- Cole StanglerParis-based journalist covering politics and labor issues.
French unions say nearly 3.5 million people took to the streets Thursday in a nationwide general strike to protest President Emmanuel Macron’s deeply unpopular move to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. Macron forced the legislation through the French National Assembly last week, using a constitutional clause to bypass a parliamentary vote. Macron’s government survived a vote of no confidence Monday by just nine votes, but public anger shows no signs of abating, with France’s major trade unions planning another nationwide protest for Tuesday. “Not only is the government trying to do this pension reform that people see as fundamentally unfair, but they’re ignoring historically large protests even by French standards,” says journalist Cole Stranger from Marseille. His new guest essay in The New York Times is headlined “France Is Furious.”
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in France, where unions say more than 3 million people took to the streets in a nationwide general strike Thursday to protest President Emmanuel Macron’s deeply unpopular move to unilaterally raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 without giving the French Parliament a chance to vote on the plan. On Monday, Macron survived a vote of no confidence by just nine votes. In Bordeaux on Thursday, the town hall was set on fire. And in Paris, police fired tear gas at protesters, who included transportation workers, garbage collectors, teachers, students and more.
CARL LEFRANCOIS: [translated] We are here today because it’s out of the question to once again raise the retirement age. You have to understand that some people work in difficult conditions, and today these people are told that not only do they have to work longer, but also nothing prevents the government in the future to restart this type of bill. It’s time for them to understand that people also want to enjoy their lives. We’re not here to die on the job. We’re here to be able to enjoy life one day, too.
AMY GOODMAN: As protests continue, a visit by British King Charles to France has just been postponed. Striking workers had said they’d refuse to roll out the red carpet for him. France’s eight largest unions have called another nationwide protest.
For more, we go to Marseille, France, to speak with the journalist Cole Stangler, whose guest essay in The New York Times today is headlined “France Is Furious.”
Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Cole. Can you describe the level of mass protest and disgust in the streets right now throughout France? And talk about how this was pushed through.
COLE STANGLER: Yes. So, you know, I think there’s really two things going on here, if you want to simplify it, as you were just explaining. You have, on the one hand, his pension reform that’s extremely unpopular just on itself, on the merits. Polls show about anywhere from two-thirds to seven out of 10 French people have opposed this reform from the very beginning, so going back to January at the very first protest that we saw. They see it as unfair, hurting the least well-off in French society, disproportionately hurting manual workers, hurting women. So, a lot of opposition to the reform itself. Going on now for two months, we’ve had this wave of mobilization, wave of strikes.
And then, as you were mentioning, what has sort of energized the movement further is the way that the government has gotten this reform done, the way they’ve gotten it across the finish line. Last Friday, there was supposed to be a vote in the National Assembly on this unpopular bill. The government, when they realized they didn’t have the votes to actually get it approved in the National Assembly, deployed this constitutional measure that allows them to approve the vote with — approve the bill without a vote in Parliament. And so, then, on Monday, Macron survived this motion of no confidence. So, in theory, this bill is now going to be taking effect.
There’s a couple of ways to perhaps block it, which we can maybe get into, but that — the way the government has carried out this reform, I think, has given the movement new life. It’s why unions have called for another day of mobilization on Thursday. And it’s why we have another one set up next week, because people see that as really unfair. Not only is the government trying to do this pension reform that people see as fundamentally unfair, but they’re ignoring historically large protests even by French standards. They’re ignoring the opinion polls. They’re ignoring moderate labor unions that have said, “Let’s negotiate something.” And so, all of this is fueling this movement. And right now it feels very similar to the yellow vests movement back in late 2018, early 2019, where you had this government that doesn’t seem to understand the anger that it’s unleashed.
AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about the ways where it’s possible this would be rolled back, Cole?
COLE STANGLER: Yes. So, there is a precedent that a lot of people have in their minds, which is the 2006 youth employment contract. At the time, you had mass mobilization from student unions, from labor unions to oppose this reform. The National Assembly actually passed this bill in February 2006. The movement continued. And then, a couple months later, the prime minister, under the guidance of then-President Jacques Chirac, thought maybe this was not the best time to be approving this extremely polarizing, unpopular law that was creating mass protests. And so the government actually did not apply the law that had been passed, and they actually — then the National Assembly passed a law repealing it. So that’s one method. That’s one route. And that’s why we have protests that are continuing. It’s why we have unions that are saying, you know, this isn’t over yet, trying to give the government a sort of exit ramp if they wanted to deescalate things. That’s one route.
The other route, the most significant route, would be the French Constitutional Council, the equivalent, rough equivalent, of the Supreme Court, examining this law and deciding that — deciding to invalidate parts or all of the bill. There’s a lot of questions over that specific measure that the government has deployed, again, to get this bill across the finish line, Article 49.3 of the French Constitution. Critics say that it wasn’t really meant for a reform of this nature. The government attached this massive pension reform to a very particular budget bill. And so there’s a sort of technical argument to be made that this article was applied inappropriately. And, you know, the Constitutional Council will be meeting, as well, amid this upheaval, amid these mass protests, that, as you mentioned, are not dying out. We have another wave scheduled for next week.
AMY GOODMAN: And who is supporting the president in this? I mean, clearly, overwhelmingly, the population is against this.
COLE STANGLER: Emmanuel Macron has a base of voters that’s very real. I don’t want to — you know, we shouldn’t forget that. The Macronist base tends to be wealthier. They tend to be older voters. They tend to vote more, as well. We saw this in the legislative elections last summer. So you have a small chunk of the French population, about a third, according to polls, that supports this reform, but they’re really in the minority.
And I think if you’re looking forward to — if we’re looking ahead to sort of who’s going to benefit from this, I think it’s important to stress, as well, that if you look at France from abroad, there’s often a tendency to look at simply Emmanuel Macron, the president, and then his opposition on the far right, so represented by Marine Le Pen. It should be stressed that Le Pen and the National Rally have play effectively no role in this protest movement. The movement is led by labor unions, going from moderate labor unions to more militant left-wing labor unions, and it’s being led by the parties of the left. I think it’s an important point to stress here. People that sort of expected or thought that maybe the French left was dead or that labor unions in France couldn’t mobilize anymore have been proven wrong by this movement. You have a mass movement that’s really — that’s being led by labor, that has shown it continues to have the sort of cultural appeal, the sort of power to mobilize the French workforce.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Cole Stangler, we want to thank you so much for being with us, Paris-based journalist, speaking to us, though, from Marseille.
Coming up, Congressmember Ro Khanna on the banking crisis, on the attempts from Republicans to Democrats to ban TikTok, and more. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Pièce Pittoresque No. 9: Menuet pompeaux,” the Orchestre National de Lyon and Leonard Slatkin. This week, concertgoers threw coins and booed musicians of the orchestra as the musicians read out a union statement about President Macron’s plans to postpone the pension age in France by two more years.