How did France arrive at the current wave of popular dissatisfaction?

Millions of people have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest

Millions of people have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest

Photo: Reuters / BBC News Brazil

Millions of protesters in the French streets. About 10 thousand tons of garbage accumulated in the streets of Paris. Gas stations without gas after strikes at the largest national refineries.

After all, what is behind the current situation in France?

The pension reform

The root of the current wave of popular dissatisfaction is a reform of the social security system signed by Emmanuel Macron’s government in mid-March. It raises the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 for most categories.

The government argues that the reform is necessary to sustain Social Security, something increasingly difficult in view of the drop in the proportion between active workers and retirees.

In 2021 alone, pension expenditure cost almost 14% of French GDP to public coffers, almost double the average for Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries.

According to an expert report commissioned by the government, these expenditures could still lead to a deficit of 10 billion euros a year between 2022 and 2032.

Even with the change, the minimum age for retirement in France is still lower than that of European neighbors such as Germany, United Kingdom, Belgium, Holland, Spain and Italy, where it varies between 65 and 67 years.

Minimum retirement age chart in selected European countries

Minimum retirement age chart in selected European countries

Photo: BBC News Brazil

In Brazil, the minimum age for retirement by age is currently 62 for women and 65 for men, with a minimum contribution time of 15 years. The rule was established by the reform approved in 2019, during the government of Jair Bolsonaro.

But the feeling of revolt in France is also linked to the way in which the reform was passed.

Macron’s coalition lost its majority in the National Assembly in the 2022 legislative elections. As a result, the government did not get the necessary support to approve the reform through parliamentarians and had to trigger a special provision of the Constitution, called 49-3, which allows the change to take effect without legislative approval.

Protesters set objects on fire during the demonstrations

Protesters set objects on fire during the demonstrations

Photo: Reuters / BBC News Brazil

The feature was criticized by opposition members and further incited protests.

For Queen Mary University professor and expert on French politics Rainbow Murray, the government’s action was seen by many as “a trampling on parliamentary democracy and the will of the people”.

The manifestations

With all this, the country reached its tenth day of popular demonstrations last Tuesday (28/3).

The total number of people on the streets varies greatly according to the source. But, according to one of the country’s main unions, on Tuesday alone more than 2 million people attended the acts across France, half a million of them in Paris alone.

The Ministry of the Interior and the Parisian police forces accounted for around 740,000 and 93,000 French people on the streets across the country and in the capital, respectively.

In the previous week’s act, the government had counted 2 million demonstrators across France.

And while most mobilized peacefully, there were clashes between some groups and the security forces.

In one of the most violent days, more than 450 people were detained by the police nationwide and 903 fires were lit by demonstrators in the streets of Paris.

Garbage-strewn streets in Paris have become a public health concern

Garbage-strewn streets in Paris have become a public health concern

Photo: EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock / BBC News Brazil

And at the same time that the streets were taken, different categories organized strikes. As a result, airports, schools and oil refineries were affected, causing about 17% of all fuel stations in the country to report a lack of at least one type of fuel.

Public cleaning agents, for whom the Social Security reform foresees changing the minimum retirement age from 57 to 59 years, also stopped for several days.

Thus, images of streets in Paris full of garbage have become a common sight in recent weeks, raising fears of a public health problem.

bomb theme

But this is not the first time that scenes of this type have been recorded in the capital. Over the past 30 years, every attempt at pension reform has been met with demonstrations, strikes and union protests.

According to specialists, there is a component unique to France: a history of resistance to changes in the social security system, in addition to a long tradition of unionist and popular movements.

According to Rainbow Murray, the way French society sees retirement influences the reaction to the changes recently announced by the government.

“The French are very attached to the idea of ​​a long state-funded retirement, especially those in more physically demanding and less pleasant professions – for whom a longer career is an unattractive prospect”, he says.

Emmanuel Macron himself has already faced difficulties in approving such proposals. In late 2019 and early 2020, during his first term, a similar movement was organized in light of the announcement of a project to unify all 45 pension systems in the country.

The government also pressed for a change in the minimum age for retirement, but decided to postpone the project when the country went into lockdown due to the first cases of Covid-19.

But the reform is a Macron campaign promise and has been included in his government plan. And he has said several times that he does not intend to abandon his plans.

“Do you think I’m enjoying passing this reform? No,” the president said in a televised interview. “The longer we delay, the more the deficit will grow.”

“This renovation is not a luxury, it is not a pleasure, it is a necessity.”

political crisis

The current crisis is the first major hurdle Macron faces in his second term.

Polls show that his government’s approval rating has dropped by 4 percentage points in one month, and is currently at 30%.

Rejection of Emmaneul Macron's government has grown in the last month

Rejection of Emmaneul Macron’s government has grown in the last month

Photo: Reuters / BBC News Brazil

In addition, the crisis led the government to face two no-confidence motions in the National Assembly, which did not pass.

If any of the votes had been successful, Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne and the entire government cabinet would have been overthrown, the reform annulled and Macron would have had to form a new government.

But, according to experts, the crisis could deepen even further. There are those who fear a larger social revolt, similar to that registered in 2018 against fiscal and social reforms, known as the yellow vest movement.

For political scientist Rainbow Murray, popular dissatisfaction is also a response to Macron’s own style of governing.

“Macron is a staunch politician and does what he believes is best, but he can come across as arrogant and unwilling to listen to the public. He has even earned the nickname of the president of the rich because many of his policies are said to have benefited citizens more.” richer than workers,” he says.

The criticism leveled at the president for wearing a luxury watch in an interview about the crisis is a reflection of this impression given by the president.

According to his team, he took the watch off because it was making noise on the table during the broadcast. But, for critics, the luxury object symbolizes his lack of contact with the population.

There were those who said that the watch would be worth up to 80,000 euros, the equivalent of R$ 450,000. But the government disclosed that he wore a personalized model of a watch that costs between 1,660 and 3,300 euros on the internet, or R$ 9,400 and R$ 18,600, without personalization.

Many French analysts say that Macron, who is center-right, lost his majority in the National Assembly precisely because of his way of governing and his economic plans.

Experts say the backlash from the reform could open the door to even greater growth for the radical right in France.

Experts say the backlash from the reform could open the door to even greater growth for the radical right in France.

Photo: Reuters / BBC News Brazil

Meanwhile, the radical right, represented by Marine Le Pen’s National Union party, achieved a historic result and multiplied its representatives in the Assembly by 10.

And experts say all the backlash from the pension reform could open the door to even greater growth for the radical right in France.

According to a survey released on March 19, 26% of voters would vote for the National Union if the legislative unions were held today. That’s 5 percentage points more than 5 months ago.

Economic losses?

There are those who say that the strikes and demonstrations would weigh heavily on France’s pockets, but different economists ruled out large losses, despite the effects on the fuel and transport market.

Economist Emmanuelle Auriol, from the Toulouse School of Economics, told the BBC that she estimates an impact of something between 0.1 or 0.2 percentage points on quarterly growth in French GDP.

But she claims said the effect should not be uniform. “Some sectors are hit harder than others,” she said.

The government and other supporters of the reform say that the savings that can be achieved with the pension change are immensely superior to these eventual economic impacts of the stoppages.

– This text was published in

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