Politics, Europe

Pension reforms: Timeline of unrest in France

President Macron’s controversial reforms, which sparked massive protests in France, will take effect on Sept. 1

Nur Asena Erturk  | 31.08.2023 - Update : 31.08.2023
Pension reforms: Timeline of unrest in France


The controversial pension reforms that plunged France into months of chaos will come into effect on Friday.

From mass protests to walkouts and bouts of violence, the issue triggered a wave of social and political unrest in the country, with large sections of the population vehemently opposed to the changes.

Under the new law, the retirement age will be gradually raised from 62 to 64 by 2030. This will foremost affect the generation born on and after Sept. 1, 1961.

From 2027, workers will only be eligible for a full pension after having worked for 43 years.

People in jobs considered “active” or “super-active,” meaning physically or mentally taxing work, will be eligible for early retirement, including healthcare workers, police officers, firefighters, prison guards, sewer cleaners and others.

The guaranteed minimum pension will be 85% of the net minimum wage, around €1,200 ($1,300) per month.

How it happened

After first mentioning the plan in late 2022, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne revealed its actual details on Jan. 10 this year.

The Cabinet approved a draft on Jan. 23 and the National Assembly examined it from Feb. 6 to Feb. 17 without any voting.

The far-right National Rally party’s motion for a vote on the reforms was also rejected.

After days of heated debate, the Senate, dominated by right-wing parties, assessed the plan from March 2-11 and passed it with 195 votes in favor and 112 against.

A joint committee of seven senators and seven parliamentarians approved a final version of the draft bill on March 15 and sent it back to the Senate for a final vote.

That was passed with 193 votes and was supposed to be put up for a final vote in the National Assembly.

However, after a meeting between President Emmanuel Macron, Borne and other ministers, the government used its special constitutional powers under Article 49.3 to bypass the final vote.

The step was taken out of fear that lawmakers would be able to block the reforms as the government does not have an absolute majority in the National Assembly.

The move drew fierce backlash from the public and politicians, with lawmakers filing two no-confidence motions, which were both voted down on March 20.

The Constitutional Council then reviewed and approved the bill on April 14, which President Macron signed into law on the night of April 15-16.

Outrage and unrest

The outpouring of public anger over the plan was instantaneous, starting from the day Borne initially spoke about it late last year.

When she eventually announced the details in January, the country’s eight main labor unions issued a call for nationwide strikes and protests.

Between Jan. 19 and June 6, there were at least 14 days of mass protests that saw hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets, and the government deploying massive contingents of security personnel.

Violent groups infiltrated the demonstrations at times, particularly after the government bypassed the parliamentary vote, with vehicles, dumpsters and public buildings, including the town hall in Bordeaux, damaged or set on fire.

Hundreds were arrested and French police were widely criticized for their use of excessive force against protesters.

Labor unions also staged several walkouts, severely disrupting operations at airports, train stations and other public facilities.

Energy sector workers launched what they called “Robin Hood actions,” like cutting power to residences of officials who supported the pension reforms and supplying free electricity and gas to public buildings including hospitals, libraries and schools.

Sanitation workers in Paris walked out for several weeks starting March 6, leaving the capital teeming with tons of garbage and hordes of rats.

Walkouts by oil refinery workers triggered supply issues across the country, and nearly half of the gas stations in Paris were struggling to meet consumer demand in the month of April.

Protests in numbers

At least 2 million protesters turned out across France on Jan. 19, according to the General Labor Confederation (CGT), while authorities counted 1.12 million.

The CGT said there were 2.8 million for the second round on Jan. 31, 2 million on Feb. 7, 2.5 million on Feb. 11 and 1.3 million on Feb. 16.

The headcount given by authorities for these demonstrations was 1.27 million, 757,000, 963,000 and 440,000.

On March 7, the sixth round of nationwide protests, the CGT said 3.5 million people poured onto the streets of France, while the Interior Ministry placed the figure at 1.27 million.

The CGT said there were 1 million people on March 11, 1.7 million on March 15, 3.5 million on March 23, 2 million on March 28, 2 million again on April 6, 1.5 million on April 13, and 2.3 million people on May 1.

The government’s figures were again much lower: 368,000, 480,000, 1.1 million, 740,000, 570,000, 380,000 and 782,000.

For the 14th and last round on June 6, the CGT said there were 900,000 protesters across the country, while authorities placed the number at 281,000.

International criticism

The unrest in France drew international attention and criticism, particularly over the crackdown on protesters and large-scale arrests.

It led to the cancellation of a visit by Britain’s King Charles, which was set for March 24 but called off on Macron’s request.

Macron himself faced public ire on visits to several French towns, as well as a trip to the Netherlands, where he was confronted by protesters and heckled during a speech.

The European Commission for Democracy Through Law (Venice Commission), an advisory group of the Council of Europe, also criticized the French government for bypassing the final parliament vote on the reforms.

It said the step represented “a significant interference by the executive in the powers and role of the legislature,” adding that it was “seemingly unique in European comparative experience and … problematic.”

As for the police aggression against protesters, France’s National Consultative Commission on Human Rights condemned the actions, saying it also notified the UN and Council of Europe’s monitoring bodies.

It said numerous protesters were arbitrarily arrested, including two journalists.

Reporters Without Borders called on French authorities to stop police violence against journalists and denounced the arbitrary arrests and intimidation tactics.

The Council of Europe also slammed the “excessive use of force,” with Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic urging French authorities to respect the public’s right to protest.

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