President Emmanuel Macron has said that France is “unreformable” even as he has been trying to introduce change.
After the gilets jaunes movement which started in November 2018 in protest at a rise in fuel tax (later abandoned), pension reform has caused major issues since December.
A wide range of professional sectors have taken part in protests and public transport has been disrupted.
The strike has cost the country €1billion – €20million a day for SNCF, an organisation well used to strikes as it has faced at least one every year since 1947, and €3million a day for RATP.
France is seen as the bad boy of Europe, where social disruption is most likely to happen. Some reforms have successfully passed, such as decentralisation in 1982 and the autonomy of universities in 2007, but Jacques Chirac gave up his own pension reform project in 1995 because of protests, and governments often face difficulties to pass reforms because of rising opposition.
But why is it so difficult to reform France? Two experts agree there is a problem in approach and a lack of communication between the government and citizens.
Economist and member of Fondapol think-tank Erwan Le Noan said: “France is not impossible to reform but it has a special situation which makes reform complex.
“For a very large number of people, there is great uncertainty about what the future may hold and people have limited confidence in the ability of the state to provide the necessary solidarity services tomorrow.
“They see there’s high unemployment, that school education is not working well, that hospitals are in difficulty... and so there is concern.
“In this kind of context, no one is ready to move and reform because reform means there will be losers, and you see quite quickly what you are going to lose, whether in financial terms, or in terms of comfort because it will change your daily life.
“Above all, you have the impression that you’re not going to gain anything.
“People don’t trust the government so politicians need to make sense of the reform but it is difficult for this government or previous governments to explain why they want reform, how they want to do it and where they want to go.
“There is no vision so people do not understand the reasons for change.
“There have to be good reasons that matter to them. The reform must also be prepared beforehand, before the elections.
“It needs in-depth work, and work to mobilise public opinion and the various stakeholders, so that as soon as the government is elected, everyone is convinced that reform is needed and the reform is carried out quickly.
“Here, we have governments elected with a relative majority and which try to carry out structural reforms without preparing public opinion, and they do it months or years after they are elected.
“The French are attached to their advantages – everyone is attached to what they have and their status quo.
“But this raises two questions: are the advantages enjoyed by a part of the workers who have a specific status justified?
“The answer is objectively no, a large part of the special pension schemes and benefits are not justified.
“But is it understandable that the people who benefit from them are opposed to losing them? Yes, of course, because, from an individual point of view, it means a loss.
“But the problem is that in politics too often it is only said that reform leads to gain.
“We deny the feelings of people who feel that they are victims of the reform and that they will lose something but by doing so we create opposition.
“It is better to be able to recognise the victims, and take them into account, find a compromise or tell them ‘yes, you are a victim but we believe that your benefits are not justified and collectively it is better that you lose them’.
“The pension reform has been badly carried out, and we have seen the classic French scheme of the opposition.
“The government makes consultations but does not satisfy the public opinion, then makes big announcements saying that these changes will revolutionise the country so people say no, we do not agree, this is not clear. Then they take it to the streets in a somewhat hysterical and irrational way and in the end the government does nothing revolutionary. The reform will pass but without all the big changes.”
Lecturer at Cergy-Pontoise University Stéphane Sirot added: “Contrary to what one might say, France has undergone major reforms in the past.
But France remains the country of revolution and often changes are made in pain.
“Since the French revolution, political power has been built on the idea that it is only the government that can bring reform as it is elected. Nothing should disturb the government from making its reforms and it is seen as the holder of the general interest of France and its citizens.
“If this does not happen, the situation appears disruptive and it can then be difficult to pass reforms – citizens are not listened to and so have no choice but to go through intermediary bodies, the unions.
“France uses the expression ‘social dialogue’ a lot but in fact social dialogue is often minimal or almost non-existent, so this situation complicates the capacity to reform. The government does not take enough account of the current state of society and of those who can express the state of that society.
“There must be real listening and real consideration of what the unions and the citizens say. Consultations are not enough.
“We must build a compromise together and this dimension is missing today.
“The government must not only listen but take into account what is said.
“Unions remain to this day the legitimate representatives of the workers.
“The role of unions remains to defend the interests of those they represent, even if sometimes these claims may seem to contradict the general interest. But there are also confederations to ensure that a balance is struck between the general interest and their professional demands.”