At the beginning of 2023, the media talked a lot about the French protests. Why are the French protesting ?
There are deep-rooted reasons for the French “culture” of protesting and going on strikes. Firstly, we have to talk about the origins of this culture in France, and then about the current events that have led to these social movements in 2023. As for the long-term consequences of these events, time will tell… And as for the solutions, that’s not my job. I am not an elected representative, but I do have some ideas.
French Rebellion or the French culture of protesting
France is known for its culture of manifestation. I, your French teacher, am used to seeing different social movements like strikes, factory blockades and largely peaceful demonstrations in my country. My first experience of a strike was when I was 4 or 5 years old. There was a road blockade by road hauliers. I remember that my parents had difficulty getting home. In short, all French people have been affected by strikes, if they have lived here long enough.
You could say that culturally, this tradition of manifestation (protests) and strikes is rooted in the French Revolution. Of course, there were social movements before the revolution, but what anchors the French Republic and is part of the pride of the French people is the French Revolution of 1789.
The role of Education and the French symbols
Throughout school, French children learn about this part of history. It is glorified and it is a part of national pride. The French also study authors such as Zola and Hugo, who have highlighted French revolutionary ideas in their works. They are glorified and are a part of the French cultural identity.
And what about the symbols of the French Republic? Remember that Marianne, liberté leading the people, is the personification of the French Republic.
What about the French who are always complaining? Yes, we French are grouchy and want to protect their social, economic and cultural achievements. As a French person, I understand the sentiment. One of the symbols of France is a rooster crowing with its feet in manure. Which other animal, as proud, can crow with its feet deep in s***?
These aspects of the French identity that are acquired through education (which is in parenthesis still acceptable in France), makes us have this culture of fighting against oppression, of fighting against what we consider to be unjust.
Since we are a democratic country where individual citizens’ freedoms are respected, and since police violence is less common compared to other countries, it is easier to protest.
French protests 2023: the reasons for the flare-up
So what made the French take to the streets in 2023? Why are garbage collectors in big cities like Paris on strike? Why are the French in the streets every night and on certain days, protesting against their government?
A restrained anger
Do you remember the yellow vests (gilets jaunes) movement? It was in 2018-2019, at the beginning of President Emmanuel Macron’s first term. This social movement was interrupted because of the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown. The problem that had prompted the French to take to the streets, i.e. the increase in the price of living, had not been resolved.
With the pandemic, all social movements in France came to a halt. Then came the war in Ukraine in 2022, where everyone was paying attention to what was happening internationally. This lasted until 2023. People had exercised a restrained calm but were frustrated inside because of the high cost of living.
The pension system in France
In France, the pension system is based on social security contributions. This means that when you work, every month you pay social charges. This is a percentage of your salary that is directly deducted by the State.
This contribution allows you to subscribe to social security and pension insurance. The higher your salary, the higher your contributions and the higher your pension. On the other hand, during a period of unemployment, you do not contribute.
In France, until the pension reform in 2023, a person had to contribute for 42 years to receive a full pension. The legal retirement age was 62. In addition, certain professions could retire earlier because of the arduous nature of their work. And for those who chose to work part-time, they could retire after 42 years of contributions at the age of 62, just like the others.
But that was before the pension reform of 2023…
The trigger of the French Rebellion
What triggered the ire of the French was the 2023 pension reform. After many issues to be dealt with in a hurry, Emmanuel Macron’s government was finally able to tackle the pension reform project. This was one of candidate Macron’s projects from his first election in 2017.
The aim of the pension reform project is to adapt the social security contribution system to changes in the labour market. Indeed, people are entering the labour market (in general) later than before and the population (in general) is living longer.
Since the existing pension system dates back to 1945, it is normal to reform it with the evolution of society. However, the baselines of more than 78 years ago are certainly not the same as those of 2023. And this is partly what the government is being criticised for.
But what really fed the fire was the untimely use of Article 49.3 of the French Constitution. Normally, this article of law is used to pass laws without the vote of the Parliament in emergency situations. The problem: where is the emergency here? And why use it 10 times, an absolute record, to pass a law?
This excessive use of 49.3, the latest being to raise the retirement age from 62 to a minimum of 64, was the last straw that blew up the situation.
Why the French Rebellion?
As mentioned earlier in this article, French education is still relatively very good. The French know what’s going on and understand the politics around them. We are not easily fooled.
Raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 is not acceptable to us.
Nor is increasing the contribution period from 42 to 43 years or abolishing special pension schemes. Not to mention the fact that people who have decided to work part-time will now be penalised because they will not have paid full-time contributions.
The French know that pension insurance needs to be reformed, but not like this and not by force. And especially not by basing it on a system that is over 78 years old. It is an outdated, obsolete system that does not correspond to the characteristics of modern society.
The consequences of the French protests
One of the first consequences of the ongoing protests in France is that some economic activities have been stopped, roads are occupied, the delivery of goods is delayed and various public services are slowed down.
Is this something that surprises the French? Not at all. We are used to it. The pandemic and the lockdown have accustomed us to limit our movement, to work from home and to deal with shortage.
We are fed up! And we don’t like having choices imposed on us!
What happens next, from April 2023 onwards, will tell us more about the consequences of these protests against the pension reform.
I hope that this article has provided some additional information for your understanding of what is happening in France this year. The information mentioned in this post is rather vague and without numerical data. If you are interested in reading sociological analysis, I encourage you to consult the various popular media platforms.
If you want to read this article in French: Pourquoi les Français manifestent?
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