Friday, September 10, 2010

Millions of Workers March to Defend Pensions in France

Lisbeth Latham

More than 2.7 million workers joined protests across France on September 7. The strikes and protests marked the start of parliamentary debate over the new pension bill that will dramatically reduce the workers’ pensions. The day was called by coalition of six of Frances Union Confederations.

More than 200 hundred marches were held across France. The largest was in Paris where 270, 000 people attended. Striking transport workers caused significant disruption to services with only 40% of high speed train services running across France, a quarter of flights from Paris airports cancelled or delayed. The Sarkozy government has attempted to play down the size of the mobilisations claiming that only 1.1 million workers attended the protests.

There are four key changes that have been proposed by the government of Nicolas Sarkozy:

  • Lifting the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 years
  • Raising the age at which workers can retire on a full pension from 65 to 67 years of age
  • Increasing the period that workers must work to qualify for the full pension from 40 to 41.5 years
  • Increasing the proportion of their salaries which public sector workers contribute to the pension system from 7.85% to the 10.55%, the same amount that private sector pay
The proposed changes would have a considerable impact across French society. Workers who enter the workforce at 18 years or younger – according to the Confédération française démocratique du travail (French Democratic Confederation of Labour) more than 100, 000 people aged between 14 and 18 years-old enter the workforce each year – will face working for more than 44 years. Workers who experience any break in employment will increasingly struggle to qualify for the full pension; three quarters of women already receive 40% of the pensions that men receive.

The French government has sort to justify the cuts based on projected shortfalls in the current system of up to $150 billion by 2050. A position that has been rejected by France’s unions who reject the idea that workers should be made to pay for the funding shortfall. The Solidaires and Force Ouvriere (Workers Force) union confederations are calling for the pensions to be funded through a redistribution of wealth targeting company profits. Public opposition to the reform can be seen not just through the size of the mobilisations, but opinion polls that suggest that two thirds of the population oppose the reform.

The government’s initial response to the mobilisation has been to insist that the changes will go ahead. On September 9, The Independent reported Sarkozy saying "There is no question of going back on this. Working a little longer is the most reasonable path." However the government has indicated that it would include amendments that will allow workers to retire at 60 if they started work before they turned 18 or if they suffer from a partial physical incapacity. The National Assembly, which is dominated by Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement, is expected to pass the bill on September 15.

In the wake of September 7, Solidaires issued a statement that “A showdown is underway. Given the government's determination we must show even greater determination. To the Trade Union Solidarity, the challenge today is to force the government to yield. We must therefore provide the means. Employees must discuss and arrange the renewal of the strike wherever possible and it is the responsibility of the inter-union deciding on a response to the challenges at September 7, continued to be held in the days come”.

On September 8, the inter-union coordinating committee met and announced to further days of action. The first will be on September 15, to apply pressure to the deputies. A further day of strikes and demonstrations has been called for September 23 in the lead up to debate on the bill in the Senate. These actions alone are unlikely to be sufficient to force the Sarkozy government to back down, particularly given the fact that the assault on pensions by the Government of Alain Juppé was only defeated as a consequence of a general strike that occurred over November and December 1995, but they are an important step towards a campaign that could defeat Sarkozy’s assault on pensions.


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Revitalising Labour attempts to reflect on efforts to rebuild the labour movement internationally, emphasising the role that left-wing political currents can play in this process. It welcomes contributions on union struggles, internal renewal processes within the labour movement and the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

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