France has been hit by another wave of strikes this week, the sixth day of mass industrial action called by unions to protest controversial pension reforms that would include raising the retirement age from 62 to 64.
Unions hope to bring the country to a standstill on Tuesday with trains and buses, planes, education, energy production and garbage collection all affected.
In 2020 and 2021, France had among the highest number of days lost due to strikes, 79, of any EU country.
But is it an effective tactic, and will industrial action force the government to roll back its pension reforms?
“During every protest in the past there was either an abandonment or a change; concessions were made to the various unions that had mobilised,” explains Bruno Palierhead of research at Sciences Po University of Paris.
Here’s a look at some of the biggest strikes in France in recent years and the impact they had:
1995: Strikes for civil service pension reform
The 1995 strike remains the greatest success in directing government policy in favor of the masses.
The strikes were in protest against a plan by Prime Minister Alain Juppé to align the pension system for civil servants and employees of public companies (including transport companies SNCF and RATP) with the pension system for the private sector. The prospect of working for 40 years, rather than 37 and a half, to receive a full pension sparked discontent that led to mass demonstrations by unions across the country, ultimately crippling the country’s transport network.
After three weeks of paralysis, the government ended up abandoning the project that had stirred up the protests.
2003: More pension reform plans
Eight years after the last attempt, Prime Minister François Fillon tried again to reform civil service pensions and ensure better alignment with private sector pension contributions.
But this also triggered widespread industrial action.
After several weeks of strikes and demonstrations, which brought together more than a million people in Paris on May 13, 2003, the reform was finally adopted after an agreement was reached with the reformist unions.
“The unions did not launch a protest, but tried to get concession points from the government, which they got, especially regarding the calculation of pensions for women and the early retirement system for those who started working earlier,” says Bruno Palier.
2010: The retirement age was raised from 60 to 62
The reform led by former minister Eric Woerth, the latest attempt at reform, would have raised the legal retirement age from 60 to 62 to preserve the financial balance of the pension system.
Workers would have had to work for 41.5 years to receive a full pension.
The project led to a wave of demonstrations, including on October 12, 2010, which brought together more than three million people in France, according to the unions (although the Interior Ministry’s figure is much lower).
Strikes and blockades at refineries and fuel depots had a direct impact on motorists, who faced fuel shortages at petrol stations.
Despite the strike action, it did not have the desired effect.
But it did not have the desired effect: “In 2010 there was a lot of mobilization. But the main measure – namely the shift of the legal retirement age from 60 to 62 – was not questioned”, recalls Bruno Palier.
2023: What’s Different Now?
Unlike previous movements, the 2023 strikes are characterized by a united front on the part of the trade unions.
“Never before on the question of pensions, have we had all the unions united to oppose the project,” notes Bruno Palier, who compares the latest mobilization to that of 1995.
“The 1995 reform attacked special and special regimes, such as professions that had an earlier starting age; it is the same professions that had led the movement. While in 2023, the main measure affects the entire population, namely postponing the retirement age from 62 to 64 (… )”
“Today the government clearly hopes to implement its reform in parliament by making concessions to the right, without trying to make concessions to union mobilisations.