People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 44

October 31, 2010

Millions March in France against Pension Reforms


R Arun Kumar


THE French parliament has narrowly given its approval to the pension reforms, which have caused a wave of strikes, demonstrations and protests across France, leading to petrol shortages and severe disruption to the economy. The senate voted 177 to 153 to approve measures including a rise in the official retirement age from 60 to 62. The lower house, the national assembly, had earlier given its assent.


The government, in the name of combating the severe global recession, had announced a slew of proposals to cut welfare programmes. Its first step was to reform pension – increase the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 and limit obtaining a full pension from 65 to 67. The chief aim is to cut its yearly deficit by €100 billion at the expense of the workers. The recent budget proposes a cut in the public deficit to 6 per cent of GDP in 2011 from 7.7 per cent this year – the first phase of a plan to trim the gap to the EU’s 3 per cent ceiling in 2013. Even according to the budget minister, François Baroin, “never has such a deficit-reduction effort been undertaken”. The budget aims to achieve this target by not renewing some of the stimulus measures announced during the downturn and by limiting tax breaks. More importantly, it wants to mobilise “€7 billion from imposing a temporary freeze on job recruitment, job cuts and a spending cap in the civil service”. These budget proposals therefore, naturally add to the burdens of an already burdened common man. Many analysts have commented that the opposition to Sarkozy’s pension reform has forced the government to avoid presenting an even more “painful budget”.





These measures initiated by the centre-right government of Sarkozy, met with intense resistance from the French working class. The opposition is so widespread, that Dominique de Villepin, former prime minister belonging to Sarkozy’s own party too expressed his reservations. “We can get the reform through, that’s not the essential question. It is important that the reform be fair and good for all Frenchmen. I remembered a top union leader at the time of the CPE, who said I could get the reform through, but it will provoke a movement of the youth, and then no one knows where that will go. It’s all the more reason to listen to them”. Apart from the political rivalry between Villepin and Sarkozy, the fact that more than 67 per cent of the population are opposed to these measures, forced a person like Villepin to voice his opposition. It should be remembered that Villepin was forced out of office in 2006 by mass demonstrations against his First Job Contract (CPE) labour reform.


The working class of France are once again up in arms. Starting from September, they have launched a sustained struggle against the so-called 'austerity' measures initiated by the Sarkozy government. In a recent demonstration, more than 3.5 million (35 lakh) people marched in 270 centres in protest against the reforms. For more than 10 days, various sections of the industrial workers were on strike. 12 refineries have been shut down for nearly two weeks. Striking dockers blocked ships trying to unload fuel. This had disrupted 'normal life' over the weekend, with over 30 per cent of petrol stations short of fuel. The strikes have hit a wide swath of the economy and life in France. Public transport, which includes the metro, Eurostar train and even the aviation industry was severely affected by the strike. Schools and colleges remained closed, as did post offices. Many civil servants restrained from attending offices, bringing the administration to a standstill. Tons of garbage got piled up in most of the cities, with the administration panicking of a potential health hazard. A recent survey reveals that 70 per cent of the people support these working class actions.


Youth and students too have come out in solidarity with the protesting workers. They had organised huge demonstrations synchronising their protests with the workers. Student unions have urged students to organise sit-ins at their schools and colleges. They said these protests are aimed at showing they can mobilise supporters during the half-term holidays, which begin this weekend. There were clashes between police and protesting youth in several cities.





Instead of heeding to the demands, Sarkozy adopted an arrogant attitude. The Socialist Party proposed an alternate plan to maintain most of the current benefits by imposing new taxes on capital gains to raise $34 billion necessary to finance the scheme. Refusing to heed to any of the alternate proposals and even talk to the workers, the French president is betting that his strong-arm tactics in facing down the unions and wearing down will restore his image among right-wing voters and be a launchpad for his 2012 presidential campaign. Sarkozy stated that the passing of the bill into law is “a victory for France and the French”. His government used a special constitutional clause to speed up the vote in the upper house after senators spent more than three weeks debating various clauses and amendments, many of them advanced by members of the Socialist party opposition. Pierre Laurent, the leader of the Communist party, said: “This ultimate provocation will not stop the will of the people, and cannot but increase the protests”.


Naturally, the ruling classes of France are extending their wholesome support to Sarkozy. The Wall Street Journal wants Sarkozy to stay firm “without facing down opponents of pension overhaul, Mr Sarkozy's austerity budget will count for little”. They want him to stand firm, as these measures help them to boost their profitability and re-establish their competitiveness by slashing wages and social spending. In this manner they are trying to shift the burdens of economic crisis on the working class.


The French government has deep pockets to bailout banks and other financial institutions, but hardly any for the working class and common people. It had allocated more than $460 billion for rescuing the banks and financial institutions during the current economic crisis. It states that it does not have resources to finance the pension scheme, which according to it is currently running a deficit to the tune of 32 billion euros, with the amount expected to grow to 45 billion by 2020.





Leaving none to doubt that 'austerity' does not mean cutting on lavish lifestyles of the rich and famous, Sarkozy doubled his annual salary to more than €228,089. A few days back he had purchased a new presidential jet, “bigger than used by all other heads of government in the European Union” for €180 million. Two French ministers were forced to resign in July, after row over the spending of thousands of euros of taxpayers' money on a private jet and cigars at a time when budget cuts are hitting the public. Austerity is indeed intended only for the working class and other toiling sections of the French society! One newspaper reader rightly posted a reaction: “Sarko and Carla are back acting like Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette again. They have no appreciation of what ordinary people are going through”.


More than 15 per cent of the French workforce is currently on a national minimum wage of €9.12-an-hour, with the unemployment rate spiralling towards the two million mark or 10 per cent. French workers’ productivity has risen five times since 1960. Although it has fallen slightly over the last two years due to the recession, it is expected to double again over the next 20 years. Their real wages on the contrary have not seen even a corresponding increase. Income inequalities too are on the rise with 280,000 US dollar millionaires or about 0.45 per cent of the total population living in absolute luxury, while millions are mired in poverty. Whatever little poverty reduction achieved was to a substantial extent due to the social welfare programmes. According to 2002 statistics, these schemes constituted nearly 50 per cent of the income for the poor. Now with the government, intent on withdrawing these welfare measures, these inequalities are bound to increase further.


French workers have won the right to retire on a state pension at 60 in 1982, after many struggles. It is the attack on their hard won rights and livelihoods that has angered the French workers and made them resolute in the struggle to defend their rights. Reports are published in the media about the 'losing steam' of these struggles. But France’s labour unions remain defiant. They say “98 per cent want to keep on striking.” Unions have called for a further day of mass strikes and protests on October 28 and another on November 6. Let us hope that the French working class would be successful in their struggles and build a better future.