A nation on the boil

Print edition : July 04, 2003

France might be heading for a turbulent summer with strikes and other forms of agitation protesting against the government's plan to reform the pension system showing signs of intensifying.

in Paris

At a demonstration in Marseille against the government's proposed pension reforms.-GERARD JULIEN/AFP

AT ten minutes past seven on the evening of June 10, Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte was playing to a select audience at the Opera Garnier in Paris. The men were in dark suits and the women wore pearls and perfume. On stage, the sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella had just launched into their duet "Ah, guarda sorella" - when their warbling sopranos were rudely interrupted by a mob of wet and disorderly demonstrators fleeing from water cannons, tear gas shells and baton-wielding policemen on the streets outside. Their pursuers were hot on their heels, and there was pandemonium as the policemen and the protesters scuffled on the polished wood-and-marble floors of one of Europe's finest temples of high culture. The performance was interrupted and the building evacuated. When order was restored, some 350 protesters, most of them hurt and bleeding, were arrested. The police cordoned off the 19th century edifice in the heart of the city.

Earlier, the police fired tear gas shells and water cannons at marchers in central Paris as hundreds of masked demonstrators repeatedly rushed into the Place de la Concorde, some of them trying to erect barricades using metal security barriers. There were about 200,000 protesters on the streets of Paris on June 10 and a total of almost 1.5 million in large and small towns across the country.

The current series of protests began in early May. More than one million people turned out for a series of demonstrations on May 13. Since then, the country's 800,000 teachers have spearheaded the movement, adding the questions of pension reform and decentralisation of educational structures to their long list of grievances.

This is likely to be the onset of a turbulent summer for France with strikes likely to paralyse and hurt further an already ailing economy. The railway and Paris Metro systems have been hit since June 3, when workers started an open-ended strike - though as the beneficiaries of special pension regimes they are unaffected by the government's bill to reform the pension system. The current wave of strikes constitutes the biggest round of work stoppage since the transport workers' strike that paralysed France for over three weeks in 1995.

Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who has the support of President Jacques Chirac, says he is determined to push the reforms through. Failure to do so, he says, will result in the pension funds going bankrupt in a decade. He has suggested an increase in the number of years a person must work in order to qualify for full pension.

Raffarin has faced mounting opposition to his proposals, which are intended to protect France's costly "pay as you go" system from an imminent demographic crunch by making employees - especially those in the extensive public sector - work for more years in order to receive a pension.

Ministers say that without reform the system will have an annual deficit of 50 billion euros ($58.9 billion) by 2020. In a commentary published in Le Journal du Dimanche, Social Affairs Minister Francois Fillon wrote: "An increase in the length of the period of contributions is inescapable. Those who claim the opposite are lying!" On the other hand, the unions say the government's plans place an undue burden on the workforce.

FRANCE is growing old and the demographic pattern is at the heart of the problem. Birth rates have been falling and the country is on the verge of registering a negative rate of population growth. While people are living longer, fewer babies are born each year. The result is that it is costing the French exchequer a huge amount of money to keep paying retiree pensions.

Nicole Penicaut, who covers social affairs for the French daily Liberation, said: "The system here is pay as you go. That means the state takes a certain percentage of my salary that goes towards my pension. In fact, what I pay today goes to the millions of retired people living in this country. When I retire my pension will be paid by those still in active service. While the base of the active workforce is narrowing, especially with high unemployment, the number of pensioners is growing. This is why reforming the system is an urgent task."

In a survey conducted by the IFOP polling institute for the Sunday newspaper Dimanche Ouest-France, 55 per cent of the respondents said the government should launch a round of negotiations with the unions to resolve the dispute. Many schools have experienced sporadic shutdowns since the start of the school year, amid growing concern that the graduation examination for 600,000 high schoolchildren - the baccalaureate - will be affected by the strikes.

Having waged an eight-month-long campaign against the government's education policy, France's 800,000 teachers have added the pensions issue to their list of grievances and taken a leadership role in the protests. Education Minister Luc Ferry and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy have indicated that the government might be willing to give some ground on the matter of the timing of an education decentralisation Bill that is opposed by the majority of teachers.

In an interview with Le Tribune newspaper, Raffarin warned teachers not to "take young people hostage" by boycotting the supervision of the examinations. He said: "The right to strike must not be distorted... If a minority adopts undemocratic behaviour the government will display firmness to ensure that pupils can take their examinations."

Raffarin has thus far refused to budge on the pensions plan, insisting that it is necessary to ensure that France's "pay as you go" system does not go bankrupt. By 2008, the contribution period for the state sector will be brought up to 40 years, matching the private sector; the period for all workers will be further extended to 41 years by 2012 and 42 years by 2020.

While the second largest union, Confederation Francaise Democratique du Travail (CFDT), has accepted the plan, powerful public sector unions, Confederation Generale du Travail (CGT) and Force-Ouvriere (FO), say it would place a heavy burden on the workforce and are demanding its renegotiation.

The government - which enjoys a large majority in Parliament - said it wanted the Bill on the statute book by the summer recess in mid-July, but the left-wing Opposition has promised it a rough ride. The Communist Party has tabled more than 6,000 amendments to the Bill.

Asserting that the government would stick to its calendar, Raffarin told Le Tribune: "I am not pessimistic. Social reforms have never been implemented in France without agitation. That is why reforms have been put off so often."

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