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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Clea Skopeliti and Sammy Gecsoyler

‘Democracy is broken’: French public divided on pensions and protests

A police officer in riot gear removes barbed wire near Frontignan oil depot
Protesters block access to the Frontignan oil depot in southern France after the government pushed pensions reform through parliament. Photograph: Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty Images

More than a million protesters took to the streets in France on Thursday after Emmanuel Macron’s decision to force through legislation to raise the minimum pension age last week.

The government narrowly survived a no-confidence vote on Monday after invoking article 49.3 of the constitution to bypass parliament for the bill.

There have been weeks of strikes and protests against the proposals to reform France’s retirement system, culminating in outbreaks of violence in some cities during Thursday’s national day of action.

Here, seven people in France share their views on pension reform and the protests.

‘I’m not averse to changing the system’

“The system is fed by the working population. If the retired population increases and the working population does not keep up, this will pose some problems. I’m not averse to changing the system but it should have been done with more consultation.

“The reforms are not fair to people who have physically demanding jobs and women who may take time off work for parenting and will now have to work for longer. It is also unfair for people who started to work at an early age – why should people who started work at 18 not be able to retire at 61?

“I attended a protest earlier this month. It was really relaxed and merry. There was no hint of adversity. There were people from industry, office jobs, firefighters and teaching staff. It was quite diverse.” Remy, 47, teacher, Bordeaux

‘There was no democratic process in the way it was done’

Noemie le Carrer attended several protests in Brest
Noemie le Carrer attended several protests in Brest. Photograph: Noemie le Carrer

“I have attended all the protests in my city since February, although I’m nine months pregnant. In Brest, the atmosphere was peaceful and family friendly. Of course, there were people who started to be more violent but I never felt it was dangerous, though after I saw some damage [to buildings] on the news.

“The problem is not raising the pension age per se. The problem is that this reform does not make the difference between hard physical and dangerous jobs. Of course those who collect waste want to retire sooner – it’s a hard job.

“There was no democratic process in the way it was done – we feel very looked down on. The reason for this last protest is consequently more about Macron’s attitude, and his way of [ignoring] other suggestions, the unions and the people.

“The point of a representative democracy is to listen to other points of view existing in the country and compromise if possible. [Instead] article 49.3 was used.” Noemie le Carrer, 36, climate researcher, Brest

‘Pensions are quite generous in France’

“It is absolutely necessary, given life expectancy is growing longer and birthrates are going down. At the end if the day, someone would have to pay for the pensions that are quite generous in France. Had there been a conservative government in place, the new law would have been considerably tougher.

“[There are] huge heaps of rubbish piled up at the entrance of my flat, [because of the strikes] along all streets and on any open space available. No collection at all for more than two weeks.

“I am concerned that the government might recall the law, proving that the country cannot be reformed, and that the reputation of France overseas is declining.” Axel Werner, 74, semi-retired consulting engineer in Paris

‘It creates disparity between the generations’

Arnaud Yzambart says the legislation will create disparities between generations
Arnaud Yzambart says the legislation will create disparities between generations. Photograph: Arnaud Yzambart

“I was not able to attend Thursday’s protest because of work, but I saw protesters passing by the restaurant – it was crowded and there was violence: teargas, fires.

“They’re asking future generations to make all the effort. Older people are not impacted; it creates disparity between generations. My grandad has been retired since 58 on [a very generous] pension.

“Maybe the question should be asked about current pensions and redistribution. Obviously we don’t want old people to be poor, but those with very generous pensions could have it limited.” Arnaud Yzambart, 35, restaurant manager in Paris

‘We never have demonstrations here’

“We are a very rural area. We never have demonstrations here normally but in recent weeks hundreds of people have taken part in them. To my knowledge this is a first. It is completely widespread.

“Most of the news focuses on big cities and the violence that may occur but this does not reflect the nation. Here it was a happy event; there was no violence at all.

“Most of rural France either voted for New Popular Ecological and Social Union (Nupes) or the far right. There is very little support for Macron here.” Julie, 56, researcher in the Gard region

‘It’s about the system of governance’

Jean-Baptiste Yasak joined a protest in Avignon
Jean-Baptiste Yasak joined a protest in Avignon. Photograph: Jean-Baptiste Yasak

“For me it’s not about the pension reform any more. It’s about the system of governance. Macron’s use of article 49.3 for the 11th time in his reign to bypass parliament feels like we are in a monarchy.

“I was at the protest in Avignon [on Thursday] morning and it was peaceful. There were slogans like Macron resign, others about retirement age, and others about article 49.3. People are really fed up.

“We want more autonomy for the regions, more decisions at the local level and more referendums. The concentration of power in Paris must end. [Many] people feel democracy is very broken – that’s why there was low turnout at the last election.

“The anger is not going to go away. It’s gone [beyond the pension issue]. 49.3 was the cherry on the cake – people feel powerless, like they’re voting for nothing.” Jean-Baptiste Yasak, 35, unemployed, Avignon

‘It seems inevitable’

“It seems inevitable – we have one of the lowest retirement ages in Europe. The population is getting older and there are fewer people to finance the system. It needs to change somewhere – no one is particularly happy with it, but that’s life.

“I haven’t attended the protests; they are increasingly ill-spirited. I can see smoke from the protests from my balcony. Some colleagues are scared to go to work. My sister got caught in the protest yesterday – there were some casseurs, people going around to cause mayhem. It was quite frightening.

“But for me the issue is the 49.3. It’s problematic that more things are being pushed through.

“I am increasingly worried Marine Le Pen will be elected next time because of Macron’s failure to unite France as he set out to do. Every year [the far right] gets a bit more ammunition against mainstream politics.” Anna, 31, course administrator near Bordeaux

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