Movements against pension bill in France gets bigger and tougher

by Marie Dupont

Photo Lilicomanche

Already six nationwide demonstrations since 7 September have taken place against the proposal to increase the pension age in France. This social movement is not declining. The government is now described as ‘autistic’ – refusing any dialogue and re-iterating on and on that it will not move one inch in favour of the mass movement demands.

However the mass movement is unpredictable. Although it keeps spreading, and anger against the pension bill is still growing, it often does go where it is not expected. The action on Tuesday 12 October showed a record level of participation – there were 20% more people on the street. But some of the announced ‘unlimited’ strikes stopped after one day – as with the Paris metro and buses workers. The railway was only 50% on strike. But the refinery workers have been very active in the protest and this has a strategic importance as it could block the country living it without oil. On Friday the lorry drivers decided to go on strike and the rail workers have announced they will go back on strike on Monday.

If the generalisation of strikes has not quite worked out as hoped, the demonstrations are really massive. For example in a city such as Toulouse, with 500,000 inhabitants, 140,000 demonstrated last Tuesday. Saturday again saw massive demonstrations everywhere and a new one is planned for this Tuesday. The pace of protests is speeding up, with a demonstration and a strike nationally every three days for the last week.

The radicalisation of young people is also giving a new turn to the struggle. Seeing young people on the streets seems to have been one of the worst fears of the government. Not only is their enthusiasm infectious but their slogans are more radical: they simply demand the withdrawal of the pensions bill as a whole while the adult unions have been divided on this, with some just wanting amendments.

The effort by the government to keep young people out of the movement created exactly the contrary effect. Young people have rightly understood that the growing unemployment which they will encounter after leaving school has a direct link with the older people being forced to work longer. Around 1,000 schools – a quarter of the total number of French high schools – have progressively been joining in the strike since Thursday, and in certain places they have been brutally assaulted by the police. University students are slowly also joining in the movement.

The present social mobilisation in France is exceptional in term of its duration, the number of people participating in it, and the permanent unity of its action. Some new slogans have appeared demanding more general social justice. People are expressing more and more their concern that the weight of the economic crisis is being paid for by the working class.

The government is predicting that life will slowly go back to normal after the final vote on the bill on Wednesday. But, first, in 2006, a huge youth mass movement, soon joined by large sections of the working class, forced the government to withdraw a law which had already been passed which worsened the conditions of newly hired young people. Second, strikes in refineries, rail and lorry drivers which are on the agenda could paralyse large parts of the country and raise the stakes still higher.