A look back at when French protesters defeated government reform plans
Anger over President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform shows no sign of abating, with protests, strikes and unrest set to continue and both sides stubborn. To shed light on the current stalemate, FRANCE 24 looks back on the last times the unions succeeded in forcing the government to do an about-face to change the system: on the pension reform in 1995 and on the reform of labor law youth work in 2006.
The putrid smell of uncollected waste on Paris the streets symbolize the bitter political struggle, after protests turned into unrest and a brawl turned into a crisis when Macron bypassed parliament on March 16 to push through his pension reform.
With a majority of French opinions, the unions show no signs of backing down.
It was easy to predict: a French president imposes changes to the social system and public fury erupts.
For all the talk about the power of the street (the street) in French politics, several governments have overcome strikes and protests to enact reforms in recent decades – notably when the government of Nicolas Sarkozy raised the retirement age from 60 to the age current age of 62 in 2010.
But for today’s protesters, the crises of pension reform in 1995 and labor law reform in 2006 are the history they want to repeat: in both cases, grassroots movements forced the government of former President Jacques Chirac to back down.
>> Use of force signals ‘crisis of authority’ as France’s pension battle turns into unrest
The victory of the unions in 1995
A few months after Chirac entered the Élysée, his first Prime Minister Alain Juppé proposed an overhaul of the social security system in November 1995 to increase people’s contributions while aligning public sector pension schemes with those of the private sector.
The Juppé plan sparked strikes and massive protests – stopping trains and the Paris metro for three weeks. The movement reached its peak on December 12 when colossal crowds took to the streets – 1 million according to the authorities, 2 million according to the unions. Then, as now, polls showed that a majority of the French public supported the protests.
A crucial distinction between 1995 and the current crisis is that at the time the government was in talks with the leadership of France’s largest – and most moderate – trade union, the CFDT, although this caused a bitter split in union ranks and ended up supporting the strikes. Similarly, Macron entered into talks with the CFDT during his first attempt at pension reform in late 2019 before shelving it amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
But now – as a sign of intransigence or determination – Macron is not negotiating at all. For his government, the law has already been passed and that’s it. Hence the boss of the CFDT Laurent Berger warning Macron from the spiral of unrest last week: “He must withdraw this reform before a catastrophe occurs.”
“If you hacked the CDFT, you really must have done something to upset them – they are, by definition, deeply moderates,” said Paul Smith, professor of French politics at the University of Nottingham.
Chirac the “social Gaullist”
Chirac was a very different president from Macron. He spent his early political years in the 1960s as a protected of Georges Pompidou, then Prime Minister of Charles de Gaulle. Many French people not only revere de Gaulle as the leader of Free France during World War II and founding president of the Fifth Republic, but they also admire his ideological blend of cultural conservatism and statist economics. Chirac was elected president in 1995 in the Gaullist mold – avowedly centre-right but promising to heal the economic inequalities he lamented as the “social break(broken society).
Macron has always been keen to restore his Gaullist image, as he demonstrated by descending the Champs-Élysées in a chariot during his first term. But his liberal economic program marks a crucial distinction between his ideological position and that of de Gaulle.
“It should not be forgotten that Chirac was deputy minister during the upheavals of 1968, and he was one of the ministers negotiating with the unions during the Grenelle to resolve the crisis,” noted Smith. “One of the reasons why Chirac was so reluctant towards his successor Sarkozy is that he thought he was too liberal on the economy. Chirac always liked the idea of being a social Gaullist – so in 1995 he finally backed down.
2006 reforms ‘just weren’t worth it’
Eleven years later, Chirac is stepping back again. Its then prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, presented a plan in January 2006 to ease the labor market for those under 26 in a bid to reduce youth unemployment, a long-standing problem in France. De Villepin proposed a special type of employment contract for young people (those under 26) which allowed employers to dismiss them without giving a reason. It was a controversial move, given that many in France cherish the system of strict job protections for those on contract.
Unlike the Juppé plan, Villepin’s labor reform came into effect in February 2006. To avoid a parliamentary vote, Chirac used Article 49.3 – the most controversial constitutional instrument of the Fifth Republic, which Macron also used to push through the current pension reforms.
Despite its rapid passage into law, many young French people did not accept the law. France saw huge protests on February 7 and March 7 of that year, with between 218,000 and 1 million people on the streets. The students occupied the Sorbonne for days. Then, in the last week of March, the movement expanded beyond the youth, with wider protests bringing together between 1 and 3 million people to demonstrate.
Chirac did an about-face on March 31, announcing in a televised address that the special contract for the under-26s would not be put in place.
“Like 1995, 2006 was to do with Chirac,” Smith said. “At the beginning, he thought he had the ear of French youth when this was not the case. But he decided not to enact the law even after it was passed. Chirac received a lot of feedback from local MPs saying it wasn’t just schoolchildren and students opposed to his reform – it was also their parents. And that came after his defeat in the referendum on the EU Constitution. So he decided it wasn’t worth it.
Again, this highlights the contrast between Chirac’s approach and Macron’s. “There is a problem in the way the government is handling these current reforms; lack of discussion with intermediary bodies,” Smith said.
“They want things to stay the same”
The example of 1995 demonstrates that keeping the public on its side is the most important factor in a reform blocking movement. And polls show opposition to Macron’s pension reforms has held steady in recent weeks at around two-thirds of the French population – despite all the upheaval caused by strikes and protests. Meanwhile, the latest protests on Thursday brought together 3.5 million people across France, according to the far-left CGT union, and 1 million according to the government.
Despite all the transformations in the world since Chirac’s presidency, the French attitude towards the economy has not changed much.
“There was a bit of movement; let’s not forget that the retirement age has been raised from 60 to 62 years. But there is this feeling that, on the whole, the French are conservative – not to say that they are neoliberal but that they want things to stay the same. Most people are Keynesian, like the British Conservatives in the early post-war period,” as Smith put it.
With that in mind, he concluded, the Covid-era upheaval has only strengthened opposition to Macron’s pension reforms.
“There is a very strong sense of togetherness this time around. People are exhausted. And that’s after the pandemic told us not to kill ourselves working; that there are things in life beyond the workplace.