The French Parliament may have passed President Nicolas Sarkozy’s controversial law on pension reform, and the nationwide protests against it may have eased, but as we go to press, they are far from over. The Socialist Party has declared it will seize the Constitutional Council, France’s highest judicial authority, to check on the constitutionality of the law, and more national demonstrations have been planned in the coming weeks. Twenty percent of gas stations are still out of fuel, and wildcat actions continue to disrupt daily life. As Bernard Thibault, leader of the powerful CGT union, declared, "Non, ce n’est pas fini."
The events that have unfolded in recent weeks were sparked by the increase of the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62, still one of the lowest in Europe. But the original protest mutated into a much larger wave of discontent, with the support of more than 70 percent of the French public. How did we get from a necessary reform, which all agreed on in principle, to a massive wave of volatile and disruptive protest?
At the beginning, the opposition was a trade union affair. The proposed pension reform was, in the unionists’ eyes, poorly thought out. Their demands seemed rather reasonable: all they asked of Sarkozy was that he condescend to negotiate and accept a few amendments. In essence, the unions asked for a fairer reform, one that would protect those who have strenuous jobs and should thus be allowed to retire earlier than others, as well as mothers who have to stop working to raise their children, and therefore often lack the number of trimesters needed to claim a full pension at retirement age. Nobody in France, except perhaps the Communist Party, wanted the reform to be scrapped entirely. But all insisted on social justice. Week after week, the unions mobilized a couple of million people in the streets, but Sarkozy dismissed their claims and refused negotiation. If there’s one thing the French don’t take lightly, it is a president who pretends not to hear their grievances.
As time went by, Sarkozy’s intransigence started to irritate the broader French public. His attitude was the last straw. It was as if three years of controversial policies and actions—ranging from rejoining NATO, imposing an unnecessary debate on national identity and asking for a ban on the burqa to ordering expulsion of the Roma, cutting health and education budgets, and trying to put the profit motive at the heart of public services—suddenly came to a head, with a large majority of the public realizing they did not like what the president said and did in their name. A movement was born: youth were in the streets, oil refineries and depots were blockaded, gas stations ran out of fuel and rolling strikes in public transportation began to affect everyone. Millions more were marching in the cold autumn sun.
I was there with them, in the streets of Paris. There couldn’t be a starker contrast between how events have been reported in France and in Britain and the United States. On the covers of Britain’s broadsheets and tabloids like the Independent and the Daily Mail there were pictures of burning cars, fully geared riot police in action, hooded rioters; on the cover of the International Herald Tribune, it was stranded air passengers having to walk the roads. The tone was always somber. The Daily Mail even talked of insurrection on the level of the 1793–94 Reign of Terror.