If French democracy were in a healthier state, Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform legislation would have already been scrapped by now. Broadly unpopular from the outset, his plans to raise the country’s retirement eligibility age from 62 to 64 have triggered a protest movement – historically large even by French standards – lasting nearly two months.
Many in the streets view the bill as a breach of the social contract: workers in France contribute a hefty share of earnings over the course of their careers to support a relatively generous and effective retirement system. Lifting the eligibility floor amounts to a very real cut in benefits, and one that will disproportionately hurt the least well-off. If you talk to the protesters, they’ll tell you this reform is cruel and unjust.
But with the government ignoring those voices – week after week after week – unions now say they have little choice to but to ratchet up the pressure. Ahead of final votes in the senate and national assembly that could come as early as this Thursday, they have shifted from a strategy built around single-day protests to one that incorporates more disruptive, open-ended strikes. As Fabien Cros, a CGT union representative at a TotalEnergies biofuel refinery near the Mediterranean city of Martigues, told me, “Our goal is to destabilise the economy in an intelligent way.”
It’s an uphill battle for sure, but if executed correctly, the approach could prove decisive. In short, the disruptions could complicate a legislative path already riddled with obstacles: President Macron lacks an absolute majority in the national assembly, and needs votes from the rightwing Les Républicains party to pass the reform. Otherwise, his camp could be forced to trigger the controversial Article 49.3, a tool to approve legislation without a vote that can only be overridden by a motion of no-confidence. The more outside pressure there is, the greater the chances are of parliamentary revolt.
To the extent that unions share a gameplan, it’s as follows: they are focused on strikes that generate outsized disruptions for business and the general public alike – work stoppages at chokepoints such as public transit, waste collection, ports and refineries, where they believe they can mobilise members. Under normal circumstances, strikes like these run a high risk of alienating potential sympathisers. But these are not normal circumstances. Roughly seven in 10 people oppose the pension reform in one poll, while another found 56% of respondents backed an open-ended strike to defeat the bill.
As a longstanding hotbed for worker militancy, the national rail system is a major piece of the union strategy. Last week, rail unions authorised what’s known as a “renewable strike”, providing legal backing for workers to stay off the job until they decide otherwise. Fabien Dumas, a national secretary at the SUD rail union, told me the state of play looks more favourable than it did in 2019, during the last major strike wave in France. “Right now, we’re not alone,” Dumas said. “Everything is in place for this movement to last.”
Rail workers – along with oil refinery workers, who have also launched strategic actions that may soon be felt at the petrol pump – have been joined by dock workers at the major ports, from the Channel to the Mediterranean; rubbish collectors in Paris; truck drivers deliberately slowing traffic or blocking highways; and employees at electricity providers, who have pushed the bounds of the law to impose headline-grabbing blackouts, targeting everything from an Amazon warehouse and the 2024 Olympic village to the home town of the labour minister.
Of course, the disruption may not be enough. Macron knows that a defeat could inflict lasting damage on the rest of his second term, transforming him into a lame duck less than a year after his re-election. That calculation sets the bar very high for unions.
French unions are also not as uniformly powerful as outsiders seem to think. Observing France’s strike wave of 1995, also over pension reform, a pollster and a sociologist developed the theory of the grève par procuration, or “proxy strike”, the notion that some workers were striking on behalf of supporters who lacked the financial means or militant culture to take action themselves. The idea appealed to trade unionists grappling with their declining influence, but since then, it has also served as an excuse for their failure to recruit and energise the rank-and-file. What’s the point of mobilising if you can just count on the familiar bastions of union strength to carry the load? While few openly advocate the proxy strike as a strategy, the underlying logic still holds sway in certain corners of the labour movement.
For all of the parts of the economy where unions are flexing their muscle, there are many other key industries – from aviation to logistics – where they’ve struggled to turn out in force. Teachers have been reluctant to engage in open-ended strikes, and wield their obvious disruptive power.
If French unions do manage to defeat Macron, it would make for a remarkable victory. But in many respects, they have already surpassed expectations. Forging unity on the national level, they’ve shown they can still plausibly claim to speak on behalf of the country’s working class, gaining tens of thousands of members in the process. They’ve also put opposition to the president’s agenda in sharp focus.
And no matter what happens in the coming days, they’ll have sent a strong message to the rest of Europe, as politicians across the continent mull over similar reforms: instead of debating cuts to retirement benefits, it would be much wiser to reflect about how to expand them.
Cole Stangler is a journalist based in Marseille