More than a million people in the streets, but Macron isn't backing down

Mobilisations against the pension reform achieved a historic high on Thursday 19 January. Unions unanimously called for a second day of demonstrations and strikes on 31 January. Speaking from Spain, the president refused to budge.
The objectives were ambitious, and they were largely achieved. The first day of mobilisation against the pension reform on Thursday 19 January was an undeniable success for the unions who united in protest. Throughout France, marches were at full capacity and the percentages of strikers in the most militant sectors were impressive.
The objectives were ambitious, and they were largely achieved. The first day of mobilisation against the pension reform on Thursday 19 January was an undeniable success for the unions who united in protest. Throughout France, marches were at full capacity and the percentages of strikers in the most militant sectors were impressive.

All the testimonies collected in the processions (read our report here) concur in rejecting Emmanuel Macron's plan to raise the legal retirement age from 62 to 64 and to increase the length of the required contribution period to obtain the "full rate" to 43 years earlier than planned.

According to the Ministry of the Interior's official count, 1.12 million people marched in France on the day, including 80,000 in Paris. The mobilisations thereby approached the highest attendance levels measured by authorities for rallies organised by employees' organisations in the last thirty years. The largest demonstrations, against the pension reforms of 1995, 2003 and 2010, also exceeded one million participants, with a peak of 1.13 million people on 13 May 2003.

The symbolic threshold of one million people in the street, set in advance by the leader of the CGT Philippe Martinez, was exceeded. Martinez, who later that evening stated that two million demonstrators had marched throughout the country, can therefore be satisfied.

In Paris, the police headquarters counted 80,000 demonstrators which compares well to the highest number of 90,000, counted on 12 October 2010. The CGT claimed there were 400,000 people in the streets of Paris. This figure is certainly overestimated but it's hard to give an exact count as the march in the capital was so fragmented. Due to the impressive number of participants, the security forces authorised different routes from Place de la République, others joined the march directly at Place de la Bastille, and not everyone continued to the end of the march at Place de la Nation.

The mobilisation was also particularly strong in regional cities: 38,000 people in Lyon, according to the unions (23,000 according to the police count); 50,000 in Toulouse (36,000 according to the police count); 60,000 in Bordeaux (16,000 according to the police count); 40,000 in Nantes (26,000 according to the police count); 25,000 in Rennes (17,000 according to the police count) and in Montpellier.

But the strongest indicator came from medium-sized towns where participation was exceptionally high, to such an extent that it was largely surprising. In the marches, teachers, civil servants and postal workers could be seen alongside tradespeople, shopkeepers and health workers.

In Alençon (Orne), more than 5,000 people demonstrated. In Périgueux (Dordogne), there were more than 8,500, according to Sud Ouest's count. In Valenciennes (Nord), 8,000, and in Angoulême (Charente) and Alès (Gard), there were 12,000. In Mende, despite the temperature being -10°C, the police counted 1,800 demonstrators, a historic number for this town of 11,000 inhabitants. A small but symbolic event was found in Annonay (Ardèche), which had long been the stronghold of the Minister of Labour, Olivier Dussopt, where several thousand people also marched.

Place de la Bastille, Paris, 19 January. © Photo Marie Magnin for Mediapart

On the strikers' side, the gamble also largely paid off. In the educational sector, the Snes-FSU, the leading secondary school union, reported a rate of 65% of secondary school teachers on strike, and the Snuipp-FSU, the leading primary school union, counted 70% of teachers on strike. The ministry, which only counts teachers who have to start class at 8 a.m., announced a 42% strike rate in primary schools and 35% in secondary schools.

In the transport sector, almost no regional trains and very few TGVs ran (46% of SNCF employees were on strike, including 77% of passenger train drivers, according to the unions), while the Paris metro was operating at a near standstill and the outer suburbs had very limited service.

The 44.5% of EDF employees officially on strike reduced production at dams and nuclear power stations, making the nuclear fleet available at 63% of its total capacity at midday compared to the 72% expected. At Engie, 40% of the workforce was on strike. At the refineries, the CGT of TotalEnergies said that between 70% and 100% of all employees, depending on the site, were at a standstill.

Second day of union demonstrations on 31 January

To drive the point home, the unions – after more than an hour and a half of discussions – have announced a second day of mobilisation for Tuesday, 31 January, one day after the bill will be discussed for the first time in the committee in the National Assembly. In the meantime, on Saturday, 21 January, the youth organisations, joined by La France Insoumise, will in turn have assessed their strength in the street.

The date chosen by the unions will appear rather distant to the activists who wanted to keep the pressure on: some were seriously considering the possibility of calling for a renewable strike in the next few days, and almost everyone thought that the next demonstration would take place less than eight days after this first successful day.

This cautious decision has probably been made to not risk breaking up the intersyndicale, which includes the hardest fringe of the CGT, FO and Sud Solidaires, as well as the so-called reformist unions, which are not used to a vigorous arm wrestling match in the street.

All the organisations are aware of the symbolic weight of their unity – its most striking symbol being the partnership between Philippe Martinez and his CFDT counterpart Laurent Berger. In the Paris parade on Thursday, they posed side-by-side at the head of the official square, collecting historical images – on pensions, there hasn’t been agreement or harmony between CFDT and CGT since 2010.

Interviewed by Mediapart in the demonstration, Laurent Berger claimed his good understanding – the two men genuinely like each other – with “Philippe”, and hammered home his organisation’s determination: “We are in agreement [with the CGT] to say that we are against the postponement of the legal retirement age”, he assured, continuing: “This reform is harmful for workers, especially for workers who are in the most difficult situations.”

The left-wing parties also showed their unity in Paris. Marine Tondelier, national secretary of Europe Ecologie-Les Verts, Fabien Roussel, national secretary of the Communist Party, Olivier Faure, first secretary of the Socialist Party and also Mathilde Panot, president of the parliamentary group of La France Insoumise, were present in the family photo. Jean-Luc Mélenchon marched in Marseille (Bouches-du-Rhône). 

“The time has come to raise our heads. Since 2010, there has not been such unity, we must cherish it,” said Marine Tondelier, announcing already “the beginning of the end of Macronism.”

Long-term unity between all the unions and left-wing parties will probably be necessary to take on the ruling power – if Emmanuel Macron’s first reactions are to be believed. Speaking on Thursday afternoon from Barcelona, where a large part of the executive was gathered to celebrate the Franco-Spanish entente, the president doesn’t deviate from his line for the time being.

“If we want there to be fairness between generations and save our pay-as-you-go system, we must carry out this reform,” he said. He also said that “things had been said clearly” at the time of the presidential and legislative elections, considering that the reform had “therefore been democratically presented, validated”.

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne was more cautious: “I salute the commitment of the police forces, as well as the trade unions, who have allowed the demonstrations to take place under good conditions,” she said on Twitter. “Allowing opinions to be expressed is essential for democracy. Let's continue to debate and convince.”

To convince, you need to use the right arguments. And therefore not to brandish at every opportunity the desire to “save” the French pension system, when the aim of the executive is above all to quickly save money. The president of the Conseil d'orientation des retraites (Pensions Advisory Council) came to a hearing on Thursday in the Assembly, organised by the finance and social affairs committees.

And Pierre-Louis Bras recalled some obvious facts, as he has done since last spring: “Pension expenditure is not slipping, it is relatively under control”, he told the deputies, even stressing that “in most scenarios, it will decrease in the long term”.

In his speeches, he usually reminds us that the government's decision can be explained in a very simple way: from the point of view of public finance, pension expenditure is not compatible with the “stability programme” as communicated by the government to the European Commission. This document foresees a growth in public spending of only 0.7% (excluding inflation) per year. However, without the reform, pension expenditure – representing a quarter of public expenditure – should increase by 1.5% per year over the next ten years on average.

The struggle is therefore far from over, despite the fact that the unions have undoubtedly won the first round. “We can't have a handful of people creating a mess for millions of French people”, said Aurore Bergé, president of the Macronist group in the Assembly, on 15 January. The protestors could return the compliment and refuse to allow “a handful” of politicians to get involved in an arm wrestling match with “millions of French people”.

Dan Israel joined Mediapart's Economics department in November 2012 to focus on business in the broadest sense. After developing a certain obsession with tax evasion, he now focuses on the world of work and its challenges. He is also coordinator of the economics and social service.

Photo: Marie Magnin / Mediapart

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Dan Israel
Daniel Kopp, Tim Swillens and Antoine Gaboriau
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