the formulas have already forced average ex-workers to wait until age sixty-two to start to draw on their pensions even as older workers have been forced out of the job market. Many must wait until sixty-five, surviving on unemployment insurance and the kindness of family and strangers. One man?s home-made sign read, ?Jobless, aged 64.? Each change in the formulas brought strikes and demonstrations. Demonstrations forced the center-right cabinet to withdraw its legislation in 1995 and led to a victory for the Left two years later. In 2003, however, the conservatives ignored the strikers.
This time, rather than tinker with the formulas, the government has proposed raising the age at which a person can start to collect any pension, so that by 2018, no worker could collect until age sixty-two. The government says it has no choice, as French social security (including medical insurance) has run significant deficits since 2007. It?s a true pay-as-you-go system; social security contributions fell in the economic crisis, and the Sarkozy government let the deficit grow, partly to stimulate the economy. The latest estimate of the 2009 social security deficit was 24.9 billion euros. The government projects higher deficits in the future. Unions believe there are alternatives to the higher retirement age, citing Sarkozy?s gifts to the rich in the form of tax loopholes and the government?s refusal to tax speculative finance. And the stark fact is that ?work longer? is a red herring. Even workers who want to work longer can?t, as employers lay off costlier full-time employees first in an economy with unemployment at 9.3 percent for mainland France.
The marchers knew that this is a battle that involves the whole system, not just pensions. There is unequal distribution of opportunities among economic classes, systematic shrinking of the public sector, growing income inequalities between men and women, and increased casual and part-time jobs. Sarkozy?s attempts to shred the existing safety net have intensified the existing conflicts. The unions are open to compromise, but he?s left little room for that. In particular, he refuses to raise taxes or take back gifts he gave to the well-to-do. His intransigence has alarmed some of his own supporters, to the point that he agreed to amendments that offer concessions in details. One is to allow some manual workers in ?difficult? jobs to collect a pension at sixty (if they?ve made forty-one years of social security contributions). That?s not likely to prevent further days of action, and indeed, more protests are planned for September 23. The unions concede that Sarkozy will pass his law through the National Assembly on September 15; they hope to get more concessions in the Senate in October.
Prospects may be grim, but CGT leader Thibault?s comment to Le Monde online the day after the manif reflects the realism and determination of many workers: ?Millimeter by millimeter, things are beginning to move.?
Photo: Lu Carpenter, 2010