Gael de Santis: For the first time French labour unions think they can win [video]

Cross-border Talks’ episode with the editor at l’Humanite Gael de Santis on Macron’s pension reforms and resistance against it. Who supports the reform? Who rejects it? What is the current balance of forces in the French society? And what are the economics behind that political contradiction?

Full transcription of the video is available below.

Veronika Susova-Salminen: Welcome everybody in the next episode of Cross-border Talks. Today’s topic is, I think, very interesting. We are going to speak about the situation in France, particularly the situation related to the proposed pension reform of Emmanuel Macron and his government and about the social and labour reaction to this reform.

For those who don’t know us, you will find more information on our page and on our social media, and I am glad that today’s topic will be presented. All the questions we prepared will be answered by the French journalist working for the leftist newspaper L’Humanite. Gael De Santis, Welcome, Gael, in our talk.

Thank you very much.

My name is Veronica Susova-Salminen and my co-host today is my friend and colleague, Vladimir Mitev. So I would like to ask the first question. I like to ask general questions in the beginning. And I would like to ask you more precisely about the reform, about the pension reform. What is actually this reform about? What is the political and economical rationale behind the proposal of Emmanuel Macron and his government to do the pension reform? We know that this reform was already announced, if I remember well, one year ago in February 2022. It was seen as one of the things which Macron was promising to do during his second and last presidency. So could you give us in a nutshell an idea about what this reform is about? I suppose it’s not just about the changing of the age of going to the pension, but about more other issues as well. Please give us some kind of idea about what this reform is about and what it means for French society and for French labor?

Today in France, we can get a pension when we fulfill two conditions: to be 62 years old and to have worked for 42 years. The reform was presented, as you said, in February 2022 during the electoral campaign, so that Emmanuel Macron can say: You have voted for me and you have voted for this. There is this new reform and the idea is to pass from to gradually you will go on pension when you are 64 years old, not before. And there is a second point. It is the acceleration of reforms that was put forward during the socialist government before 2012 so that you could go to 43 years of work before going into pension. So the two accumulate. The 43 years of work time means that some people will have to go to work at 21, 22, 23 years old because they were studying. They will not be able to retire before 64, 65, 66. So this is the idea. The main rationale behind it is that they want to avoid the cost for the pension system, which would be higher than it is today.

Today, the pensioners receive more or less 14.5% of GDP. The government doesn’t want to raise these 14.5% of GDP, even though 19% of the population is already above 65 years old. They don’t want to increase social expenses for the state. This is the main stuff because the main project of this government is to completely reform the French economy in a neoliberalist way. And France is somehow an anomaly in the European Union with 47-48% of GDP, which is in taxes or cultivation for the Social Security system. The medium in the European Union is only 40%.

So the idea of the government is to decrease this percentage to go on a European line so that the French companies can adapt and be competitive. The problem behind that is that if they want to lower the significance of budget income from 48 to 40% of the GDP, they will have to decrease the cost for health care. So the rationale, the main idea is to decrease the percentage of taxes in the French GDP. This helps the company and he says this helps the stakeholders and this helps the rich people. Mainly this is what is at stake. 

In addition, from a European Union point of view, France is not respecting the 3% deficit threshold, which is included in the three European Union treaties. They have to give some proof to the European Commission that they want to decrease this deficit. The main problem for that is that one of the solutions they have found is to decrease the cost of the pension system.

Then there is another rationale. This is that the French growth is not big enough because French people don’t work enough. We go on pension by 62 years old. The work week is 35 hours a week. So it is interesting that at the beginning of the debate for pension, if one of the parties more than of the majority of Emmanuel Macron proposed that we would work not 35 hours a week, but 35 hours and 30 minutes a week. So this is also a trend that the idea is that people should work more in a week and should work more in a life to to help functioning the big companies and so on.

Vladimir Mitev: Ok. Who are the social groups or the political groups which promote this kind of reform? Who benefits from it, not only in terms of parties, but also among the classes or groups of people, economic categories, etc..

From a political point of view, this reform is put forward by the majority of Emmanuel Macron around the Renew/Renaissance, the party of Emmanuel Macron. The problem is they don’t have the majority in Parliament. That explains why we had a pension reform in 2019 and it was stopped by COVID. And it had difficulties going forward.

 It was a different kind of pension. It was not to raise the legal age. It would have remained at 62 years old, but there was a pivot age at 64. So you could go in pension at 63, but you would have had a lower pension, which was quite problematic. And this pension reform was abandoned because Emmanuel Macron does not have any majority in Parliament. He had to to to discuss with the traditional right, namely the Republicans, the party of Jacques Chirac, of Nicolas Sarkozy. And that’s why it has these criteria of age of 64 years old before going into pension, because this is a demand of the traditional right wing in the French parliament.

So from a social point of view, the only way we have to get an equilibrium in the balance in the pension system is increasing the time of work.But this is creating a problem because people will be unemployed and you will have the same to pay for it. It won’t be the pension system, but the unemployment system that will pay for it. 

You can also lower the pensions as a second solution. But it’s difficult because for the rightwing voter, the pensioners, voters tend to vote for right-wing parties and neoliberal centrist Macron party. So they cannot do that. And third one is to increase the taxes. And the fact is that this idea of increasing the taxes or asking the companies to pay more to allow for people to live on pension, that’s 60 to 63 years old, is an alternative. And a problem for the rich. 

So the fact is that  they refuse this alternative in favor of the rich and of the so-called competitiveness of the companies because they don’t want to increase the taxes on companies. And that’s a fact.

It has to be said, I was mentioning the pivot age system, which was debated in 2019. This was a point system. When you are older, you get points. When you work, you get points and at the end each point is a value and it gives you the amount of your pension. This was the idea of 2019 reform, and this reform was supported by one the main trade unions in France, which is a centrist trade union. This reform was abandoned because Macron did not have a majority in parliament and he had to gather the votes of the right wing if he wanted to have a majority. This centrist union, which is against Macron’s reform, is now  in the street today with CGT and others. This government reached to create a real bloc of union which was not seen for 15 years. A new trade union unity against this reform. And all the unions are asking these reforms to be put out of the table. This is really, really interesting. It is really interesting.

So mainly you have the centre and the right, which is standing for the reform. And the classes which are standing for the reform are the richest, the richest people. Two thirds of the people of France are against this reform. A few weeks ago, the pensioners, the one who already had a pension, were in favor of this reform because they are voting right-wing and so on. But they also feared that if you don’t increase the age, their pension would lower. Now, there is a majority also among the pensioners against this reform and this is quite a new thing and it’s interesting. 

To sum up ,in opposition to the reform, you have all the unions, 80% of the workers. You have the left, you have also the extreme right, which is quite strong. We have seen it in the last election and in some aspects you have also some fissures in the majority. Some people don’t really stand for reform. So we’ll see that the situation in next weeks can be interesting.

Ok, what more should be said about this coalition that opposes the reform. It seems very huge with millions of people going on the street. Who are the social classes or groups which enter in that coalition, besides the labor unions and who are the political forces that support it?

Mainly it is the working class movement in France, the people working. They are against this reform. This is really important. On the other hand, the rich and some intermediary classes stand for it. But a lot of people reject these reforms. 

Rarely you can see such a situation: a trade union unity, 70% of the people against the reform. That’s really something completely, completely, completely new. And this is due to the fact that we have a government that was badly elected. I mean, Macron made 23% or 24% in the presidential election, and he was elected with the vote of the left because we did not want the far right to be in government. This is normal. We always vote against the far right because we know that the far right will be against the rights of migrants, against the rights of women, of the LGBT people, and against also the rights of workers and unions. So we always vote against the extreme right.

Therefore, Macron was able to get a majority in a presidential election, but this was not a majority in support of him. He knew that. And that is why in February 2022, he presented this reform and put it in the programme. Earlier  when you had pension reforms in France, they were never put in electoral campaign debate. This was the first time one candidate did it before winning. And it was the idea that he could say: I have a mandate. 

But when you look at legislative elections, he doesn’t have a mandate because he doesn’t have a majority in the French parliament. He has to find a majority each time for each law proposed. So we are in quite a good situation where 60-70% of the population are against it and there is a government which is not strong.

And also we, as a society, have changed. We had the yellow vests five years ago, four or five years ago, asking for public services all around France and against the rise of the cost of gas. We had COVID-19 where we have seen that a lot of workers are not earning a lot… people who helped France to stay on foot during the pandemics. We learned that we have a lot of money in France. And one of the reasons why this coalition is that strong against the movement is that first, people don’t want it. But also it’s because people know there is money to make another reform.

We speak of reform to make savings of 10-20 billion per year in France, which is almost nothing. I mean, last year. You know, when you go to the stock market, we have the index of the stock market of Paris. It represents the 40 main companies. 80 billion were given to stakeholders in 2021. We need only 10 or 20 billion per year to have a balanced pension system. So people know this kind of figure and they know that we could take money from that. Ten or 20 billion represents only 2% of the fortune of the billionaires in France. 

We used to have a tax on the riches. Macron has removed the tax on the patrimony of the richest. Only 2% per year. And they make some new money so they don’t need it. We can take it easily. If we took 2% of the fortune of the billionaires, we can pay for this pension reform. And also, when you look at the budget of the state, every year, the state is giving 200 billion to companies in France. Either it’s a subsidy or it’s you don’t pay the social cultivation for Social Security on lower wages. So the companies are assisted by 200 billions of euros per year by the French state. So there is money. People know it. And the government is saying: we have to find money. But people know it is possible.

It has been calculated that if you don’t take money from the capital with €40-50 per month, that would put the workers into a pension two years earlier. And a lot of people, they would also agree to pay more taxes themselves in order to go to pension by 62 years old. But also there are other arguments which are very sensitive in society because there has been an increasing sensation that inequality is a problem in our society. One part of the poor is already dead when they are 62 years, so they will never get a pension. Also, we have in France a very big problem of unemployment for people above 50 and 55 years old. At 61 years old, 50% of the people are working. One part is not working because they have some kind of subsidy not to work and 25% are unoccupied. So already today, half of the people are not working when they’re 62 years old. If it’s 64 years old, it will be even more. That is a problem and the people know that. Also, companies tend to fire people above 50 years old. This is a problem. We have a huge rate of unemployment among the seniors and people know it. And this is a question we have to deal with.

And the fourth question, also related to inequality, is that you had some measures in the French pension system. If you had a difficult job, you could go to pension one, two, three years before. And the problem is that. During the socialist government, they enlarged the list of ‘difficult crafts’. The Macron government reduced the number of occupations where difficulty is recognized as a right to go in pension earlier. So you really have this problem with this pension. 

The broad coalition is mainly on two feet. One foot is we want to fight inequality. Second, it is the knowledge that there is money in this society to have another pension reform.

From what you say, it’s clear that Macron and his government are representing a particular neoliberal type of interests, and this is ongoing redistribution from the bottom up again. There are huge strikes in France. We know there is a united front of trade unions, which, as you said, didn’t happen for a very long time. We know that Macron doesn’t have a very strong position in the parliament thanks to the legislative parliamentary election. So how is actually the government and Macron himself reacting to these huge and quite articulated protests against the reform? Are they trying to, besides courting the right to have the support, are they trying to seek compromise with the trade unions? Oor do you feel that there will be rather some kind of repression against the strikes, against the trade unionists, against the labour? What is the reaction of the government to this wave of mobilisation?

When we speak of France, we have to know that, unfortunately, the extreme right is very strong. On the left, we are always looking to make the difference between the extreme right and the right. This government is posing a problem. Some high school students were removed from their high school because they were occupying it in the last two years. The demonstrations went very bad. So you have a kind of authoritarian, more and more authoritarian ingestion of the social crisis. They try to have the agreement of the right. This is really, really a problem because the right is also in favor of diminishing the right to strike in, for instance, in public transport. This is bad. 

But for the first time, the demonstrations are so massive that little groups of extreme left black blocs didn’t really enter into actions, which is good because it allows a massification of the movement. You had more than 3 million people in the streets. This is the biggest mobilization in France in the last 30 years. I’ve never seen that in my whole life, which is getting longer and longer with the passing of the years, something like that. I’m quite impressed.

You can see how authoritarianism works also in the way they decided to conduct the debate in the parliament. They have a minority government, but for these reforms, they know they have the right wing with them. They could say that the debate can last for 30-40 days. The problem they have is that the consciousness in the country that another reform is possible is rising, and this is a problem for them. Normally the pension reform would be passed through like any other law. It would take more than 60, 70 days if there is obstruction from the left. They have decided to make a rectification of the Social Security budget, which isa strange way of passing this kind of reform. This procedure was meant for minor corrections! It’s based on the Article 46 47.1 of the Constitution, and it allows the passing of the law in 20 days. 

So what’s happening? You have thousands of amendments from the left or other parties in the parliament. This is obstruction. They decided to put forward thousands of amendments. In France we vote amendment by amendment, article by article. So they will examine it in these 20 days: the amendment for the first article, the amendment for the second article, the amendment for the third article. And after 20 days they say the parliament has not examined the whole text. It goes to the Senate and it returns to the to the to the to the chamber to be voted again. 

Probably we’ll have a situation where the text will leave the parliament without having been examined. This is really a democratic problem because from the beginning, they use Article 49.3 of the Constitution, which allows them to pass a law without the Parliament. They use Article 47.1 to bypass the parliament. And you have to know that this government is unique in Europe. Is not elected by the parliament because Emmanuel Macron nominated the prime minister. And normally, within one week, one month, you go to the parliament and you get a confidence vote. This government never gave a confidence vote in parliament. So it’s a minority government and they use these two articles in order to push the law one after the other. We have a government that doesn’t care about the parliament – which is really a problem. 

Second thing, in the last weeks, the French Communist Party leader Fabian Roussel, put forward the idea of a referendum about this pension reform. The idea was that you could have debates all over the country, in the cities, in the companies and elsewhere. The idea was welcomed by the left. The left put forward in the parliament a referendum motion which says We ask this law to be put in front of the French people and the French people will vote or not for it. We know it will not be voted because 70% of the people are against this reform. 

The problem is the extreme right. And they are discussing –  the government and extreme right – sometimes to pass some stuff in parliament. Some measures are passing with the abstention of the extreme right, the extreme right, which is against the reform, but against the demonstrations. They said we will also make a referendum motion. So you have two referendum motions, which normally the presidency of the Assembly, which is in the hand of Macron, should not have accepted the one of the extreme right. They decided in the conference of the president to make a draw to choose one motion. If the extreme right one is chosen, this  creates a situation where the left wing cannot vote for a text proposed by the extreme right. And this is really a problem because it was made out of the book, out of the law. Normally they should have accepted only the first one. So, the left made some kind of maneuver in Parliament to create a third resolution with some centrist people, a third referendum motion. But the presidency of the Assembly does not want to examine it and to make a new draw to decide which referendum motion will be presented to the parliament. So they are reacting not with anti strike laws, but with a dialogue, with a compromise, with the extreme right in order to present the extreme right as the main opponent. 

The extreme right has just proposed 200 amendments, and that’s all. At the same time, the unions are blocking the country. You have a demonstration which said that every day of strike you lose one or two billions of euros for the French economy. But for Macron, it is easy to have extreme right as opposition. The extreme right is an opposition that does not give a voice to the workers, to the social movements. 

Liberal democracy is at stake because they don’t respect the prerogatives of the parliament first. They are destroying this barrier between the extreme right and the right and the rest of the political spectrum. We have seen in the past that, for instance, the extreme right decided to vote with the government against an increase of the minimum wage. We have seen some vice presidents of the Assembly from the extreme right voted by the Renewal party against the one of the left. The row between the rightwing and the extreme right is falling. And  they don’t respect the prerogative of Parliament. They are creating a strong executive.

So this looks like a very typical, unfortunately, development under neoliberal hegemony, which as we know is undemocratic in principle. It has more and more authoritarian features related to the fact that it is still trying to push its own agenda in the situation that people, not only in France but everywhere in Europe at least, are more and more realizing that this is the system which unfortunately is not having any future and it’s not able to solve the problem we are dealing with. Thank you, Gael, for your words and for your analyses. I think it was very informative and interesting and we will definitely observe the situation in France more precisely, and we will hope that this mobilization against the pension reform and all which comes together with it will be successful. Thank you very much.

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