Part 1: France

In January of 2023, French President Emmanuel Macron announced his plans to raise the retirement age in his country from 62 to 64. This was immediately met with backlash from the general public, who took to the streets in a wave of nationwide protests, more of which have been planned for this month.

Despite winning a second term in the French elections last year, Macron’s approval rating has not been net positive since the very end of 2017, the year in which he was first elected. Macron’s disapproval rating is now continuing to climb following his recent announcement, having just reached 62%—the highest it has been since before the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Yet, none of this should come as a surprise to Macron, as it mirrors the public resistance he faced in 2019 when trying to unify the pensions system, a move unions claimed would see many people’s pensions reduced if they did not continue to work after the original retirement age of 62. While the plans were pushed back in 2019, the fears of the unions have become  a reality in light of this recent announcement. Macron’s resolve to push ahead with his reforms was not weakened by the previous protests, so he has once again found himself at odds with the majority of the French public, 68% of whom oppose his plans.

If Macron was hoping that the majority would have become tired of fighting the legislation, allowing it to slip by easily, he was sorely mistaken. The scale of the protests in January alone has been remarkable, with the interior minister—the French equivalent to the United Kingdom’s home secretary—reporting that approximately 1.272 million people took part in protests across the country, whilst the CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail) union claimed the figure was closer to 2.8 million

11,000 police were reportedly deployed in over 200 locations across France, with 30 protestors being arrested in Paris. It is believed that there were fewer public sector workers involved in the second wave of strikes on 30 January, when compared to January 19, due to concerns about loss of wages. That being said, transport—especially the railways—was heavily disrupted and a large proportion of teachers were also said to have walked out. 

The French government does not seem willing to yield in this struggle, however, with Macron having repeatedly told people that they “need to work more” and that the raise in retirement age is “essential” to saving the pensions system. As this was one of the issues on which his presidential campaign was run, he does not seem to be willing to U-turn on his plans, making it difficult to see where these protests will end. Both the government and the public are equally staunch in their views, so it will likely be a difficult year for France.

If the legislation is stopped, it seems more likely that this will be the result of Macron losing his majority in the French Parliament in 2022. Due to the unpopularity of the reforms in both centrist and left-wing parties, Macron is relying on the support of Les Républicains, a right-wing party, when voting takes place in the national assembly. Though they have pledged to support his plans, this is reliant upon him meeting their demands, so the relationship between then Macron’s Renaissance Deputies is fraught.

One of the most interesting aspects of this issue is that France has one of the lowest retirement ages in the western world. In Germany it is 65, in Greece, Italy, and the United States it is 67. Here in the UK, it is currently 66, with plans for it to have reached 68 by 2046, but there seems to be very little talk or controversy surrounding this. Thus, in the second half of this article, Declan is going to look at how and why the attitude of the UK towards protests differs from that of France. 

Part 2: The UK

Turning our eyes across the channel, both governmental and public responses to strike action look very different. As of 30 January 2023, the Public Order Bill is in its final stages in parliament before it will most likely be enacted into law. Critics of the bill have highlighted how the legislation seriously threatens many of the personal liberties that Britain prides itself on, as a democracy. Not only will this bill curtail the liberties of free speech by allowing only “peaceful protest”, a dangerously ambiguous term, but it will also limit the freedom of workers to strike effectively for better pay and conditions.

Yet despite this, the general public do not seem as strongly opposed to the legislation as one might expect. In fact, it has been welcomed by those who believe strikers and protesters are an unjust nuisance in their day-to-day lives. Whilst there is currently a tidal wave of strike action in the U.K., unlike anything since the 1926 general strikes, support for these strikes is mixed, with a large number of Britons supporting legislation that would impair their democratic rights.

While the support for the current wave of British strikes—ongoing since the first rail strike by the RMT in mid 2022— remains firmly split,  well over half of France supports the protests against the pension reform, with a sizeable number saying they would protest themselves.

So why is it that Britons are far less supportive of the strikers and far more supportive of strike-crushing legislation than the French? The answer lies deep within the political histories of the two nations. The two different tales reveal differences in attitudes to political institutions and the rights of workers which explain why the British are far less willing to support the strikes and defy the legislation against them than the French.  

Historically, the French are more politically active and defiant. An increase in fuel tax in November of 2018 caused the French to take to the streets in a radical and militant fashion with the Gilet Jaunes movement. This movement rioted in the streets of Paris until Macron was forced to U-turn. 72% of French citizens supported this movement despite their riotous activities and the French resolve to protect the rights of workers can be seen through the working conditions they enjoy. A 35-hour working week, retirement at 62 and laws empowering workers not to check emails outside of the office. The U.K. by contrast does not enjoy such privileges and has allowed for the retirement age to be raised to 67 and real wages to fall at a greater rate than any other G7 country. Brits clearly have a higher tolerance for reductions in workers’ rights.

Why is this the case? The French pride themselves on their revolutionary and radical history. Even in the present day, the slogan ‘liberty, equality and fraternity’ is employed by French politicians in media ventures. This mantra, adopted by the first French revolution in 1789 continues to inspire the French polity. As a nation with 3 revolutions and 5 republics, the French will act against institutions which they believe to threaten their rights. The French are a people who have retained their radical resolve and have learnt from their history that the rights of workers and democratic freedoms cannot be taken for granted and must always be fought for.

The British do not share this same ethic. The U.K. has never seen a revolution of a similar magnitude to the French. The radical ideas of the revolution were not embraced by many Britons, who have been far more politically complacent than the French. This weaker radical spirit is evident in their slower political progress. It took the British 70 more years than the French to achieve universal suffrage and the French beat the British to legalise strike action by a decade. The lack of a persisting radical spirit has left many Britons taking personal liberties for granted and unwilling to oppose any legislation that limits it.

In addition to a lack of a radical spirit, British support for trade unions, especially in the older generations has not been as strong as it was before the barrage of trade union activity in the 1970s. The Winter of Discontent soured opinion on the trade unions and the anti-union laws of Margaret Thatcher’s government limited the power of unions. This has manifested in the strike activity in the two nations as the U.K. has had only 1/3 the days of strike action that France has had since 2000. A very manifest loss of support and resolve to strikes

The current government’s rhetoric around strikers has not helped preserve support for trade unions. The contents of the Public Order Bill describe strikers as harmful to not only the British public but to business as well. This “harm” has been played on by the government reminding the public of the inconvenience that strike action has caused.

It would seem that a day of absent teachers or a delayed train is enough to turn many Brits against strike action. The French are not turned away by strikes or protests because of the difficulties they cause. Lengthy strikes by the Paris Metro were still met with support from the public despite the subsequent disruption. The British government has successfully convinced a significant number of people that real strike action should not impact them, which entirely opposes the true purpose of a strike. Without causing disruption, employers and lawmakers would not be forced to improve working conditions.

The French revolutionary resolve manifests itself in their lack of complacency. They still understand that the rights we enjoy today would not have been won if those in power had not been held to account. The disruption caused by British strikes combined with a dangerous acceptance of government messaging is turning many British people away from the strikes and the battle for workers’ rights, hence the lack of opposition to the Public Order Bill. If British politics is to remain a bastion of liberty on which it has prided itself, the British public must take a leaf out of France’s book and take onboard the persisting French spirit of defiance.