Pension reform, can the government escape the blockade?

► “All trade unions oppose age measures”

Luc Berille, Former Secretary General of Unsa

The government has made lowering the statutory retirement age a matter of principle, even as Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne on Tuesday morning opened the door to a delay to 64 instead of 65. After that, it will be very difficult to avoid deadlock with the trade unions.

Admittedly, there would be ways to compromise, given the hardship, long career, minimum pension. But this is also problematic. Take the challenge: it is the same majority that undermines the professional account of prevention, so the government is not very reliable to address this topic again.

We could compromise on the employment of the elderly. But that would assume the government is willing to force companies that don’t want to hear about it…

As for age measures, which are opposed by all trade unions, even the most reformist ones, I see less of a way to compromise, because it all happens in the context of difficult social dialogue. We saw this just before Christmas with the unemployment insurance decree, which saw the government crack down on jobseekers. (Elisabeth Borne announced Tuesday to revise those provisions, editor’s note). Doing things like this is a perfect symbol of the way the government intends to engage in social dialogue.

As for whether the unions will have the strength to mobilize against the government project, that is a big question for me. January promises to be a difficult month on the inflation front, with subsidies for petrol, gas or electricity reduced: everyday life will become very complicated for hundreds of thousands of French people.

Will they be knocked out, or will this pension reform, on the contrary, be a blow that forces them to react? It is very difficult to say! Highly structured sectors with specificity, such as transport, can influence mobilization, but will this be enough?

The mobilization against the CPE in 2006 is worth remembering: the union mobilization was symbolic and the movement only really took off when the youth took over. And the government surrendered only when the grandparents marched with their grandchildren.

In addition to the setbacks in terms of frustration and discontent, the government would do well to think twice even if it manages to secure a majority in the Assembly with Les Républicains. Because he could see that various forms of social difficulties were combined with the risk of going beyond the scope of the trade union, and therefore faced something worse than negotiating with the representative organizations.

► “This fall, trade unions could not mobilize”

Guy Groux, sociologist, Professor of Sciences Po

Polls show that the French are not in favor of delaying the legal retirement age, which is nothing new. Public opinion has always been very supportive of social movements challenging previous reforms. But this will not be enough to run the country en masse because we are experiencing a crisis of union representation.

We see more decisive actions by collectives, coordination built through social networks, as in the hospitals two years ago or in the SNCF with the supervisors’ strike at Christmas. Contrary to what professional organizations say, these moves are not taking place in union deserts, but in increasingly unionized sectors. This clearly reveals the crisis of representation. According to the latest November 2022 edition of Cevipof’s (Ipsos) annual social dialogue barometer, only 36% of surveyed workers consider trade union activities to be effective, compared to 39% in 2019.

The situation is not individual withdrawal, but distrust of institutions. Reorganization of collectives that are more autonomous in relation to trade unions and mobilize at the level of profession, workplace or worker category. This context favors the emergence of a large social movement. This fall, unemployment insurance and pension reforms were already pressing, and unions failed to mobilize despite this.

On the political level, of course, the government has a relative majority in the Assembly, but the opposition is fragmented. On the left, we do not see the emergence of a political force that can continue the mobilization. The prospect of a more spontaneous popular movement like the Yellow Vests remains. But nothing allows us to determine how inflation will affect the mood of the population. To say that this increased anger or, conversely, led to a form of resignation seems to me purely speculative today.

To convince the French, Emmanuel Macron insists on the value of work, but I doubt the scope of the political speech in crisis today. In 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy was elected on a promise to “work harder”, but that did not prevent a strong mobilization against his pension reform three years later.

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