The first part of the austerity measures that the French government plans to introduce will be a major attack on pension rights for both public and private sector workers. French unions have called for strikes and demonstrations on Thursday 24 June. Olivier Delbeke from Le Militant spoke to Solidarity about the issues.
There are two ages that are important when understanding the pension reform. Firstly — you currently have a right to retirement at 60. But if you retire between 60 and 65 and you haven't paid enough contributions into your pension, you have to pay a charge until the age of 65, when any charge is annulled.
The government is intending to raise the minimum age of retirement to 62; and the age at which you stop paying charges to 67. Currently, you pay 40 years of pension contributions. But under the 2003 Fillon Law, this will go up to 41.5 years in 2011-2012, for everyone, public and private sector. This will happen rapidly.
This is worst for women workers, because women tend to change jobs more often, their working lives are often interrupted, and so they will have the greatest difficulty making up the 41.5 years of pension payments.
There is widespread speculation in the media that public sector salaries will be frozen for three years. I suspect that the government will base its decision on this policy in part on the strength of the strike on the 24th.
There used to be a right to early retirement for working mothers. You used to have the right, if you had paid 15 years' worth of pension contributions, if you were over 45 and had over three kids, to take early retirement. That right is set to be taken away.
There are certain groups, like firemen and policemen, train drivers etc. who have the right to retire at 55 on account of the strenuous, physically demanding nature of their jobs. This collective right will be replaced by an individual physical assessment.
Three quarters of workers are no longer at work by the age of 60, because after the age of 50 the bosses try to sack you. Partially because older workers tend to be more expensive, but also because more experienced workers know best how to resist the boss. New managements often try to systematically remove these people. People at 60 tend to be unemployed or in early retirement. This tends to impact on how much pension they are able to get.
The government is making other cuts. There is already a policy of only replacing one worker for every two who retire in the public sector. This is applied systematically. In three years, between 100,000 and 150,000 jobs have been eliminated in this way, even in the police. The struggles against this have only taken place on a ministry-by-ministry level, there has not yet been a big show of force, or a general strike, on this particular issue. The response has been very reactive.
Why is the government making these cuts now? It's because of the question of national debt and the international situation. They say the coffers of the government are empty. That's because of fiscal policies which favour the rich. At the beginning of this year the official pretext for this policy was to do with demographics and France's ageing society. They ignored the fact that along with demographic change, there had been an unbroken rise in productivity. But that argument has been thrown into the oubliette, and now they are talking about debt as the main reason.
In capitalism, public debt is normal. But with the crisis and the hikes in interest rates, the capitalists are tempted not only to reclaim the interest on what they have lent the government, but also the principal — and getting money from pensions by means of greater state intervention in the pension system achieved via the “plan Juppe” of 1995.
With the austerity measures the debt will be paid but the economy will be pushed into recession and consumption will be depressed.
The problem of the French workers’ movement today is that no union leadership wants to go too far. They are guaranteeing the stability of the government. They are all prisoners of social partnership. The law is expected to pass in September. The argument of the unions is that they will “make a big splash on Thursday and then get ready for September”.
One problem is the question of what demands. All the leaderships say that they want to negotiate a “good reform”. The problem is you can’t have a good reform. Serious people should be demanding the withdrawal of this bill. No-one is demanding this. The national congress of the FSU voted for a good list of demands, but the FSU leadership is not applying these demands in practice.
The issue on Thursday 24th June will be the battle to have the movement say clearly, “withdraw this bill”.