The Fifth of December

27 November 2019

The union mobilization scheduled for Dec. 5 to protest the government’s intention to reform France’s pension system (yet again!) is shaping up as the Mother of All Battles for the Macron regime. The government is wary of the dreaded convergence des luttes, in which all of France’s discontented social groups merge their wrath into a unified rejection of the incumbent government. It has therefore delayed some measures, backed off the original reform proposal submitted by M. Delevoye, and engaged in a round of “consultations” with union leaders, to no avail. Even the usually compliant CFDT is divided, with the CFDT’s railway section promising to support the strikers. The situation is seen as all the more dangerous in that the announced nationwide strike is reconductible and could therefore merge into a promised resurgence of the Gilets Jaunes on Sat., Dec. 7. Pessimists see a repeat of the 1995 retirement reform debacle, in which transport unions paralyzed the country for a month and forced the government to retreat and eventually resign.

There is good reason to worry but no need to panic. The political parties are not in sync with the worker protest. The most powerful opposition leader, Marine Le Pen, supports the strikers but not the unions, which are indeed detested by many in the RN. J.-L. Mélenchon once again has visions of le grand soir dancing in his head, but Mélenchon’s stock is at an all-time low. The Republicans will enjoy Macron’s discomfiture, but they’re hardly in a position to lead a revolt against a reform that is mainly intended to finish the job that Sarkozy began with his reform of les régimes spéciaux and all the rest. Macron’s line is essentially the same as Sarkozy’s: people are living longer, something must be done to ensure the sustainability of the system, the special regimes are unfair, the private-public differences are unfair, etc. etc. All this is correct, So is Prime Minister Philippe’s observation that a reform of this kind has to be phased in gradually. The problem is that the concessions to gradualism made the last time have put the same old issues back on the table, leading to the sense that nothing has been accomplished since 2007. People feel that they have been treading water for a decade as reform after reform leads only to a situation in which further reform is said to be urgent. I am currently reading Jean-Christophe Cambadélis’s political novel, Le diner des présidents, which may be the worst novel I’ve ever read but which does make the unarguable point that trop de réforme tue la réforme.  Indeed.

So what will happen? I expect Dec. 5 to be a rather tense affair, no doubt punctuated by violence, with black block infiltration in some places. If the police don’t overreact, perhaps it won’t be too bad. There will likely be some spillover into weekend GJ protests. But I’m not looking for a repeat of 1995. My sense is that the logic of retirement reform is actually clearer to people than that of other parts of the Macron package. The absence of any political movement prepared to translate the discontent of the unions into any coherent response will dissipate the energy of the protest and leave the government more or less where it has been for a while now: unpopular but still largely unchallenged except by a far right whose alternative is still unacceptable to a substantial majority of the French.


Photo Credit: Lucasbfr, Paris Metro 2007 strike – La Defense, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0,


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