French pension-reform strikes hide deeper issue – distrust of politics

Why We Wrote This

Disgust with politicians has serious practical implications. In France, where the public largely agrees that the pension system needs reforming, the country is racked by protests because few trust the government to do the job.

Charles Platiau/Reuters
Deep frustration with politics underlies the protests against the French government's pensions reform plans Thursday in France. Here, French labor union members and workers on strike attend a demonstration in Paris during the 36th consecutive day of strikes.

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With hundreds of thousands of protesters taking to the streets of France today, the government has an immediate problem on its hands: how to persuade a skeptical public that its pension reform plans are not only necessary but equitable.

The authorities face a deeper difficulty, though. Behind the strong public support for transport workers who are striking to block the reform lies a widespread sense of mistrust for politicians and all their works.

Suspicious of elites, voters in many countries have elected fresh faces recently, from Donald Trump to Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. But the levels of distrust in France are startling: only 9% of the French have any faith in their political parties and 73% have little or no trust in their elected representatives.

Sick and tired of the establishment, many French voters are simply throwing up their hands in disgust and saying no to anything that any politician proposes.

Says Pascal Perrineau, a prominent political analyst, “We are reaching a point where the level of distrust is making it very difficult for the government to govern.”

As hundreds of thousands of striking workers and their supporters took to the streets of France Thursday, demonstrating against government plans to reform the pension system, the authorities faced an even deeper problem.

Behind the protests lies a wholesale disgust with politics and politicians that bodes ill for French democracy.

Railway workers nationwide and public transport workers in the capital, Paris, have been on strike for five weeks to block President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform plans. The longest such strike in 50 years has made life a misery for commuters and travelers, and polls have found three quarters of the population agreeing that France’s complex and deficit-ridden pension system needs reforming.

Yet public support for the strikers’ battle to defend one of the most generous pension systems in the world remains strong. According to a poll published Sunday, 44% support or sympathize with the strike, outweighing the 37% who are opposed or hostile to it.

“Support for the strikes is astonishingly high, considering the inconvenience they are causing,” says Bruno Cautrès, who directs the annual Political Trust Barometer published by Cevipof, a Paris-based think tank. “That’s because there is a high level of social anxiety in the country that Macron has not calmed.”

The government has in fact fed that anxiety, some observers say, by failing to set out clearly how different citizens’ pensions would be affected by the proposed reform.

“Mistrust is at the heart of this movement,” says Pascal Perrineau, a leading political analyst. “People are saying ‘no’ to everything. We are reaching a point where the level of distrust is making it very difficult for the government to govern.”

A system in under strain

Pensions in France are high by international standards. The government devotes 14.3% of GDP to pension payouts, more than any other developed country aside from Italy and Greece and twice as much as in the United States.

A recent independent report, however, predicted that the system could be running an annual deficit of $19 billion by 2025 because demographic changes mean fewer workers are paying contributions and more retirees are drawing benefits.

The system is also complicated, incorporating 42 different pension funds with widely differing rules for different professions and a number of “special regimes” for particular categories of work regarded as especially hard. Railway engine drivers, for example, can retire at 52 with a pension worth 75% of their last salary, although the official retirement age is 62.

The government is planning to introduce a single state-run system, which it says would be fairer, and to encourage people to work a year or two longer so as to balance the books. President Macron vowed to “carry the reform through to the end” in his New Year address to the nation.

But the ham-fisted job the government has made of explaining the reform has fed fears of subterfuge and accusations that its hidden purpose is simply to make people work longer for a smaller pension.

“All the polls show that the French have very deep questions and worries about this reform,” says Dr. Cautrès.

And their worries are broader, suggests Professor Perrineau, one of five public figures invited by President Macron to oversee a “great debate” last year designed to let citizens express their frustrations and their opinions. As President Macron has sought to modernize the country’s economy, “people see what reforms take away from them, but not what they might bring,” Professor Perrineau says.

Some of that attitude is revealed in explanations given for strike funds launched by unions and private citizens. At Christmas, a group of actors, writers, and intellectuals called for contributions to support strikers “defending one of our common goods, a pension system ... that is the fruit of our elders’ struggles.” Such drives are reported to have garnered nearly $2 million.

At the same time, Professor Perrineau adds, “The French make it clear what they reject – the technocratic style of an arrogant administration. But it’s hard to see what they propose as an alternative. It is the politicization of the negative.”

A gap in trust

Underlying that attitude is a deep mistrust of the establishment, revealed in the annual Political Trust Barometer. Last year’s survey found that 73% of the French had little or no trust in their elected representatives in parliament, and that 70% do not believe French democracy is working well.

Only 27% put any faith in trade unions, and a paltry 9% trust the country’s political parties. Those kinds of numbers explain why the Economist Intelligence Unit last year ranked the quality of democracy in France only 16th among 20 Western European nations.

This year’s barometer, due to be published later this month, will find trust levels falling even further, predicts Dr. Cautrès. “I see nothing that would change the trend.”

The weakness of such intermediary bodies as trade unions (only 11% of French workers are unionized, scarcely more than in the United States) dates back to the French revolution, whose ban on guilds and professional associations remains “subconsciously in the French mind” even though it was lifted in the late 19th century, and unions flourished after World War II, says Professor Perrineau.

Political parties have fallen in the public estimation more recently, he says. Having elected a right-wing president in Nicolas Sarkozy, a left-wing one in François Hollande and a “neither-left-nor-right” candidate at the head of a brand new party in Emmanuel Macron, “voters have not seen their situation improve,” says Professor Perrineau. “So they are angry, and they just reject everything.”

On a continent where dissatisfaction with traditional elites is widespread, France could be the canary in the coal mine, he warns. “Unless our political leaders can make sense of the changes that globalization has brought,” he says, “they are going to be in very deep trouble.”

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