Love them or hate them, you have to respect the French and their moxy for trying to stop time dead in its tracks. Try to visit that great family-run bistro on your long-awaited summer vacation to Paris anytime in August and there’s a good chance you’ll find a closed sign that reads “back in September.” The French are admirably loathe to miss out on any holiday time much less concede to President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plan to make them work an extra two years (which amounts to 18 years of 6-week vacations).
France Strikes over Retirement Age
In an impressive showing of solidarity against fiscal reality, French workers everywhere have been demonstrating en masse for weeks against the pending parliamentary vote to raise the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62 and the full state pension age from 65 to 67. Depending on whose figures you believe, the total number of demonstrators on October 12 reached from 1.2 to 3.5 million people, among the largest in French history. With the low count coming from the government and the high one from the unions, the real number lies somewhere in between. Today, protests are planned at more than 260 sites across France, marking the sixth separate day of protests since the first national strike on September 7.
Numbers of Demonstrators
Ranges for the estimated number of demonstrators for each protest are as follows:
Tuesday, October 19: TBA
Saturday, October 16: 825,000 (police) – 2.5 million – 3 million (unions)
Tuesday, October 12: 1.2 million – 3.5 million
Saturday, October 2: 899,000 – 3 million
Thursday, September 23: 997,000 – 3 million
Tuesday, September 7: 1.2 million – 2.7 million
Social and Economic Consequences
The strikes have caused major disruptions across France with considerable social and economic consequences. An eight-day strike at oil refineries and blockades of fuel depots kicked off widespread fuel shortages. The resulting panic buying drove gas sales up by half last week. By Tuesday, about 1,500 or 12.5 percent of France’s 12,000 gas stations had run dry or were about to close due to the lack of fuel. To add to the transportation issues, half of all flights at Paris’ Orly airport and one-third of flights at other French airports were being cancelled. More violent protest acts in some places included burning tires and cars.
Demographic Issues in France
The root of the pension conflict involves finding a way to deal with the large and growing disconnect between France’s financial resources and demographics, which has been further aggravated recently by the on-going economic downtown and high unemployment. Like many other advanced economies, France’s population has gotten a lot older in recent years due to the long-term trends of people living longer and giving birth less. From 1950 to 2000, the life expectancies of French males and females rose by 11 and 13 years, respectively. Over the same period, the country’s birth rate decreased from 2.7 in 1950 to 1.8 in 2000. The latest figure for France’s total fertility rate of about 1.97 births per woman is below the replacement level of around 2.1 needed to maintain a stable population, though still well above many of the country’s European peers, including Germany, Italy, and Spain. The combination of more, longer-living pensioners and fewer young people means that there are fewer workers to cover higher retirement costs.
Though the demonstrations seem focused on the retirement issue, raising the retirement age could also work against prior measures to create much-needed jobs. In 1997, the socialist government of President Mitterand began phasing in a standard work week of 35 hours. Rather than free up more time for wine and holidays, the law was meant to address France’s high unemployment rate by spreading the available work across a larger share of the population. With people forced to work years longer, there will likely be less work and fewer jobs that can go to younger candidates.
French Way of Life
On the fiscal front at least, the French seem to realize in their minds, if not their hearts, that some belt-tightening measures are inevitable. Public opinion polls were generally moving in favor of reform as of midway through the strikes. Some of those who recognized the need for pension reform suggested that the strikes could also be more of a reaction against the elite and an expression of the overall level of public concern rather than direct opposition to the higher retirement age. The unions may have a more modest goal at this point of raising the issue about protecting a certain French way of life.
Sarkozy’s Political Calculations
President Sarkozy deserves credit for stubbornly sticking to his guns in the face of the French fondness for social welfare. He seems set on making France face financial reality irrespective of any political costs. On the other hand, he may also feel as if there isn’t that much to lose considering his on-going record of lackluster approval ratings.
The Senate, France’s upper house of parliament, was originally scheduled to vote on the controversial measure on Wednesday, though the vote may be delayed several days as the Senate wades through 400 opposition amendments. With approval from the National Assembly, France’s lower house of parliament, already in hand, President Sarkozy is likely to see his bill pass into law come what may. How well French workers manage to temper their hearts with their minds and come to terms with France’s demographic and fiscal challenges remains to be seen.
For more on the French strikes and union power, see the post Just How Powerful are Unions in Europe?
Cette, Gilbert. Reform and Reduction of Working Hours. France in the United States website. Embassy of France in Washington.
Cowell, Alan. In France, Labor Strikes Head for Showdown. New York Times. October 19, 2010.
Fraser, Christian. French in Front Line Fight to Keep Pension Rights. BBC News. September 13, 2010.
Gauthier-Villars, David. Sarkozy’s Rating Falls. The Wall Street Journal. March 19, 2010.
Sayare, Scott, Marie-Pia Gohin, Joanna Kakissis, Nicola Clark, Maïa de la Baume and Matthew Saltmarsh. French Strikes Force Petrol Stations to Shut; Police and Protesters Clash in Nanterre as Vehicles are Set on Fire. BBC News. October 18, 2010.