The last time France reached for a universal pension system, Jacques Chirac was president, Alain Juppe was his prime minister and, like today, a wave of freezing cold weather had descended on the country.
Juppe, hoping to balance the country’s books ahead of the switch to the euro, announced a raft of social security reforms, including the harmonization of France’s varied pensions system and the end of the so-called “special regimes” enjoyed by public sector workers.
After 2 million people took to the streets and nearly three weeks of near total paralysis, the pension reform was dropped – and Juppe saved his premiership. But not for long. Two years later, right-of-center politicians lost the legislative power they would spend years fighting to regain. Reform has not been attempted since. Until now.
President Emmanuel Macron has announced reforms that would put an end to the 42 retirement schemes currently in place in France.
The idea is that the schemes, which include special provisions for certain professions, such as rail workers and train drivers who benefit from early retirement, would be unified into a single points-based system that would give all workers the same rights.
But many fear that under Macron’s new universal retirement system, they will have to work longer for less, even though the official retirement age in France is 62 – one of the lowest among the 36 countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
It’s been described as the reforming President’s toughest challenge, with Thursday his greatest test yet: Tens of thousands of French workers across the country took to the streets and paralyzed transport systems with a nationwide strike.
The Eiffel Tower and nearly half of the schools in Paris closed, public transport was disrupted and some shops and banks covered their windows with wooden boards.
Authorities braced for chaos and deployed 6,000 police offices across Paris for rallies across the cities, with protests on the Champs Elysees, Matignon and police stations forbidden. When demonstrations began to turn violent on Thursday afternoon, police deployed tear gas after radicals, clad in black, set trash cans on fire and hurled objects at riot police.
The disruption was felt far beyond the protest route, with 90% of trains and 20% of domestic flights canceled, 11 out of 16 Paris metro lines completely closed and the Eurostar planned to run only half of its trains Thursday and Friday.
Adding to the uncertainty: the unlimited nature of the strike could carry on for days or maybe even weeks, with some unions predict the action will paralyze the country until Christmas.
With seven out of 10 French people saying they back the strike, and Macron’s popularity flat-lining at around 33%, according to pollster Ifop, after a year of violent yellow vest protest and unrest, 1995 is on the minds of anyone old enough to remember this Thursday.
Then as now, France is heading into a bitingly cold winter of discontent with a government staking its credibility on reform that it believes is necessary – and few believe is possible.