Lucia Posteraro, The Independent
A walk along Avenue de l’Opéra in Paris on a weekday morning is like a time-machine allowing you to experience the same excitement as 25 years ago, including the frantic search for a functioning metro line – a regular occurrence since the beginning of December.
As an excessive number of riot vans line up on the sides and a traffic jam builds up around a group of screaming CGT union protesters, the possibility of the use of rubber bullets force you to take a side street. Around half an hour later, you learn from Twitter that the police have used batons to disperse the crowd as soon as you left. It is one of several meeting points spreading across the capital as trade unions call for yet another day of rallying. The protests have lasted a month now, with tear gas used upon demonstrators in Paris’s busy Gare du Nord station as recently as Saturday.
For anyone who has lived through the escalations of the Yellow Vest movement last year, the anger at the upcoming pension system reform is even more impressive, with the strike receiving the support of more than half the population. The numbers have inched down in recent polls, but a pre-Christmas survey from Ifop still had support at 51 per cent.
Strikers have already beaten the 1995 record for the longest round of uninterrupted protests, when the transportation system and public administration went on a three-week-long lockdown against then-Prime Minister Alain Juppé reform programme. While the current prime minister, Edouard Philippe, has taken on that role, this time it feels like the strikers’ resilience is aimed at a battle against President Emmanuel Macron, rather than the pension reform itself. The Yellow Vests did that and might have been the inspiration.
Workers at the state-owned SNCF railways and the Paris transport network started their industrial action on 5 December, later joined by public sector workers have joined in. The SOS Retraites – “SOS Pensions” – group has said it will now add its clout too.
As of today, the French pension system is divided into 42 regimes, some of which enjoy a special status, higher payouts, and a relatively low retirement age in comparison to other EU countries. The government wants one universal points-based system which it is hoped will encourage people to remain in employment beyond 62 to 64, the official retirement age.
Although polls stress that the public believes there will be a need to make the system more sustainable for everyone’s benefit, they also outline the belief that Macron will never be the one to deliver it, nor will he ever be considered credible enough to set the agenda again. The stalemate will continue until Macron admits the long-lasting impact of his previous mistakes, including missteps in mass politics so distant from his elite background. The Yellow Vests have redefined French politics, expressing discontent with a ruling class perceived to be unaware of daily struggles that cuts across many social strata.
Macron is now the symbol of this distaste, and all his actions are doomed to fail. The fact that around 44 per cent of people who voted for far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the European election have shown support for or participated in Yellow Vest marches goes a long way to point Macron’s lack of understanding of this political disenchantment. Were Le Pen to appropriate the pension issue too, there is little chance for Macron’s reputation to remain clean enough for another presidential race.
Talks open again this week to try and end the standoff. However, Until Macron commits to a humble moment of self-reflection, the scenes at Opéra will be a testament to a public debate that hasn’t yet be fully had. One that still needs to be defined and dealt with via platform of healthy debate.
A group that observes police conduct at yellow vest protests said officers had attacked five of their number during the demonstration, injuring one of them.
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