PARIS, France — Protests, like wine and cheese, can be considered an important part of French culture.
Considered a heritage from the French Revolution, they are a privileged way of expressing frustration, as well as a collective experience for union members, workers and students.
But this fall’s strikes are more than just an expression of France’s love for demonstrations. Here are four reasons these strikes are serious:
1) An obvious motive
More often than not, French union members gather with no clear motive, or with motives that only appeal to a limited part of the population.
Last fall, for example, students and union members gathered in Paris to protest against President Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-wing agenda and to express their frustration at the high unemployment rate. But they were not marching against a particular measure.
This time around, hundreds of thousands of union members, workers and students have been protesting against a specific government action: pension reform.
It’s an issue that raises the ire of the French, who feel entitled to retire at an early age. Quality of life is also considered an essential part of French culture.
But Sarkozy’s government has pushed for the minimum retirement age to be raised from 60 to 62. The law has been approved by the National Assembly and awaits a Senate vote.
2) Mass mobilization and violence
So far, there have been six nationwide demonstrations against this reform, with the largest drawing over a million protesters.
However, union members know that demonstrations can only get them so far. The controversial law has already been approved by the National Assembly, after all.
If unions want to prevent this reform from going any further, they need massive strikes.
That is why public transportation, gasoline supplies and airports have been disrupted.
The government has called for a special meeting to address the gasoline shortage issue. According to the government, it could take several days before supplies return to their normal level.
These actions put pressure on the economy, have an impact on peoples’ lives, and in the past have forced the government to negotiate or simply abandon reforms.
The famous “greves de 95” or “strikes of 1995” put an end to an earlier attempt to reform France’s generous government-funded pension system.
Violent incidents can also have an impact.
Although unions deter protesters from damaging property, violent scenes increase pressure on the government.
Yesterday in Lyon, some stores were looted and there were scenes of violence between protesters and police. Over the past week, more than 1,150 people have been arrested.
In 2006, Jacques Chirac’s government had passed a law that allowed more flexible work contracts for people under 26. The French youth saw it as an injustice, a way to make them more vulnerable than older workers.
So some students not only protested but took over universities and burned cars. The law was eventually withdrawn.
3) Support from the public
One wonders why 20-year-old students actually worry about their retirement, and why the French are not willing to do what other Europeans have done before: accept that they will have to work longer.
In the United Kingdom, David Cameron’s government is about to raise the retirement age from 65 to 66, and it has not prompted any strikes.
Michel Fourgues, a retired police officer demonstrating in Paris, told me that he considered retirement a well-deserved reward for people like him who worked hard.
“I am a retired police officer,” he said, “and we have known times when we earned very little money, but it did not bother anyone. Today we have a pension, we deserve one, and we wish the same thing for the younger generation.”
There is also a sentiment that making older people work longer will prevent younger generations from landing jobs — close to a quarter of the French people under 25 are unemployed.
One banner held by a protester reads: “Grandma, please tell me a story. I can’t, I have to go to work.” Another says: “Grandpa took my job.”
4) A challenge to Sarkozy
All in all, these demonstrations and strikes are putting Sarkozy in a difficult position.
The president was elected on a right-wing platform and promises to roll back liberal reforms to the economy.
But according to a ViaVoice opinion poll, 65 percent of the French disapprove of Sarkozy’s reluctance to listen to those who protest against the pension reform.
Since Sarkozy’s party holds a majority of seats in the National Assembly and the Senate, it is very unlikely that he will have to resign.
But the widespread malcontent, along with a sentiment that Sarkozy has not delivered on his promise to help the working and middle classes, may thwart his ambitions to win the next presidential election in 2012.