11 January 2020

At last, there is some movement in the strike talks. The government has proposed eliminating the âge pivot for retirements until 2027 instead of 2022 as originally proposed, but this is contingent upon acceptance by the social partners of a plan to bring the retirement system into financial balance in some other way by that date. This plan is to be worked out between now and the end of April.

The CFDT seems at first sight to have embraced this proposal as total victory: the reformist union “greeted” the “withdrawal” of the âge pivot provision from the reform bill as a win “obtained” by its actions, even though Édouard Philippe’s announcement would seem to fall quite a bit short of “withdrawal.” And even if Laurent Berger is prepared to embrace the plan, his rank-and-file and internal rivals may not follow. The CGT is sure to reject the proposal outright.

But the patience of the public may be wearing thin, and awareness of this is no doubt part of the reason why the government finally budged and Berger was so hasty to declare victory. The calculation appears to be that the time is ripe for a compromise, this is the best that can be achieved, and both sides had better make the best of it while they can.

How this news will be greeted by the rank-and-file, particularly in the transport sector, is anyone’s guess. The strikers are no doubt feeling the pressure in their pocketbooks, but thus far their determination seems not to have flagged. Still, there are limits to what this kind of strike action can achieve, since it is directed against the government rather than against a firm or sector of the economy. The strikers may decide that a tactical withdrawal is best and shift their attention to inflicting a painful defeat on Macron in the upcoming municipal elections–and beyond. They had banked on his panicking, and thus far he hasn’t panicked. Going forward, the options are to increase the pressure, which would probably mean a more widespread embrace of illegal tactics such as cutting the electrical supply, or to move the fight into a new arena.

In a sense, Philippe has called Martinez’s bluff: the latter had called for scrapping the reform entirely and rebalancing the retirement books in some other way; Philippe has challenged the unions to come up with a plan for doing that without a pivot age provision. Since there is probably no way of squaring this circle in the long run, Martinez will be left with no fallback.


Photo Credit: O12, Chess, via Unsplash.


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  • Carolina Viola says:

    I would be very interested in knowing what your take is on the extreme police violence towards the demonstrators. It seems that Macron and his government are more interested in resolving the situation through repression rather than dialogue.

    I hardly believe that Philippe called Martinez’s bluff. It’s not as if no one was expecting this tactic from the government and everyone knows that the CFDT leaders are always there to follow the government .

    As for this “public” to which you refer it is made up of people who will be affected by this “reform” and although many can’t go on strike or demonstrate the great majority of the French people support the movement. BTW what is your opinion on this retirement reform?

  • Anonymous says:

    “Yes!” Macron has not panicked, and Philippe has held firm,.
    As you predicted, the “age pivot” provision was the last card to be played. The more the CGT holds out in the face of the concession made by Philippe, the more the “regimes speciaux” will stand out, I surmise. The “regimes may”, I hope, come to look too rich for the average Frenchman or woman, when an employee of the SNCF with a desk job can retire at 55 with a better pension than someone outside the “regimes speciaux” who has to toil to 60 or 62, to cite one egregious case among many.
    To paraphrase what Adam Nossiter pointed out in his very good analysis of the crux of the issue in The New York Times, in France, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”, as George Orwell wrote in “Animal Farm”.
    Cutting the electric supply (as was attempted in the southeast) and attempting to halt the refineries from processing petroleum, are not, I think going to win the CGT friends among most French, I believe. I find it outrageous that some of the spokesmen for the union have argued that those incidents of sabotage that have occurred are “nothing in comparison to what happened in ’68, and years following”.
    Then again, the tolerance of the French for disruption of their daily lives is much higher than I could ever have imagined, so how the endgame will play out remains to be seen, as you suggest.
    Personally, I find being here (I am in the countryside); having to take into account disruptions on the highways, possible cancellations of flights, the inoperability of the shuttles from the airports, the little or no public transport in Paris, the “blackout” of Radio France programming, and the difficulties of obtaining exact information about the state of things, a pain.
    The “haute couture” shows in Paris are a week away, January 20-23. –If the transportation is not up and running fully by then, that will be another nail in the coffin of France’s economy, hurting hotels, restaurants, and other businesses that profit from the week, and tourism in general. France’s image of itself as up to date and modern, equal to the challenges of the twenty-first century, will continue to suffer if the strikes drag on still more.

  • Pia Bouquin says:

    So the privileged class in France are, as examples, a “roulant” in the SNCF who can retire at 55 or a ballerina who can at 42 or a woman who can benefit from additional trimestres for raising her children. Their privileges must be done away with!
    In the mind of most French people the scandal is that the real privileged class made up of billionaires who have more than enough for several lifetimes do not contribute their share to the public purse.
    I’m sick and tired of seeing the blame put on those who are not responsible. The next target will be the Sécurité sociale. Thank God, the French fight back. I can imagine you moaning and groaning during the strikes of 1936. That is the only way to social progress.

  • Carolina Viola says:

    To anonymous 12h40
    There are the billionaires Pinault, Arnaut, Dassaut, etc. who hoard their fortunes in off shore accounts, instead of paying the taxes they should and this is money which could be used for new hospitals and schools as well as hiring more doctors and teachers, for infrastructures and other public services. Then there are people who complain that train drivers are privileged because they retire at 55 (I suppose you think it is normal to have 65 year old train drivers) and never criticise the über rich who are the real parasites.

    You cannot have a one size fits all retirement system. Each profession has its specific characteristics and they should not be ignored. Some are very demanding physically and psychologically and this must be taken into consideration. For example people who work in shifts have a life expectancy of 10 years less than the average and it is certainly cruel to have them work until 65 or 67. Do you want nurses at 65 lifting heavy patients? We know that Macron “n’adore pas la mot pénibilité” but it exists (unless Macron wants to ban it from the dictionary) and many jobs are extremely wearing and life shortening.

    Women will be the ones who will be hurt the most by this reform since they interrupt their careers to have children (which can no longer be taken in account in the calculation of their retirement), have the lowest salaries, usually have precarious employment, etc.

    Many workers will be forever running after their retirement hoping one day to retire before they die while at the same time many young people are unemployed.

    In the end this reform is to enable the insurance companies, like as Black Rock, to make a fortune off the back of the working class.

  • Geoffy says:

    Pia: ” I can imagine you moaning and groaning during the strikes of 1936. That is the only way to social progress.”

    There is a name for the 1936 “social progress” – Adolf Hitler. When the Panzers smashed through the Ardennes, the French had tanks that were actually superior to the German tanks. But the strikes of the Thirties that you mentioned crippled French manufacturing to the extent that they had to IMPORT lesser-quality armor from abroad, a factor their tank expert (Colonel Charles de Gaulle) bemoaned to his deaf superiors.

    Macron, like de Gaulle, is a nationalist hoping to reclaim France’s role in the world. My impression is that most Frenchmen (and Frenchwomen) support him on that. For all their “Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” France is in the bottom half of happiness ranking in Western Europe (“2019 World Happiness Report” – John F. Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeffrey D. Sachs) and just BELOW the country of Mexico!

    All Macron is doing is trying to bring his country into the 20th century, let alone the 21st. The French, as usual, have to be dragged there, kicking and screaming.

  • Anonymous says:

    In response to those who wrote in response to the pro-reform of pensions post, I do not deny that there are some very rich people in France. However, those people are the most mobile, that is to say dipping into their “deep pockets” is not as easy as the protesters and their supporters believe –and I’m not even making the argument that they “revinvest” in France, as more conservative analysts do. As has been demonstrated by Elizabeth Warren’s prevarications about the ease with which in the U.S. it would be possible to provide “Medicare for all”, ultimately the taxes supposed to “soak the rich” ultimately have to reach into the middle class level, as the amounts that could be “culled” from the Pinault, Arnault and Dassaut families are not enough to pay for the maintenance of the retirement system at its present levels.
    Also, the bad faith vis-a-vis the government’s analyses of the long term viability of the system is obvious, but probably wrong-headed. Social security systems around the Western world are all faced with the problem that demographics (longer life spans, fewer contributors) mean the systems are going broke. With the unemployment rate of people 18-25 at perhaps 40%, the contributors are just not there –notwithstanding Marine LePen’s exhortation that “bigger families” are the solution to the problem.
    The unions have the chance to come up with their own plan for stabilizing the system by the end of April. “On verra que-c’est que ca donne–“.

  • Pia Bouquin says:

    Geoffy : So the 2 week vacation is responsible for Hitler. Pitié. Plutôt Hitler que le Front Populaire was the slogan of those who had the wealth and who welcomed the Occupation in order to put those pesky workers back under their boots.
    Remember what François Mauriac said after the Nazis were defeated. “Seule la classe ouvrière est restée dans sa masse fidèle à la patrie profanée.”

  • Carolina Viola says:

    To Geoffy 5h08: How can you compare Macron to de Gaulle? De Gaulle was a patriot who led the fight against the Nazi occupation, Macron would have aligned with Pétain and those ready to crush the workers and anyone against the Nazis.

    Macron is doing his best to drag France back to the 19th century when workers had no rights, no present, no future, no security. No wonder the French are not happy, they are seeing all that is good being destroyed by Macron and his cronies.

    It is evident that Macron is only able to implement his measures through undemocratic means, such as “ordonnances” and police violence and terror. The police have become a militia, a power unto themselves, given free reign by the government to act with total impunity. Lallement, the prefecture for Paris is an example, he bans demonstrations in Paris if the “partis contestataires” take part, meaning PS, PCF, FI, etc. Under Macron France could soon become a dictatorship.

  • Carolina Viola says:

    Geoffy: Macron can never be compared to de Gaulle, who was a leader in the resistence against the Nazi occupation. Macron would have sided with Pétain.

    One important aspect of this situation is the unbridled violence of the police in total impunity. It seems that the government policies can only only be implemented through undemocratic means, such as “ordannances” and police repression.

  • Carolina Viola says:

    Correction: ordonnances

  • Anonymous says:

    Pia: that is not what Geoffry was saying, and it is sophistry to suggest that it is. The issue is not what France was during WWII, but what it was in the 1930s that allowed it think it did not have to confront the threat from Germany. Read Marc Bloch’s “Strange Defeat” to get a grip on France’s failure to recognize that it would have to re-arm, however painful it would be, if it was to stand up to Hitler. –And Marc Bloch died for the Resistance, an intellectual “engage”, I hasten to point out.
    Today, slogans will not save the “pensions”, although it is nice to think that if we all held hands and sang “L’Internationale”, money to shore up the existing pension system would drop from heaven as it did for Danae, in the Greek myth. –It is not going to happen. However, the goal of the strikers is more to bring down Macron and Philippe, it seems, than to find ways to shore up the system, a misplaced objective. When the system goes bankrupt, the pensions will be cut “tout a coup” leaving recipients unprepared, which is the worst of all possible outcomes.
    If the French want to live in the mud together, that is their right, of course. Let’s be intellectually honest, at least, though.

  • Carolina Viola says:

    Macron and his neoliberal government are only interested in setting up a pension scheme which will enable companies such as Black Rock to make tons of money. This is not about saving the pensions, it is about privatising the pensions. It is of course in their interest to convince everyone that the current system based on solidarity is not working or going bankrupt even though it is just fine. The far right government in Portugal tried this until they were voted out. Thank god, they almost destroyed the country and the public services.

    The pension scheme by points is causing poverty for retired people in Germany now, especially women. In Chile so many people are unable to retire because they can never get enough to live on. That is not what the French want. They do not want to go back to the 19th century when workers had no security, no rights. This is not progress, this is regression.

    Of course, the protesters and the majority of the French want the government to fall. It is the government of the rich and the bankers , who have only contempt for the people.

  • FrédéricLN says:

    Well well well — there is some change indeed, in the tone of the talks right here. Well, change maybe be a good thing in itself.

    Yet, Marc Bloch nowhere incriminated the 1936 strikers for the “strange defeat”. In material terms, the French Army was the strongest of the world in 1939. We had more tanks than the Germans, they were stronger (more armored) and grouped into a beautiful mechanized force (the 1ère Armée, in which Bloch served) — contra a legend Gaullists forged after the war, as far as I understand — and the 1st Army never lacked fuel (that was precisely Bloch’s job) . The defeat, as Bloch puts it, was essentially strategic and originated in commander’s minds, not in the “rapport de forces”, neither in troopers’ morale. — I should not paraphrase “L’étrange défaite” here.

    Back to strikes: From demonstration one, in which I took part, I felt that minds were federated by the opposition to Macron (or to the “system” in which he united former right-wing and left-wing ruling forces; or to the government by and for the 1%), despite many specific moves were motivated by specific worries re. the pensions system (singers and dancer of the Opera, lawyers,…).

    The opposition to Macron remains in any case, and, as (I guess) 99,9% of people never grasped where the pensions reform was going (I think I also did not get it), distrust against the reform remains, whatever Mr Philippe or Mr Macron “change” within it.

    I would respectfully object to “The strikers may decide that a tactical withdrawal is best and shift their attention to inflicting a painful defeat on Macron in the upcoming municipal elections–and beyond”, as there is no defined anti-Macron force in these municipal elections — or maybe the leftist galaxy, PCF-LFI-Génération.s, which would hardly reach 10% nationwide, and that would not be a painful defeat at all for Macron. Most likely, LREM lists would also not reach 10% nationwide, but the other 80%+ will be for lists that do not compete on the field of national politics (some of them swiftly avoiding such topics). The FN/RN arrived first at European elections, but does not seem able to even present a large number of lists at the municipal elections, outside peripheral regions. And it focuses on earning respectability, on assessing that its municipalities “deliver”, on preparing the 2022 presidential elections, which is a quite different tone from “trying to federate the angry ones.” As we say in French 🙂 these elections are “la bouteille à l’encre” (too dark to see what might emerge), but I would be very surprised if “Macron’s defeat” was a major outcome. In my humble opinion, (popular) opposition to Macron remains mostly outside of the electoral, Parliamentary and even of the media stage. It still lacks a project for a different future.

  • Geoffy says:

    Carolina: ” How can you compare Macron to de Gaulle? De Gaulle was a patriot who led the fight against the Nazi occupation…”

    And yet, de Gaulle was always “an homme de la droite,” whose politics actually aligned very closely with Macron’s. And it was one of those wonderful strikes you glorify, in ’68, that brought him down.

    As for the future, I believe that this is a make-or-break moment for France. Unless Macron can stabilize the French economy, France risks falling into the same second-class status as the other romance-speaking countries: Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal. With England now gone and Germany weakened, you can be sure that there are two vultures perched above watching: Putin and Xi Jinping. The latter is the greater threat, as Russia is broke. But China has cleverly pounced on countries that are underfunded, using its vast mercantile surpluses to buy influence. If Macron should be forced out, you can bet Xi will make his move. If all the French care about is their pensions, Xi will be more than happy to help.

  • Bernard says:

    I am not that worried about our social market economy. The share of taxes and spending in GDP broadly reflect our country’s preferences and have proved much harder to dent than any government including this one thougt.
    What seems more interesting is the fact that this cycle of social protest, still supported by a majority of the people, has revealed that the vacuum on the left hand side of politics is unsustainable. It will therefore be filled, not by extremists, more likely on the centre left to accommodate people disappointed by Macron. Who will personify that, I wish I knew.

  • Anonymous says:

    Dear Bernard:
    Segolene Royal will fill the vaccum on the centre left and accommodate people disappointed by Macron–
    At least this is what she told Ruth Elkrief for 20 minutes on BFM-TV last week.

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