Person of the Year: The French Worker on Strike
Time magazine named teen climate activist Greta Thunberg its person of the year last December but in truth, given that this has been a year of global unrest and efforts from the streets worldwide to counter the effects of an ever more rapacious neoliberal capitalism, the real person of the year who epitomizes this moment may be the French public worker, on strike now for over two weeks to save the French pension system.
People’s movements in Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Chile, Columbia and Bolivia after the coup have all challenged their various governments and made local demands for more equality, with the movements often springing from what seems almost negligible offenses as workers in Chile took to the streets after a 4 cent increase in metro fare. In each case, the momentary cause of the uprising was a last straw and brought on, as in Chile, by what has been seen as rewarding the rich while taking more money from those who can least afford it.
In France, after a day of protest that saw by one estimate over one million people in the streets across the country, the government responded the next day by presenting a pension “reform” plan that was worse than anyone expected. The plan would raise the retirement limit from 62 to 64 years and that was the red line for even the most employer-friendly union, the CFDT, which has supported previous “reforms.”
The result so far has been two more days of protest and an ongoing transport strike, joined in some cases by air traffic controllers and hospital workers, that has brought together for the first time under Macron not only all of the unions, previously badly divided, but also all the parties of an equally fractured left, including the Greens, whose progressive faction is in control of the party and which won the most votes of any left party in the last elections, those for the European parliament.
The pension plan was dealt an equally devastating blow this week when Jean Paul Delevoye, the author of last summer’s white paper which detailed the plan and the person pegged to be its chief architect going forward as the plan was implemented, was forced to resign for not reporting that he was taking money from the insurance lobby at the time he was authoring the paper. This is important because the insurance companies see themselves as the new complement to a decreased pension system, offering annuities to pensioners no longer supported by the system. So Delevoye, a supposed disinterested public servant, was employed at the time he was writing the pension reform by an industry whose primary interest was in demolishing it.
Essentially, as often with the Macron government, this amounts to an effort to privatize this public system. Macron has already put in motion plans to sell off, or lease in what amounts to perpetuity, two of the state’s major money makers, the Paris airport lands and concessions and the government’s lotto or gaming franchise.
Conditions in Paris and across the country are fraught, with more cars, bicycles, scooters, motorbikes on the streets and sidewalks and the few buses that are running overcrowded. But so far, the mood is one of, as the newspaper Liberation described it, solidarity, with people putting up with the inconvenience and aware that the strikers are fighting for them and are literally fighting for their lives and those of their children. In France, in part because of the pension system, life expectancy is continuing to increase whereas in the US with a fading pension system it is declining. Also, for those over 65, only 5 percent in France live at the poverty line or below as opposed to 20 percent in the US. As one observer put it, “A French worker without a pension is an American worker.”
There is a life and death element also that affects the transport workers, and particularly the metro workers who are leading the strike. This year a study concluded that the Paris metro contains the highest concentration of fine particulate matter anywhere in the country which means that they are breathing in this poison every day. Spending two more years on the job, if the retirement age is raised from 62 to 64, is a matter of grave concern. These metro workers are the equivalent in the neo-liberal service and symbolic economy of this century of the mine workers of the industrial economy of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Macron came to power proposing that France follow the example of Sweden, seen as a fiscally responsible country which is maintaining its social welfare program. However, the number of Swedish retirees receiving additional state aid has doubled over the last 15 years of the implementation of this “reform” of the system. Neighboring Germany also now has a more impoverished system with workers on average receiving only 48 percent of their wages in their pension whereas in France the average is 67 percent.
Government officials claim the strike is not affecting the economy with one government statistician stating that at even one of the peak periods of French strikes, that of 1995, the economy declined by only two-tenths of one percent. But in Paris, operas, ballets and theaters are canceling and because of the increased cost of living in Paris and the other globalized cities, many of those who staff the jobs in the service industry, from restaurants to pools and gyms, come from outside the city and are affected by the strike as employers scramble to cover workers who are late or no shows.
A poll at the beginning of the strike, which since neither side is backing down, most likely now will endure through New Year’s and possibly beyond, shows that 59 percent of the French blame Macron for causing the strike rather than the workers for instigating it.
The government is counting on the inconvenience of wearing people down, but it is equally likely that rather than being fed up with what is sometimes called an “entitled” working class, more people will join the cause. Ultimately, it’s possible that the value of solidarity and defending a social system for all won over more than a century and a half of struggle will come to the fore and mark a resurgence in shared communal values in a France that Macron wanted to turn instead into a “start-up nation,” that is one where individual entrepreneurs are out only for themselves.