News | Social Movements / Organizing - Western Europe Inside France’s Social and Political Explosion

Two months into the battle over Macron’s pension reform, is the movement closer to victory?


Some 60,000 protesters take the streets against Macron’s pension reform in Bourdeaux, 6 April 2023. Photo: IMAGO / NurPhoto

The pension reform was supposed to be the landmark measure of Emmanuel Macron’s second term. After failing in his first attempt in 2020 following two months of strikes and blocked debates in the National Assembly and then the arrival of COVID, the French President was determined to see this reform to the end. Fervently requested by the European Commission, this reform is of major political importance for Macron, who wants to reassert his image as a neoliberal reformer with the “bourgeois bloc” that re-elected him last year.

William Bouchardon is the economics editor at LVSL, an independent online magazine in France.

Re-elected by default when he faced Marine Le Pen in the run-off election but deprived of an absolute majority in the National Assembly since June, Macron has limited political capital. Moreover, as he is unable to stand in the elections again, the French head of state knows that the popular hunger for his succession will grow as the next presidential election approaches. Politically, Macron feels a certain urgency to move forward with the reform before he is too far into his fragile five-year term.

How Macron Made an Enemy of France

In this context, the pension reform has become a lightning rod for political struggle for two reasons. Firstly, the issue is highly symbolic: pensions are at the heart of the “social model” that the French hold so dear, and all previous reforms have been subject to major disputes. Macron wanted his own "Thatcher moment” — by winning the tug of war against the trade unions and the Left, he would go down in history, and hopefully inspire lasting resignation and nihilism among his opponents.

On the other hand, the only chance for him to grow his electoral bloc and consolidate a majority in the National Assembly would be to finish the absorption of the Republicans (LR). The political Right in France has long called for this reform. By taking up their proposal, Macron has set a trap: either LR votes for the reform and therefore assumes that the occupant of the Elysée will implement their programme and thus form a coalition, or they lose all credibility.

At first, Macron’s move appeared quite clever. There was only one problem: no argument in favour of the reform seems to hold water.

Financially, the French pension system is not in danger, as the country’s Pensions Advisory Council has repeatedly pointed out. Furthermore, the additional costs in terms of unemployment and sick leave for senior citizens caused by the reform, as well as the various measures that were conceded during parliamentary debates, suggest that the reform may not even yield anything.

Additionally, the other proposals to increase the system’s revenues (increasing wages, revisiting contribution payments, or equal pay for men and women) have never been discussed. The government’s lies, particularly surrounding the minimum pension of 1,200 euro, or the government’s so-called “consultation” with the trade unions, ended up killing the proposal’s legitimacy.

Thus, the French people quickly came to realize that two additional working years were not justified, and it was quickly and widely rejected: around 70 percent of French people and 93 percent of working people are opposed to it.

Major Protests, but Few Strikes

Reflecting the level of opposition, all of France’s trade unions have come together to oppose the reform in a display of unity that had not been seen since the 2010 pension reform. While the opposition of the General Workers’ Confederation (CGT) or Solidaires, trade unions accustomed to fighting to shift the balance of power, did not surprise anyone, the opposition from the reformist French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT) or the French Confederation of Management — General Confederation of Executives (CFE-CGC), a management trade union, was surprising.

Of course, each union retains its autonomy beyond the issue of pensions and handling current affairs. Nevertheless, moderate trade unions are cooperating with their more radical counterparts within the inter-union framework due to the government’s total refusal to negotiate with representatives from the world of work. Although the CFDT accommodated Macron when he came to power, its strategy systematically failed, and the brutal laws against the labour movement, such as work orders and reforms to the state unemployment insurance, multiplied. Faced with pressure from his base, CFDT leader Laurent Berger agreed to form an alliance with Philippe Martinez, the secretary general of the CGT.

Buoyed by the trade unions’ united front, public rallies quickly became widespread. Initially, the trade unions organized one protest per week, calling on workers to strike in order to join the marches. The success on the streets is undeniable. Most days, there have been more than 1 million workers taking to the streets, a figure that rose to 3.5 million on 7 March according to the CGT — the highest on record for several decades. There have also been massive rallies in small, usually quiet cities.

Despite the President of the Republic’s determination, a victory for the social movement thus appears within reach. But in what form?

On the other hand, opting for ad hoc strikes to avoid significant wage losses did not have a major impact on the economy. Since 7 March, the situation has changed slightly, with certain industries and trade unions taking part in ongoing strikes. While the inter-union movement remains united, this evolution reflects the trade unionists’ desire to solidify the disputes so as not to repeat the scenario that played out in 2010, when mass protests and limited strikes brought down a previous pension reform.

As might be expected, the ongoing strike is above all a proxy strike. Most French people rely on the action of a few highly mobilized, professional sectors to secure victory. While some strikes have had immediate effects, such as at the state railway operator SNCF, others have taken time to yield visible results.

For example, consider the strikes undertaken by garbage collectors, who created mountains of rubbish in Paris, or by dockers and refiners. Electricians and gas fitters, whose unique employment arrangement is threatened by the reform, smuggled meters to restore power and gas for people who were left without it and moved public services, associations, or small businesses onto free or reduced rates.

Although illegal, these actions in the middle of an energy crisis garnered strong sympathy. At the same time, elected representatives in favour of the reform had their electricity cut off. Other protest forms, borrowed from farmers or the gilets jaunes (Yellow Vests), have also been used, such as blocking ring roads, refusing to pay road tolls, or intruding into the offices of multinational corporations. Although these methods have not been enough to bring the country to a standstill and push back the government (yet), they have nonetheless had an impact on parliamentary debates.

Making Parliament Ungovernable

Initially, the law on the pension reform was to be passed without too much trouble. The combination of votes from the presidential camp and the majority of LR MPs should have sufficed to adopt the law in the National Assembly. In addition, the government chose a specific legislative vehicle, the PLFSSR, which is normally used to readjust Social Security accounts during the year, such as during the COVID crisis. Above all, the move made it possible to limit the length of debates in order to avoid parliamentary filibustering.

Yet, Macron’s tactic ultimately backfired on him. The 13,000 amendments by La France Insoumise (LFI) and the 5,000 filed by its allies in the New Ecological and Social People's Union (NUPES) — the Greens, the Socialists, and the Communists — significantly delayed the debates. While many were eventually withdrawn, the law could not be carried to its conclusion, and the infamous Article 7, designed to raise the statutory retirement age, was not passed. The Left used a similar tactic in the Senate, but the misuse of the articles in the regulation allowed the vote to be forced at the last minute, and the LR majority supported the law.

The debates were very tense, with booing, invectives, and interruptions heard throughout the session. Reiterating the government’s arguments, many mainstream media outlets accused La France Insoumise in particular of “messing with” the National Assembly. seeking to reflect and embody the anger felt on the streets, the LFI MPs have been particularly hostile, particularly against the Minister of Labour, Olivier Dussopt. But this overblown atmosphere is nothing new, as the former president of the lower house, Jean-Louis Debré, reminded readers.

Similarly, the 20,000 or so amendments are few compared to the 140,000 filed in 2006 against the privatization of the state gas company, Gaz de France. Although their nerves were sometimes shot and the trade unions did not appreciate the atmosphere in the debates, the strategy led by La France Insoumise achieved its goal: to avoid MPs voting in the reform. Additionally, the majority of French people believe that the government is primarily responsible for this situation, after not permitting sufficient time for the debate.

Unlike the head-on confrontation engineered by LFI and a part of the NUPES, the National Rally party (RN) remained extremely quiet during this time. Although Marine Le Pen’s party is opposed to the reform, her manifesto changed several times on the issue, and the RN never misses an opportunity to attack France's social model. The extreme Right thus voted against increasing the minimum wage and wants to remove employer contributions, which would weaken Social Security.

Ultimately, it is easy to imagine that Marine Le Pen hopes the reform will be adopted and that the anger of the French people will benefit her at the next election. Her strategy is to accuse the trade unions of supporting Macron when he faced her in the second round of the presidential elections and portray herself as a calm and responsible opponent. Once again, the RN and the presidential camp prove how much they need each other. By reinforcing each other, they hope to avoid addressing social and environmental issues and rely on pseudo-opposition to win an election.

Article 49.3 Lights a Fire

Given the scale of the protests week after week, some LR MPs finally withdrew their support for the reform. True, their conversion is opportunistic, since their presidential candidate, Valérie Pécresse, defended retiring at 65 years. But the fact that she achieved a very low score (less than 5 percent) and that right-wing MPs were elected in June was mainly due to their local roots — particularly in rural constituencies where opposition to the reform is strong — eroded voting discipline.

Although the vote on the final law looked very uncertain, on 16 March Macron decided to invoke Article 49.3 of the Constitution, which allows a law to be adopted without a vote, staking the survival of the government on it. This decision added a democratic crisis to the social crisis.

Spontaneous protests are multiplying, particularly in Paris, where they take place every evening.

In response to this coup de force, Macron’s opponents filed a vote of no confidence, a reaction to Article 49.3 that can bring down the government and the reform if more than 50 percent of MPs vote for it. This marked the first cross-party motion since the legislative elections — a testament to the growing opposition. While Elisabeth Borne and her ministers ultimately survived by just nine votes, the centrists of the LIOT parliamentary group and a third of LR (19 out of 61 MPs) voted no confidence.

Beyond rejecting the reform, the total disregard for the parliamentary work has also been sanctioned. To continue the fight, left-wing MPs and senators are now enlisting their last institutional tools: on one hand, a plea to the Constitutional Council claiming that the debates were not “clear and sincere”, and a request for a shared initiative referendum. However, these two courses of action depend on the goodwill of the Constitutional Council, which generally rules in favour of the power in place.

Pending the outcome of these proceedings, the explosive atmosphere in Parliament seems to block the review of the next laws. The government has therefore temporarily abandoned looking at an immigration law, and the Communist Party is considering no longer sitting in the Assembly until the reform is withdrawn.

Moving towards Radicalization?

On the streets, the fact that the vote of no confidence was so close once again galvanized protesters, who saw it as a sign that victory was now within reach. While the government was hoping for a mood of resignation among the French people, 3.5 million of them took to the streets again on 23 March, at least according to the trade unions (the police issued a figure of 1.1 million).

At the same time, spontaneous protests are multiplying, particularly in Paris, where they take place every evening. While some protesters burn bins or deface banks and MPs’ offices, the overwhelming majority are peaceful.

The government is responding with repression, tear gas, unfounded questioning, and crowd-dispersal grenades. BRAV-M units, particularly violent motorcycle units, have been widely deployed to instil terror. The level of violence is increasing, especially from the police, as French and international organizations such as Amnesty International, the Council of Europe, and the French Defender of Rights have highlighted. While Macron hopes that this violence will eventually end up delegitimizing the movement, 70 percent of French people believe that the government is “largely responsible” for it and 61 percent believe that violence is the “only way to make themselves heard”.

Finally, strikes have been on the rise for a week, despite repression, requisitions from workers, the use of strike-breakers, and illegal attempts to dismiss strikers. Hopes of a withdrawal lie particularly with strikes in refineries, the effects of which are starting to be felt.

On Monday, 27 March, more than 16 percent of the country’s service stations were at least partially disrupted. Even very conservative institutions, such as the Court of Auditors or Panthéon-Assas University, are experiencing blockades and strikes, a sign of the exasperation that a very large majority of French people feel.

Despite the President of the Republic’s determination, a victory for the social movement thus appears within reach. But in what form? A simple government reshuffle will not be enough to restore calm, while a dissolution of the Assembly would result in Marcon’s camp losing seats. As for a referendum, there is no doubt over its outcome. Withdrawing the reform is therefore Marcon’s best option. Whatever the outcome of this social tug of war, there is no doubt that it will go down in French history.