Why small towns in France are rebelling against Macron’s pension reform

Small and medium-sized French towns have been at the forefront of the battle against President Emmanuel Macron’s controversial pension reform, staging the largest gatherings in living memory in some places. In the former Yellow Vests stronghold of Montargis, where protesters gathered for a tenth time on Tuesday, the deeply unpopular reform has heightened government resentment.

For his tenth demonstration in less than three months, Patrick, 69, opted for a striped prisoner’s costume with ball and chain – and a cap that read “Emmanuel Macron, fuck you (fuck you)”.

“At the last protest, I was wearing a blue workman’s jumpsuit, but I felt I needed to raise my game,” said the former city worker. “In fact, we all have to raise our game – it’s the only way to stop the government.”

Like many others in this sleepy town of less than 15,000 people, Patrick said protests against the government’s planned pension overhaul would have to “get tougher” to have a chance of succeeding.

“Free yourselves from your chains, workers of France,” he shouted into a megaphone, leading a crowd of around 2,000 protesters on a good-natured march through Montargis – flatteringly dubbed the “Venice of the Gâtinais “because of its river and canal.

“16-64 is a beer, not a career,” Patrick added in a pun on France’s most famous brew, echoing a slogan that has become popular with opponents of Macron’s plan to raise the minimum age. of retirement from 62 to 64 – which polls indicate that a large majority of French people oppose.

Patrick, 69, dragging his ball through the streets of Montargis. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

Nestled in a rural area about 120 kilometers south of Paris, Montargis has seen its largest rallies in living memory since the start of an increasingly fierce battle over pension reform, with numbers of protesters peaking to around 4,000, or almost a third of the local population – on March 7.

Although turnout dipped in later protests, it rose again last week after Macron’s government used special executive powers to push the reform through parliament without a vote, further infuriating opponents.

Read more: A scorching afternoon in French politics as Macron uses ‘nuclear option’ to raise retirement age

“This decision has brought many new protesters to the movement, especially among young people, who have recognized a threat to democracy in the use of Article 49.3,” said Annaby Diaw, local leader of the Force Ouvrière union. referring to an article from the French newspaper. constitution that allowed the government to bypass parliament.

“The government’s decision mobilized people we had never seen before,” added Anne Pascaud, deputy mayor of the neighboring town of Châlette-sur-Loing, wrapped in the tricolor scarf usually worn by elected officials during public events. She described the rallies against pension reform as a “new phenomenon” in a region unaccustomed to street protests.

“Not just for pensions”

The high turnout in small towns has been a striking feature of France’s biggest protest movement for several decades. While national and international media tend to focus on the mass marches held in Paris, turnout has often been higher – proportionally – in other parts of the country.

In places like Morlaix (Brittany), Rodez (Aveyron) or Guéret (Creuse), demonstrations regularly brought together the equivalent of more than a quarter of the local population. In Annonay, the birthplace of Labor Minister Olivier Dussopt, the main sponsor of the reform, some marches brought together up to half of the local population of 16,000, with protesters focusing their fury on the former socialist who was mayor of the city for almost a decade.

In the northern village of Bouquehault, population 750, a large crowd joined last Thursday during the ninth day of nationwide protests, marching behind a banner that read ‘Denial of Democracy = Rural Fightback’.

Union representatives gathered in front of the town hall of Montargis at the end of the march.
Union representatives gathered in front of the town hall of Montargis at the end of the march. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

The level of popular opposition to the reform explains why some conservative lawmakers in rural constituencies chose to back a no-confidence motion that narrowly failed to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne on March 20, in defiance of the leadership of their party.

Analysts have noted that small towns tend to have a high proportion of civil servants, workers and employees – all categories that are overrepresented in the protest movement. Other factors of discontent include poverty, job insecurity and the lack of public services in rural areas.

“People here feel abandoned by the state, which takes resources and services from rural areas,” said Pascaud, the deputy mayor. Montargis ranks among the poorest communes in France, she noted, with a third of the population living on less than 1,000 euros a month – well below the minimum wage.

“Macron brags about falling unemployment figures, but the truth is that more and more people are living off low-paying and precarious jobs – especially women,” said Christine, 60, at a rally in Montargis with several colleagues from a nearby distribution center. by pharmaceutical giant Sanofi.

“It’s not just pensions,” added Myriam, wearing a CGT vest. “There is nothing left where I live. I have to travel more than 20 kilometers to find anything, be it a job, gas, a grocery store or a post office.

Christine and her colleagues started working at 18 or soon after, although career breaks due to childcare mean many still have several years to go before they qualify for a full pension.

The Macron government maintains that raising the retirement age and tightening the conditions for a full pension are necessary to balance the pension system in a changing demographic context. But unions say the proposed measures are unfair and will disproportionately affect low-skilled workers who start their careers early, as well as women.

Montargis saw some of its biggest rallies in living memory as protesters across France fought Macron's unpopular pension reform.
Montargis saw some of its biggest rallies in living memory as protesters across France fought Macron’s unpopular pension reform. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

Discussions of the gender imbalance of pension reform have gained traction, especially since one of Macron’s own ministers admitted in January that it would ‘leave women a bit penalised’ – in one of many public relations mistakes that tainted the government’s attempts to promote the unpopular project.

“I was looking forward to retiring in two years and now the government wants me to continue for another two years,” Christine said. ” I can not stand it anymore ; I am more than exhausted.

The ghosts of yellow vests

As the crowd rounded the corner, Christine pointed to where local residents threw a mousse pie at Macron’s former education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer during a a campaign stop before last year’s parliamentary elections.

The incident was symbolic of widespread disenchantment with the president’s ruling party in Loiret department (county) around Montargis, where Blanquer was dismissed in the first round of voting on June 12. The local constituency now has a deputy from Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally – traditionally the main beneficiary of voter discontent.

During Macron’s first term, Montargis became a stronghold of the Yellow Vests insurgency, which began as a protest movement against an unpopular fuel tax and quickly snowballed into an uprising over economic hardship. , inequality and a discredited political establishment. THE yellow vests converged on the city roundabout peanuta peanut-shaped roundabout that protesters held night and day for two months from November 2018.

The recent spike in violent clashes sparked by the government’s use of Article 49.3 has fueled fears of renewed yellow vest-style unrest in the coming weeks – a prospect that Karine, a housekeeper aged 49 years, looking forward.

“People were fighters here, but Covid-19 put everyone to sleep,” she said, noting that the pandemic has ended the last of the yellow vest protests.

Holding a black and white flag, Karine describes herself as a “non-violent anarchist – for now”. She said she started occupying the peanut roundabout again, even if only “a handful” of demonstrators had joined it.

"Small cushy steps" will not force the government to back down, assures Karine, 49.
“Small cushy steps” will not force the government to back down, assures Karine, 49. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

“People just take gentle little walks and then go home for lunch,” she said. “It’s not enough. We have to break everything.”

Karine was among several protesters who deplored the government’s “refusal” to recognize the arduousness (drudgery) experienced by low-income workers performing physically strenuous tasks. Macron has in the past said he is ‘not a fan’ of the word arduousness“because it suggests that labor is pain”.

“Carrying and caring for toddlers all day is exhausting, both physically and emotionally,” said Elsa, 21, a childcare worker who got her first job at 16. “I can’t imagine doing this for the next 40 years.” Her colleague Belinda held up a banner that read: “We change babies’ nappies at the crèche; who will change ours at 64?

Belinda, 30, childcare worker, parades in front of the Château de Montargis.
Belinda, 30, childcare worker, parades in front of the Château de Montargis. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

Raising the retirement age makes no sense when companies are already starting to evict workers at 55, added Carlos, a retired worker at the Hutchinson rubber factory where 16-year-old Deng Xiaoping – the future leader Chinese – briefly worked in the 1920s.

“I was laid off at 57, after 40 years of tire manufacturing. I couldn’t work anymore,” he said. “This government has no idea what it means to do this kind of work.”

Echoing complaints voiced by many protesters, Carlos called for a change in tactics after ten days of nationwide protests that have taken millions to the streets – but failed to impress the government.

“I’m sick of these city walks,” he added. “Macron will only listen once we shut down the economy.”


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