Civil Unrest Across France as Anti-Government Demonstrations are Held Condemning the Pension Reform Bill

In January 2023, French President Emmanuel Macron and the Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne proposed a plan to raise the legal age of retirement from 62 to 64 to cut pension costs.

What became known as the Pension Reform Bill, the proposal was met with nationwide hostility in which hundreds took to the streets in protest. These hostilities, however, were intensified on March 16th when Borne invoked Article 49:3, a constitutional power which allowed the bill to bypass the majority vote stage within the National Assembly. For Laurent Berger, the Secretary-General of the French Democratic Confederation of Labour, the bill has turned age “into a political object” and through the governmental handling of the proposal, has instigated “a democratic crisis.” 

Since March 21st, there have been over 1,500 protests in cities including Marseille, Lyon, Lille and Paris. The number involved, however, is debated, with trade unions claiming that 3.5 million have participated whilst authorities cite the amount as being just under 1.1 million. The nature of the demonstrations has also faced criticism. Although Berger has demanded that the strikes and protests are to be carried out “in a peaceful manner”, there have been reports of violent dissent involving arson and looting across Paris, Bordeaux and Nantes. Consequently, Gérald Darmanin, the Minister of the Interior, has claimed to have deployed 13,000 police to seize demonstrators who intend “to destroy, to injure and to kill police officers and gendarmes.” 

However, the methodologies utilised by police have caused further agitation among the population. According to Sebastian Roche of France’s National Centre for Scientific Research, officers are armed with stun grenades and rubber bullets which are otherwise prohibited in most European countries. Furthermore, on March 20th, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Association warned French authorities that “peaceful demonstrations are a fundamental right that the authorities must guarantee and protect.”

Trade unions have become a cornerstone in the demonstrations, such as the General Confederation of Labour who, on March 9th, cut the power to the Stade de France and a multitude of construction sites for the 2024 Paris Olympics in what the Secretary General of CGT Energy Cédric Liechti described as “symbolic action.” However, like the May ’68 demonstrations which began with students attacking the celebration of consumerism and conservatism of the Charles de Gaulle government, the student body has also proved significant. On March 28th, 90,000 students were reported to have participated in street demonstrations throughout Paris whilst dozens of universities and high schools throughout the country remain blocked to allow for student protest. For Victor Mendez, a language student at Nanterre University, “combining a student strike with a general strike” enables the possibility that “we could go further than May 1968.” 

Despite the intensification of the anti-government demonstrations, Macron refuses to adhere to the demands of the protestors, stating in a televised interview dated March 22nd that he has “no regrets pushing for this necessary reform” and that it should “come into force by the end of the year.” 

The anti-government demonstrations across France have coincided with a collective disillusionment regarding Europe’s handling of its workforce. On March 27th, Germany faced a nationwide strike with trade unions, such as Vereinte Dienstleistungsgewerkschaf (Ver.di) demanding a 10.5% pay increase due to food and energy shortages. According to Frank Werneke, the head of Ver.di, 400,000 transport workers have taken part in the action. Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, strikes also demanding a pay increase have been ongoing since December 2022 which saw the largest National Health Service strike in history. Since then, teachers, drivers, civil servants and emergency services have collectively participated in demonstrations which, as of April 10th 2023, continue to intensify.