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Why more people are supporting the retirement strikes in France

A new poll shows increased support and four out of five people polled say they believe the strikes will continue throughout February

Caption: Protests against the government’s pension reform bill are still going strong in France. This sign reads ‘let’s not go overboard, we’re already dead’. Pic: Hadrian / Shutterstock

Public support for the current strikes against the pension reform is high and has increased since the first day of action on January 19, a new poll shows.

The poll, commissioned for Le Figaro*, shows that 71% of people surveyed support the current strike action, higher than the 66% who backed the action on the first day of protests according to a similar poll for Le Figaro on January 20.

It also shows that 17% of people not only back the strike but also plan to join upcoming demonstrations.

The government’s controversial pension reform bill – a key aspect of which is to increase the retirement age from 62 to 64 – has been scrutinised across the political spectrum in France, with both left and the far right-wing parties in the parliament denouncing the bill.

Key public sectors, including railway, energy, aviation and education, have strongly backed the strikes, spearheading the last two protests (on January 19 and January 31).

Strikes are set to continue into February, with new strikes and national protests called for on February 7 and 11.

Read more: Second pension strike in France: higher turnout, two new dates set

Read more: Why many doctors’ surgeries will be closed for a day in February

The strikes have been so far organised by a cross-union committee that includes all major French unions, increasing both momentum and participation in protests.

Upcoming strike action on February 11, however, may not include rail workers, with rail unions calling for participation in national demonstrations but not strike action. 

This is in part to prevent disruption on the weekend before the winter school holidays begin for some areas of France (zone B).

Reminder: The dates of France's 2023 holidays and days off

The January 31 demonstration was the largest in France since at least 1995, according to Interior Ministry figures.

The poll also shows that the French population are not optimistic about an end to the strike coming soon, with 80% believing strike action will continue throughout February, and 39% believing it will last even longer.

The cross-union action is set to continue, with major unions such as the CGT and CFDT compromising on the strategy of the current wave of strikes.

The CGT for example rarely sanctions strike action and protests on weekends, but is backing the movement on Saturday February 11 saying it will allow private sector workers who cannot join weekday action to join national demonstrations.

Why such strong support and why is it growing?

The reasons behind the widespread support are numerous but the principal factor is protection of the current pension system and especially the current retirement age of 62.

This is combined with a general desire to protect France’s welfare state, which many feel is being chipped away at.

There are arguments that the expected deficit in the pension pot – caused by the longer lifespan and life expectancy of those in France, which you can see on a departmental basis via our interactive map – will either not be as bad as predicted, or can be covered by alternate financing, with some backing a tax on the super wealthy.

The reform also increases the number of years required to work in France to receive a full French pension to 43 years instead of 41.5, which could negatively affect those who study for longer or are interrupted from working.

A large number of young people support the strikes as they think this may be the first in a number of changes which pushes retirement further and further away from them.

Many commentators say the government’s stubbornness over the reform is contributing to the increase in support for the action.

French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne has stood firm and said the government will refuse to negotiate on certain aspects of the bill, most notably the increase in retirement age to 64.

This has caused backlash, as unions have stated they would be willing to sit at the negotiating table and stop strike action if the government was not so adamant on these points.

Read also: We French are not lazy, that’s not what today’s strikes are about
Read also: ‘Workers striking against French pension reform are avoiding reality’ 

Reform does have some support

There are some who do support the government’s reform, however, stating the necessity to align the French system with other European countries.

They say this must be done to help France deal with increasing national debt, and a coming disparity between those contributing to, and those taking from, the pension pot.

Former president Nicolas Sarkozy, and former Prime Minister Édouard Philippe have both come out in support of Macron’s reform, stating it is necessary for France to modernise its pension system.

The debate over pension reform has existed for generations in France, ever since President Mitterrand lowered the retirement age to 60 in 1983. 

Jean-Pierre Raffarin, former prime minister, made points almost identical to the current government, showing this has been a prolonged battle in the French system.

“When you have fewer and fewer people paying and more and more people receiving... Then there will be a problem”, he says in this video below, from a 2003 interview.

*The study was conducted by Odoxa-Backbone Consulting, involving 1,005 French individuals over the age of 18. Conducted on February 1 and 2 over the internet

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