Growing anger against Macron’s attack on pensions

By Najete Michell and Paul Taylor

From the beginning of his presidency, Macron has pursued a policy of austerity designed to increase the exploitation of the working class and boost the wealth of the rich. His attempt to increase the pension age in France from 62 to 64 is rejected by the vast majority of people.

Mass protests spreading

Saturday, February 11, saw a massive mobilisation against President Macron. The protest, called by a united front of French trade unions, saw over 2.5 million people on the streets. Over 200 marches took place across the country. The biggest was in Paris, with over 500,000.   

On February 7, over two million, mostly strikers, joined demonstrations. This followed the trade union-led protest on January 31, which saw nearly three million people out. Prior to that, more than two million protested across France on January 19.

These demonstrations have seen unprecedented unity among the different trade union federations and the political parties of the left.

The opinion polls show that more than two-thirds of the country oppose the proposed pension reform. The hostility to Macron’s attack is growing. People who have never been on the streets before are joining the protests.

Demonstrations have occurred in cities and small towns across the country; in many places, the largest ever seen. The outpouring of angry opposition extends to very small towns, and rural areas. In Annonay [pop. 16,000], the birthplace of the minister leading the pension reforms, half the population took to the streets on the 7 and 11 February.

Youth anger

Support for the protests is becoming deeper and broader. Tens of thousands of students and young workers have joined the demonstrations. On January 31, 150,000 students, high school students and young workers joined the national protest. On February 7, fifteen colleges were blockaded, and students from 200 schools mobilised.

Attempts by the government to create a generational divide by turning young workers against older ones have failed.

As Mediapart noted, 26% of young people aged 18-24 in France live under the poverty line. Many more are angry as they struggle with low pay, insecure jobs and expensive housing. They understand that making people work longer will not benefit them. It will lead to fewer jobs being available. A defeat of the working class on pensions today would be a set back that could weaken the resistance to further attacks on the rights and wages of all workers, irrespective of age.

The fight in parliament

The fight against Macron’s attack unites a mass opposition of the unions and the youth on the streets with the political forces of NUPES [the coalition of the left parties in parliament], which are bringing this class struggle into the National Assembly. As Mathilde Panot, president of the France Insoumise group in the National Assembly, said, ‘those walls [of parliament] aren’t thick enough to protect you from the anger rising outside.’

NUPES is exposing the government’s lie that bankruptcy is the only alternative to its reform in a briefing: ‘Projet Macron Contre Nos Retraites’ [The Macron project against our pensions] 

The NUPES document explains that government forecasts for the pension system are flawed. “The deficits forecast for 2023 in the pension system, in the Social Security budget, are not the result of a demographic imbalance, but of austerity, starting with the dismantling of the public service. Indeed, public employers have higher contribution rates than the general private scheme. Reducing the number of civil servants and their level of remuneration therefore amounts to drying up the financing of pensions. To this are added exemptions from contributions of all kinds. These have increased 3 times faster than social assistance over the past 10 years.”

NUPES starkly summarises the severity of the attack. ‘It will deepen inequalities because it is ‘les plus modestes’ ( those on low incomes) and women who would pay a high price. It would steal the best years of retirement.” 

The document also shows how Macron and his ministers governed for the rich. “In his first five-year term, tax cuts for the benefit of the wealthiest and large companies have cut the general state budget by 50 billion euros per year. The reduction of 4 billion euros in the contribution on the added value of companies (CVAE) again this year, and its definitive abolition as of next year, continue to widen the State deficit.”  

The core demands raised in the NUPES document include:
· Aim for a legal retirement at 60
· Take back the tax cuts granted to companies and the wealthiest households (ISF, flat tax, CVAE, etc.)
· Tax super profits
· Equal pay between women and men

Parliament is in the middle of a two-week debate before a vote on the proposals. Macron cannot guarantee that he will win a vote in parliament and may resort again to the undemocratic constitutional decree 49.3 to force the proposal through parliament without a vote.

The far-right has been marginalised in the national struggle in parliament and on the streets. NUPES has been highly effective in using parliament and social media to expose the deceit of the Macronists. The claim that the president’s plan means that most people would receive at least a pension of 1200 Euros per month was exposed as a lie.

However, the Macronists continue to engage in parliamentary manoeuvring to weaken the left in favour of the far right. Last Friday, the Macronists voted with Le Pen’s party (RN) to exclude a left MP from parliament for a tweet mocking a minister. He received the same sanction as an MP for the RN who made a racist outburst against an MP in parliament: a two-week ban from parliament, so he will miss the final vote on pensions.

There is enough money; it is just in the wrong hands

The demonstrations are broader and deeper than earlier pension reform protests in 2010, 2003 and 1995. Today, they have an extra impetus due to the fall in wages and the standard of living following the effects of years of austerity, the US-inspired global inflation, and sanctions against Russia.

The claim made by the Macronists that austerity for the many and tax cuts were the way to boost economic growth was a fraud. Dividend payments are at record high levels, and capital is being hoarded rather than invested.

The vast flow in France of wealth to the rich and the grotesque rise in big business profits has only confirmed the view in the eyes of millions that ‘there is enough money; it is just in the wrong hands.’ A 2% tax on the assets of French billionaires, suggested a report from Oxfam France, would wipe out the pension deficit overnight.

The French company TotalEnergies illustrates the consequences of Macron’s priorities. It will pay $17 billion to shareholders based on its 2022 record-breaking trading profits of $20.5 billion. Le Monde reports, ‘This payout is split between $10 billion in dividends and $7 billion in share buybacks.’ Last October, Total agreed to a pay rise for employees of 7.5%. Le Monde also reminds its readers that ‘the group has only paid corporate income tax in France seven times since 2007.’ 

More for warfare, less for pensions

The dramatic increase in defence spending reveals Macron’s other priority ahead of the needs of the people i.e., warfare, not pensions and wages. Euronews reported last month, ‘France will increase its military spending by over a third in coming years…. The budget for the period will stand at €413 billion, a significant increase from the €295 billion allotted to 2019-2025. According to this plan, by 2030, France’s military budget would have doubled since he took power in 2017, Macron said.’

Macron and Le Pen whip up racism

To divide and confuse the opposition and boost the far right, the Macronists have made clear their intent to launch a reactionary attack on immigration, including legislation, in the spring.

The Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin, announced a bill on February 1 which reinforces the criminalisation of migrants and undocumented migrants. If successful, the government will be more able to divide society by increasing racism and stimulating support for its ally to its right, Marine Le Pen’s RN.

As Anzoumane Sissoko (Coordination 75 des Sans Papiers) and Denis Godard explain (20th Solidarity with all migrants) ‘the second front opened by the government is not a diversion. The movement on pensions has everything to gain by articulating on both fronts.’ 

On December 6, Darmanin echoed the views of Le Pen when he said, “we want those who work, not those who steal.” But, as Sissoko and Godard explain, Darmanin’s assault on migrant workers is also an attack on all workers.

Darmanin’s views on immigration go hand in hand with his views on pension reform. Last week he said that French workers’ to ‘balance our pension system, yes, we have to work harder’ dismissing opponents of the reform as wanting ‘laziness’ and ‘a society without work, without effort’.

Escalation of resistance  

The trade unions are determined to escalate the pressure on the government. A new day of strikes and demonstrations is planned for Thursday, February 16. The trade union confederations have issued a joint statement calling for a nationwide strike on March 7 if the pension reform proposal is not reversed. In addition, the unions have called for a day of action on International Women’s Day – March 8 – to oppose the injustice of the effects of the pension reform on women.

In parliament, the left opposes the government’s pension plans hand in hand with the mass struggle outside parliament. That fight will be repeated on the immigration bill.

All these fights serve to unite the working class. It is a struggle the international workers’ movement should follow closely, support, and emulate.