by Ambra Visentin

At the heart of the controversy that has gripped France since the end of January is the reform of the pension system. The measure would raise the legal retirement age from 62 to 64, while speeding up the implementation of the ‘Touraine Law’ of January 2014, which extends the period of contributions to qualify for the full rate.

On 7 February, in Rodez, a town of 25,000 in south-west France, the unions managed to attract an impressive 12,500 demonstrators. In October 2019, after a week of yellow vest protests, the president had launched a dialogue with citizens on pensions, promising not to change the retirement age of 62 and to abolish the privileges of certain professional groups. In Rodez, as in many other peripheral cities, a profound socio-economic change has been taking place for some time now, as the German company Bosch, the city’s main employer and manufacturer of diesel engine components, has been making more and more job cuts due to the revolution in the transport sector. The key combination of the current widespread unrest seems to be mainly this: a more uncertain future, more intense (and more violent) protests.

The map and composition of the most populous protests shows that the majority of protesters are part of what geographer Christophe Guilloy calls ‘peripheral France’. According to Guilloy, wealth creation is increasingly concentrated in the network of the most dynamic metropolises. This territorial specialisation would drive out of these cities the working classes, the blue-collar and white-collar workers, categories that still make up the majority of the working population. This huge sociological group of relegated areas comprises just over 34,000 communes (out of 36,000), or 60% of the French population, three quarters of which belong to the working classes.

Making citizens aware of the government’s ‘unfair’ approach is the second broken promise, that of reducing the privileges of the ruling class. According to Charles de Courson, a liberal deputy and financier who has been a member of the National Assembly for 30 years, the government has already lost the battle for public opinion and wonders where the justice lies in the reform project. Of the 17 special pension schemes, only five are to be abolished. Senators, of all people, would keep their privileges. “How can we teach our fellow citizens financial common sense if we do not set a good example ourselves?“.

An ‘unfair’ and opaque reform. Indeed, several economists regret that the executive has not sufficiently detailed the impact of its bill on national growth and public finances. In the pension system alone, the bill is expected to generate gross savings of 17.7 billion euros in 2030, without taking into account planned spending elsewhere. According to a Treasury document dated January 2022, the ‘increase in revenue net of pensions’ would amount to 0.6 points of gross domestic product (GDP) after ten years, assuming the statutory retirement age is raised by two years.

Meanwhile, the protests continue. The eight main French trade unions (Cfdt, Cgt, Fo, Cfe-Cgc, Cftc, Unsa, Solidaires, Fsu) have agreed to call a fifth day of national mobilisation against the pension reform next Thursday 16 February.


Cover image: Jeanne Menjoulet on Flickr