‘Emmanuel Macron wants to shift the burden of the crisis on the working class’

A conversation with Vladimir Nieddu of the People’s Health Movement (PHM) France and the International Commission of La Fédération SUD Santé Sociaux on mobilization against pension reforms in France’s health sector

February 10, 2023 by Muhammed Shabeer
Interview - French Protests
Massive mobilization against pension reforms in Paris on January 31, 2023. (Photo: via La France Insoumise)

The French working class is up in arms protesting the pension reform proposed by the neoliberal government headed by Emmanuel Macron. Major trade unions, left-wing parties, youth groups, and others have launched massive protests across the country demanding that the government withdraw the controversial plans that will increase the retirement age in the country from 62 to 64. On January 19, around two million people participated in protests and mobilizations held across France. A second day of mobilization was organized on January 31. News outlets reported that as many as 2.8 million people participated in the protests organized in numerous cities. According to trade union estimates, almost three-quarters of workers in refineries owned by TotalEnergies, a major oil company, joined the strike. Similarly, around 55% of employees in the education sector engaged in industrial action, estimated trade unions. The social movements taking part in strikes and other industrial actions have warned that their mobilizations will only intensify if the government does not back down.

Peoples Dispatch (PD) spoke to Vladimir Nieddu of the People’s Health Movement (PHM) France regarding the likely impacts of the proposed pension reforms on the French working class and the public health sector. Nieddu is also a member of the International Commission of La Fédération SUD Santé Sociaux.

Peoples Dispatch (PD): What are the main proposals of Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform? In your opinion, what is the logic of the government in implementing these reforms? 

Vladimir Nieddu (VN): On January 23, the Council of Ministers of the French government adopted the proposal of a pension reform whose main aim is to increase the retirement age from 62 to 64 years. Macron is ready to discuss other provisions of the reform, but not that one. In order to make people accept this provision, currently rejected by two-thirds of the population and 93% of employees, he continues to highlight what can be seen as the better aspects of the reform. But not even these so-called more favorable measures withstand a detailed analysis: be it the minimum pension increase to 85% of the net interprofessional minimum wage (SMIC) or 1,200 euros gross, early retirement for protracted careers, or more consideration of the arduousness of working conditions. 

The objective of raising the minimum pension to 85% of the SMIC has already been set out in the law for 20 years and is still not applied. Early retirement was defined in a more favorable way in the previous law, and it was Macron himself who removed the criteria for defining work-related hardship that existed before. Macron had already been forced to withdraw a pension reform in 2019, following an exceptional mobilization of employees, the population, and part of the trade union movement, including the General Confederation of Labour (CGT), the Fédération syndicale unitaire (FSU), SOLIDAIRES, and Force Ouvrière (FO). 

On April 25, 2019, Macron said: “Until we have solved the problem of unemployment in our country, frankly, it would be quite hypocritical to increase the retirement age. Today, if you are poorly qualified, if you live in a region facing employment or industrial difficulties, when you are in difficulty yourself, when you have a fragmented career, good luck already to reach 62 years. This is the reality of our country.” Now, Macron is saying the opposite of what he said then. Faced with this paradoxical or contradictory injunction, it is clear that the logic of this reform must be sought elsewhere.

PD: What were the reactions of the population, especially the working class, to the proposed reforms? In your opinion, to what extent are the reforms detrimental to workers’ rights? 

VN: The population and workers have understood that Macron wants to shift the responsibility for shouldering possible future deficits only on the working class, and not on capital, because this year the pension funds are in surplus and have considerable reserves. They understand that he wants to lower the level of their future pensions, while billionaires have shamelessly enriched themselves in recent years, and that he wants to promote the extension of supplementary pensions schemes in a context where only those with high salaries could afford them. 

Especially, the people understand that Macron wants to pursue an ultraliberal European policy of deficit reduction in the name of an illegitimate debt, which is not the workers’ debt. During the COVID-19 crisis, Macron’s motto was to say that he would tackle the crisis, “whatever it takes.” Today, the workers see that it is on their shoulders alone that the weight of the crisis rests; they see clearly the lies of the government and Macron’s reneging on the promises made in 2019 not to extend the retirement age. 

I do not remember seeing such a popular reaction since 1968, even before the opening of the debates in parliament, nor to have a government’s word so quickly debased. The debate on the open-ended strike has been conducted publicly on television channels, radios, and at general assemblies—for example at the SNCF (Société nationale des chemins de fer français), the national railway company. In the energy sector, the CGT (General Confederation of Labour) is threatening to cut off electricity to billionaires and make it free to hospitals and nurseries. The workers in refineries, ports, and docks have announced a plan to ramp up mobilization, and a multitude of local or sectoral actions have already taken place prior to the demonstrations and the interprofessional general strike that took place on January 31.

Also read: Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform is a health hazard

PD: What impact will the reforms have on the health sector, which is already in distress due to austerity, inflation, and understaffing? 

VN: The impact of these reforms in the health and social care sector will be considerable. This sector—with its 2.3 million workers, or nearly 10% of the active population—is composed more than 80% by women, who will be the most impacted by this reform. On January 23, Minister-Delegate Franck Riester admitted in the Senate: “Women are slightly penalized by the postponement of the legal age. […] We never said that everyone would walk out a winner.” 

Nurses, who could earlier retire at 55 years of age, were already penalized in September 2010 when their retirement was increased to 60 years. With the new reform, they would be penalized again, as their retirement age would shift ahead by another four years, so it would come to 64 years. From this example you can see that they are penalized much more significantly than the part of the population that would see their career extended by two years. In 2010, caregivers in the public sector saw their retirement age increase from 55 to 57 years, and, if we don’t win now, they would retire at 59 in the best of cases. These two categories of workers alone account for more than 60% of the employees of public hospitals. And for all workers in the private health and social sectors, retirement will be at 64 years, without any consideration for factors like night work, shift work, weekend work…

PD: As a trade unionist and member of PHM France, what demands do you have to help people face the cost of living crisis and the hospital crisis?

VN: PHM France has no distinct demands on its own, because it is a space for articulating debates and popular struggles. We act within a broad coalition called “Our health in danger,” which supports and shares the demands of the inter-union initiative. There, we find the CGT and SUD Santé Sociaux allied with many workers’ collectives and local committees for the defense of health. It is these that demand the following: an immediate salary increase of 300 euro (USD 327.12), the immediate hiring of 200,000 caregivers, an end to hospital bed closures, and closures of local hospitals and maternity wards. 

PHM also supports the action of social and welfare workers, who protested in Paris on February 2, who are demanding equal pay with the public sector, and who have been defending their national collective agreement which has been under threat of disappearing since 2005. They are organized in local union and non-union committees, grouped together in a national coordination, in which SUD Santé Social Federation and many CGT trade unions are participating, and which will be meeting in Lille very soon.

PHM France also supports, along with 200 organizations that will demonstrate in Lure on May 14, the struggle for the defense and improvement of public services. We are calling for a social security system that reimburses 100% of all medical costs and treatments and abolishes all medical deductibles that penalize patients. 

Finally, I personally defend the existence of a social security system without borders and without barriers, which I believe should be a claim of all the peoples of the world. As COVID-19 has once again demonstrated, viruses have no borders.