France’s Anti-Neoliberal Protesters Get Their Second Wind

January 31, 2020

The strikers protesting President Macron's pension reform are expanding their target to the whole neoliberal system. They're gathering their forces for a new wave of opposition, says Le Monde Diplomatique's Renaud Lambert.

The strikers protesting President Macron's pension reform are expanding their target to the whole neoliberal system. They're gathering their forces for a new wave of opposition, says Le Monde Diplomatique's Renaud Lambert.


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Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network and I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.

Hundreds of thousands of protestors took to the streets of France again this week as part of what has now become a two month long mobilization of strikes and demonstrations against the government’s pension reform plan. For extended periods of time, public transportation in France has been brought to a standstill as a result of the strikes. Protests that took place on Tuesday drew a lot of attention because of fights that broke out between striking firefighters and riot police.

Firefighters even set fire to their own uniforms and lit colorful smoke grenades. France’s union movement has been quite unanimous in opposing president Macron’s pension reform. The plan would unify 42 separate pension plans into one unified system as well as increase the retirement age by two years from 62 to 64 for some of the employees. Here’s what one demonstrator at Wednesday’s protest had to say about the plan.

SPEAKER: I think they should hear out the opposition, sooner or later. 61% of French people are against this bill. We want to keep our rights and we cannot accept the degradation of all our rights in the future; be it for us, for our children, or for our workers at the public and private sector. This concerns us all. This is an unprecedented step backwards.

GREG WILPERT: Last week, the government tried to make some concessions by re-introducing a watered down version of Macron’s original reform proposal. Most unions, however, rejected the new proposal and promised to continue strikes and protests. Joining me now from Paris, France to discuss the ongoing opposition to Macron’s reform plan is Renaud Lambert. He’s a deputy editor at the French monthly, Le Monde Diplomatique. Welcome back, Renaud.

RENAUD LAMBERT: Hi. Nice to be here.

GREG WILPERT: So reports have been emerging that both the strikes and the protests are gradually winding down in France after nearly two months of continuous actions. Now, first of all, is that true, and if so, does this mean that the government has managed to wear down unions in this particular flight?

RENAUD LAMBERT: Well, the first thing is that one should notice how long this movement has been lasting. You said the strikes and the transportation system lasted around two months. In the transportation system, it’s lasted around 30 days. I mean that’s the longest strike ever recorded in France and usually a government, we would back down or try to negotiate something but this time, the movement has been presented only with a rebuttal from the government who seems to be adamant that it will impose its reform.

So is the movement wearing down? No, I think it is not. People are reorganizing, the strikers in the transportation system have been losing a lot of money. I mean, they got prepared for a long struggle. They put money aside. Solidarity movements have appeared whereby people who cannot strike will chip in to help those people who are on strike to live, but this has required some form of reorganizing. Even the media, the government is trying to explain that the movement is losing breath. I think it’s trying to catch another breath and what you see happening at the moment is a different type of actions.

You have people marching at night with candlelight. You have various groups of professionals, lawyers, sewer cleaners, teachers who will organize protests out of the blue here and there. I mean, there is no member of government who can speak in public at the moment without being booed. Security is very tense around them. So I don’t think you can say that the movement is wearing down at the moment.

GREG WILPERT: Now, a major issue in this conflict has been the enormous use of police force and repression against some of the protests. The government recently even had to say that it would no longer use a particularly dangerous form of tear gas grenade, which has been implicated in wounding and maiming protestors. What effect has the police repression had on the protestors, the public, and the government?

RENAUD LAMBERT: Well, it’s a twofold effect. I mean, for one it’s very scary. I mean, protests in France are common. There is a culture. I used to go on protesting, marching with my kids. I would never dream of doing it now because it’s too dangerous. I mean, that has happened over the last three years and I surely am not an exception in this. So the atmosphere during marches is totally different but that’s the first part of the implication. The second part is that whenever you are opposed with that type of violence, simply for marching and you are literally being attacked by police forces for simply standing there on the street.

I mean, that tends to radicalize people. People understand that they are struggling against something more than just a reform plan and this has led to an intensifying of the determination of the people to struggle and to the fact that people are no longer marching against a reform, but there’s a word that comes back on the street. It’s no longer just a plan, an idea or way of reorganizing something but it’s a system, a way of seeing the world, and I think in this respect, what is happening in France is similar to what you see happening in other parts of the world, in Chile, in Colombia, whereby people are not simply contesting this decision or that decision, but an entire way of structuring the world of seeing as society’s built.

I think you might say a general criticism of neoliberalism, and I think that, to go back to your question, is one of the reasons why we see so much violence on the streets from the part of the police forces. In 1995, a right wing government tried to implement similar reform in the pension system. After three weeks of strikes, it backed down. There was no way they could implement the system and things went back to almost normal. This time, backing down is not possible for the government because I think they have it very clear in their minds that if they back down on this, it’s not only this pension reform that is collapsing, it’s an entire system.

GREG WILPERT: I think that’s a really important and very good point that we need to keep in mind where we’re looking at these protests, like you say, that are taking place around the world. Now as we heard from the clip of the protester in my introduction, she said that 60% of the public continue to be opposed to the pension reform. However, the government says that it is necessary in order to balance the pension system’s budget. Now this is often also couched in the context of France’s supposed need to scale back its relatively generous welfare state. Now, clearly this is a battle for public opinion. What’s your assessment of whether this reform really is needed?

RENAUD LAMBERT: Well, no. My opinion is that the reform is not needed. And I would stress the fact that 60% of the population is in favor of this movement, despite how difficult it has been to travel around in Paris, in the middle of the winter. That says something. The government has been very bad with their figures. What they said is that the weight of the pension system on public finances should not go beyond 14%. we don’t know where they picked that figure from. 14% is supposed to be too much. They say in Germany it’s only 10%, but what the government doesn’t say is that in Germany, something like 20% of pensioners are living below the poverty line. In France, it’s 7%.

Anyway, they decided that it’s 14%. A higher number of people are going to retire so if the figure doesn’t change, then you have to pay people less or make them retire later. The discourse of the government is that they’re doing things in order for the system to be fair for everyone to get the same out of the same effort, but what they don’t say and what people that are really aware of is that you don’t die at the same age if you’re a white collar worker or if you’re blue collar worker and if you’re a blue collar worker and you accepted work that you know is going to wreck your back, it makes you die at age 62, 63 and because of the strain your body will have undergone.

Then you know that you’ve met that concession because you knew you were going to retire earlier. So there is a feeling that what is being presented as fair is everything but fair, and obviously people have it clear in their minds that there are other solutions to reform or improve the pension system. One is simply taking measures that make it easier for people to get a job. Why are pensions so low and people finding it so hard to retire in good conditions because they are unemployed for such a long part of their working lives and why is that? Because of the types of measures that governments implement. That would be one way of sorting the pension system.

Another which is not being considered at the moment would be to make the provinces, the private sector, contribute more to the pension system. They benefit from competitive measures that make the cost, again, inverted quotes of the workforce in France lower. They should contribute more, but obviously this is not being looked into by the government because as I said, this does not figure within the context of what is possible with this system.

GREG WILPERT: Now finally, what do you think all of this means for France’s political landscape? Macron’s approval rating seems to be declining. Is either France’s left such as Jean-Luc Melenchon or the right as represented by Marine Le Pen’s party, are either one of them benefiting under these circumstances?

RENAUD LAMBERT: Well, years ago when Macron was elected, you invited me to come into the election here at the real news network and one of the things I remember commenting on was that back home was like last ditch effort of that system to survive. Prior to my call, we used to have a fake struggle between left and right. This in the same way as it’s been organized everywhere in the world. One was left, one was right, but they agreed on everything and whoever was in government, you pretty much had the same roadmap. Macron blurred the distinction. His government is composed of people who are from that left I was just talking to that and from that right I was talking about. It’s the system trying to pull together in order to stay in power and the idea was that by electing Macron, we were defending democracy because close to Macron was Marine Le Pen, fascism and the collapse of the Republic.

What we see now is that for the Macron system to stay in place, democracy has to be tarnished. Police forces have to intervene. They have to beat people up on the street. So people are coming to the conclusion, well we voted in favor of democracy and this is what democracy looks like. So obviously some people are drawing the conclusion that with Marine Le Pen would’ve been better. She would not because Marine Le Pen represents another strand of that system. She’s definitely on the side of the private sector, but she has a discourse that makes it possible for blue collar workers, for people who did not benefit from globalization, to feel that someone is listening to them.

Macron only says, “Well, that’s the way forward. That’s the way the world goes.” He has an innate disdain and he looks down on people and people feel that so there is a tension there. As far as the left is concerned, I don’t know if you could say that Melenchon would be able to benefit from the movement, but what I am convinced of is that regardless of what happens with the pension bill, regardless of whether it’s implemented or not, the trade union movement may need, which is the bigger and more radical movement. I’ve put an amazing struggle and I think people will be impressed with that. It’s a force to contend with.

Now the question that is asked is how do you fight a political power that comes to Paris saying we will not touch the pension system that wants to reform the pension system and that does not budge after two months of protest, but one of the questions that is raised is what degree of violence that needs to be unleashed on the street for the government to move, and I think that’s a very dangerous question to ask because once you unleash violence, I think the state always comes out the strongest.

GREG WILPERT: Yeah, that’s true. That’s absolutely a good point. We’re going to leave it there for now, but hopefully we’ll have you back on again soon. I was speaking to Anne Yolanda, a deputy editor at Le Monde Diplomatique. Thanks again, Renaud, for having joined us today.

RENAUD LAMBERT: Thank you for having me.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.