When I was in France at the very beginning of this year, I noticed posters plastered on the famous roadside plane trees and slogans painted on derelict walls: ‘Non à la retraite à 64 ans’ (No to retirement at 64).
What had been simmering slowly and peacefully for many months across France erupted violently in Paris as over a million people took to the streets in March. For months now, between one and three million protesters have been voicing their dismay at Macron’s new legislation to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. But it was when an anarchic violent minority – ‘les casseurs’ – joined in and started throwing their weight around, that the world took notice.
And the reaction has been mixed. Here in the UK, news of the strikes, the demonstrations and the burning barricades have been met by many with the usual eye-roll: “Here they go again. Complaining about 64? They should be so lucky.” But also, look carefully and something else is emerging – sympathy? Admiration? On Twitter, #BeMoreFrench is trending.
Let them eat cake
It’s a cliché to refer to the 1789 French Revolution when thinking about who the French are, but it is an important part of what it is to be French. There was tangible evidence of this as some demonstrators were seen dressed in 18th century revolutionary outfits, holding placards saying: ‘Brioche et retraites’ (cake and pensions).
The masses of disgruntled French swelled when Macron triggered Article 49.3, which allows the executive to over-rule Parliament and pass laws without a vote. This fed into a current popular view that Macron has developed imperious ways, aligning himself with elites, and has delusions of royal grandeur.
The French way of life
The truth is, the French know they are lucky and they want it to stay that way. They are proud to have the lowest retirement age in Europe. Before 2010 it was 60, now it is currently 62. So this recent rise to 64 is seen as an attack on the French identity and way of life. They believe deeply in maintaining a healthy balance between work and non-work. And although there is a world-wide conception of the French as lazy, in fact France is in the top 3 of countries in the EU with the highest GDP.
Legislation has historically protected their non-work and family time with laws such as the 35-hour week (in fact rather loosened since it was passed in 2000), and the ‘right to disconnect’, where it is illegal to eat lunch at your desk and businesses are prevented from emailing their employees after work hours.
We Brits are often driven mad by arriving at a French restaurant at 2.05 only to be told lunch is finished. But these strict rules are designed to protect the workers. And they can see global and American companies eroding these rights, as more and more French workers are losing these benefits.
People and the state: le contrat social
The French see themselves as citizens in relation to the state, a state with which they enter into a contract, and expect a return on the money they contribute. As in the UK, the French pay all their working lives for their pensions, a contribution significantly higher than in Britain.
The social contract is a system of redistribution which all French workers are a part of and, unlike in the UK, there is a sense of entitlement. A French friend told me there is a strong feeling that ‘we are all in this together’, that the young pay for the old, knowing that when they too become old, the previous generation has ensured a comfortable life of retirement. Indeed, French pensioners receive on average 54.4% of their final pay slip. And of course, much of this money will be spent in the booming retirement leisure sector.
For its part, the French government, and also business through a special tax, are responsible for most of the funding to the French trade unions. Although unions have been in decline over recent decades, as in Britain, this opposition to the change in retirement age has given them a boost. It has united the different unions which tend to be somewhat splintered, and the union leaders are currently enjoying far more popularity than either the government or opposition.
And, as in the UK, the government’s go-to phrase ‘there is no magic money (tree)’, delivered with a shoulder shrug, is wearing very thin when money is indeed magically found for the government’s own priorities (the billions spent and wasted on PPE during the pandemic is a British example).
Not just in France
In the UK, too, there is mounting unrest. The number of working days lost through strikes last year was the highest since 1989. The British government appears to have underestimated the public support for many of those strikers, particularly doctors and nurses. Teachers have been out on strike too. Our public services have been cut to the bone. How should we respond?
I was astonished recently to tune in to a BBC Radio 2 phone-in on the French strikes to hear more than half of the callers spontaneously say they think we Brits should be taking a leaf out of the French book and start getting out on the streets.
It was the mass coming together in opposition against the poll tax that finally did for Thatcher. And as I raise my anti-Brexit mug on which is written: ‘I am quite cross’, I’m thinking, yes, we definitely need to #BeMoreFrench.