Young people marching in the Lille demonstration against the reform/ photo by Maxence Guillaud

Even the French trade unions were not prepared for a mobilisation of this size: more than 2 million people, across 200 cities, all against the pension reform. These numbers have stormed media and politics, forcing even the Macron’s court to change the narrative. A game changer? Rather, an impressive prologue to an upcoming war between working people and Macron’ politicians.

Wojciech Albert Łobodziński reports from Lille, France.

One thing is certain even right now: this kind of mobilisations, if repeated, might change the political landscape of France.

In France, a nationwide strike against pension reform began on Thursday 19 January. Both public and private sector workers are protesting against the increase in the retirement age from 62 to 64. The total number of French people protesting on the streets exceeded 2 million, reported CGT, the biggest trade union in France. The French Interior Ministry, in turn, claimed that the number of demonstrators nationwide was 1.12 million, 80,000 of whom were protesting in Paris.  

However, it is hard to believe in those numbers while looking at the photos and dron-made videos. The head of the CGT headquarters, Philippe Martinez, reported that the mobilisation of protesters had exceeded the expectations of the organisers, who had awaited no more than one million people on the streets. 

Due to the strike, less than 15 percent of trains had run across the country since the morning. In many cities, public transport was providing a minimal level of service. In Paris, only two of the sixteen metro lines were operating normally. The strike also affected airports. Paris Orly had cancelled 20 percent of flights. Civil servants, health and uniformed services and teachers are also participating in the strike. Seventy per cent of primary school staff did not go to work. That has left the country in a state of semi blockage.

People could not go to school, hospitals, or work, but as we will see later, most of the Frenchmen and Frenchwomen support the strikes! 

In the end hundreds of thousands of people mobilised in Paris, Calais, Nice, Lille, Lyon and other 200 cities and villages chanting “64 ans, c’est non!”, meaning “64 years, it’s no!” and to reject the pension reform proposed by politician-millionaire Elisabeth Borne.

Meanwhile, the president Emmanuel Macron was in Barcelona, at the Spain-France summit, ensuring “determination” of the executive vote a “fair and responsible” reform.

The answer of the demonstrating people was plain and straight: “Tax the rich to obtain retirement at 55!”. 

All the country’s unions – including so-called “reformist” unions that the government had hoped to win to its side – have condemned the measure. The same has been done by the left-wing and far-right oppositions in the National Assembly. The alliance that has organised this unprecedented mobilisation since the fight against the pension reform of 2010, is the alliance of CFDT-CGT-FO-CFTC-Unsa-CFE-CGC accompanied by FSU and Solidaires unions, which for a long time have not mobilized onto streets.  

Under the proposals outlined by the prime minister earlier this month, from 2027 people will have to work 43 years to qualify for a full pension, as opposed to 42 years now. Hailed by the government as a vital and “safe and balanced” measure to safeguard France’s share-out pension system, the reform is deeply unpopular among the public. 68% of citizens re opposed to it, as we can see in the IFOP poll this week. No more than around 20% of the people declare to be pro-reform.  

Since Macron has under him only a minority government, he must rely on the support of the 60 or so MPs of the conservative Republicans party. However, this support might disappear: while in principle they are in favour of pension reform, some of them have warned that they would vote against it.  And the parliamentary process will certainly take weeks.

The government argued that, regardless of the turnout at the demonstrations, the reform would be voted through parliament in March and come into force in the summer. After the protests, the narrative began to change somewhat. Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne called for the debate on the reform to continue.  

“We say ‘yes’ to demonstrations, criticism, and debate, but ‘no’ to blocking the country and the daily lives of the French”

– this was the response to the unionists’ call by government spokesperson Olivier Véran. 

However, this stance was quickly changed by the governmental politicians, impressed by the size of the protests.

“This is a powerful mobilization. It is normal for this issue to cause concern and it is necessary to respond to it. It is also necessary to listen to the slogans that appeared at the demonstrations”

– said the Minister of Labour, Olivier Dussopt, on RTL radio. 

In several cities, the number of demonstrators was unprecedented since the fight against the pension reform of 2010 or the historic protests back in 1995.

This happened for example in Lille.

“I saw a crowd of about 50-70 thousand people, thousands of young students, teachers and working people from across the public sectors. I have not seen something as big, such a mobilization for many years” – Magdalen, a shopkeeper at one of the busiest streets of Lille, told me.  

Some demonstrators to whom I talked had never taken to the streets before.

“I’ve never taken part in social mobilizations of any kind. But this is just too much. I cannot stand all the lies anymore. We know that there are solutions to finance the system. I am also here, on this demonstration out of pure solidarity

– I heard from Laurence, finance student from Lille.  

Maxence Guillaud, student’s coordinator of Jeunes Communistes du Nord told me that:

“This scandalous reform is yet another attack on our pension model. We are proud to have conquered it, and we showed this Thursday that we will fight to keep it. At a time when the bourgeoisie is getting richer and richer with the liberal governments as their first accomplice, the working class is being asked to work harder than ever, while continuing to be exploited. This is clearly seen in a context where inflation is galloping but where wages are not rising.”

Slogans of raising the minimum wage and pensions in the public sector could have been heard in the whole city, and they would be a perfect addition to Maxence’s words.

For the young people, it would be wrong not to feel concerned. If the older generation works longer, access to employment for young people will be reduced. In addition, an attack against one part of the working class is an attack against the whole working class! Today, retirement age is 62, and as much as 25% of the poorest die before reaching it. If the retirement age increases to 64 as the government wishes, further millions of French workers will die in the clutches of the bourgeoisie

he ended his statement.  

For some, it is not only a battle for a more just and social pension system, but also a fight for their future:

“The world we live in is collapsing, and we can’t even pretend to have a dignified, normal, socially rewarding old age. Many of us are studying philosophy or ecology, which are very precarious environments, so we are inevitably frightened about what awaits us later, and this reform or direction of the government does not help”

– says Kay, a student from Lile. 

We can be sure that upcoming weeks are going to be full of statements, changes in the reform and pure politicizing in the National Assembly. All of this will be accompanied with demonstrations and strikes at the end of this month, with the biggest mobilization, a general strike planned for 31 January.

If the refiners have already planned to mobilize again on 26 January for 48 hours (about 2 days), the demonstrators are already in the starting blocks for the next day of action. Then we will see how long this mobilization might take, or even if it escalates!  

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