Vive La Révolution: Making Sense of the French Pension Reform Protests

For three months now, millions of French citizens have been taking part in the largest mass demonstrations seen in the country since the Crisis of ‘68. In France’s largest cities, rioters are shouting “increase salaries, not the retirement age” and “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” surrounded by torched government buildings and looted stores. The focus of these protests? A controversial pension reform act, including, among other things, legislation that would increase the retirement age from 62 to 64. The Macron government, one of the most unpopular in France in living memory, argues that the reforms are necessary to keep France’s struggling pension system afloat, though the French citizenry, grappling with one of the most pressing cost of living crises in living memory feel that with this reform, another piece of their economic liberty is being taken away. 

Most controversially, the Macron government decided to enact Article 49.3 to allow the reform to go into effect without the need of a vote by the National Assembly. Effectively, pushing through the reform without a democratically elected vote, and without the consent of the French people. To the French, this blatant disregard for France’s democratic institutions emphasizes the unpopularity of the current government, and has invalidated the French government as a representation of the French people. The wave of discontent shown across the nation, culminating in labor demonstrations like the publicized Parisian city maintenance workers strikes and acts of violence like the torching of the city hall in Bordeaux, emphasize the discontent already pervasive within France even before this series of unpopular reforms. 

Interpreted socially, we can see how these reforms emphasize the growing rift between the Macron government and working/middle class French. Those who have increasingly felt the pinch of first the COVID-19 pandemic, second, the resulting cost of living crisis, and now the social unrest of these pension reforms are increasingly feeling that the current government sways too much in favor of the rich. Additionally, the police crackdown on protests in numerous French cities has not only escalated the violence, but also called into question the brutality of the French police force. The wide push back to this set of reforms constitutes one of the most substantial mass demonstrations in France since the May ‘68 Crisis. As we examine them from a wider perspective, they form part of a larger wave of unrest around the world in reaction to the economic crisis left after the COVID-19 pandemic. This wave of unrest calls into question the sustainability of growth as many nations in the Global North not only recover from the pandemic, but also mature economically and demographically. Surely, more mass demonstrations like these shall follow in the coming years.

Written by Research & Development Intern, Andrew Martin