In the French capital, where organisers say well over half a million people turned out (police put the number at fewer than 100,000), unionists and left-wing parties traded their traditional eastern rallying points for the swanky 6th arrondissement (district) of central Paris, gathering along the fashion boutiques of the left bank.
Outside the famed Lutetia palace hotel, puzzled tourists and shoppers worked their way through a sea of union and other flags. A few steps away, dozens of women danced to the tune of Gloria Gaynor’s “I will survive”, each of them dressed as the feminist champion Rosie the Riveter in her iconic blue overalls.
Among them was Camille, a 54-year-old publisher who said she turned out to protest in solidarity with the low-income workers – many of them women – who “stand to lose most” from the pension overhaul. She slammed a reform “hashed out in a hurried and brutal manner, without consultations and despite overwhelming opposition”.
“Women are structurally underpaid and their pensions are lower as a result. And yet they have some of the most exhausting jobs, working absurd hours on top of caring for the young and the elderly,” she said, pointing to the fact that women’s pensions are on average 40 percent lower than men’s.
She added: “The fact that they’re being asked to work longer now only adds insult to injury.“
The reform’s Achilles’ heel
Macron has staked his reformist credentials on passage of his flagship pension overhaul, which polls say around two thirds of the French now oppose – including a staggering 74 percent of women, according to a recent survey by the Elabe institute.
The government argues that raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 and stiffening the requirements for a full pension are required to balance the pension system amid shifting demographics. But unions say the proposed measures are unfair and would disproportionately affect low-skilled workers who start their careers early, as well as women.
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Talk of the text’s gender imbalance has gained particular traction, not least since one of Macron’s own ministers admitted last week that it would “leave women a little penalised” – in one of several PR blunders that have marred the government’s attempts to promote its increasingly unpopular plan.
“Macron and his government have lied by claiming that women would be the main winners of this reform,” said Camille at the Paris rally. “This injustice towards women is the reform’s Achilles’ heel: a united front of French women can defeat it.”
The sense that the government had misled women was shared by many protesters, fuelling their resentment of the proposal, which is currently being hurried through parliament.
“The government claimed the reform would foster ‘justice’ and ‘equality’, but it soon turned out to be a publicity stunt,” said Sandrine Tellier, 47, a representative of the energy and mining branch of the Force Ouvrière trade union. “In reality, it merely aggravates existing inequalities.”
Justice at stake
France’s enduring gender pay gap is reflected in a discrepancy between the average pensions paid out to men and women. That discrepancy is exacerbated by rules penalising those who worked part time or whose careers are interrupted by childcare.
They include Jacqueline, a lab worker at a Paris hospital who started work aged 20 but whose career was interrupted by childcare. She now faces the prospect of having to work two more years before retiring with a full pension.
“I had to work part-time to raise my daughter, but I had no choice. It’s not like I went part-time to go to the beach or something,” said the 57-year-old, who claimed she had never taken part in a protest before. “But this is too much,” she added. “Too much fatigue and too much injustice.”
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The notion of pénibilité (arduousness) was a recurrent theme at the rally, where protesters lamented the government’s refusal to acknowledge the hardship endured by low-income workers who perform physically-draining tasks. Macron has in the past said he was “not a fan” of the word pénibilité, “because it suggests that work is a pain”.
Such a stance reflects politicians’ “insensitivity” and “ignorance of the realities of life”, said veteran theatre director Ariane Mnouchkine, adding that “parliamentarians should try working as hotel cleaners to see what back-breaking work really feels like”.
Mnouchkine’s troupe from the Theatre du Soleil carried a huge statue of Lady Justice, blindfolded and holding a balance and sword. The 84-year-old director said the very principle of justice was at stake in France’s pension battle.
“The government is sentencing those who live the toughest lives to tougher retirement, whereas they deserve a more comfortable one,” she explained. “The only consolation is that everyone seems to have realised just how unfair this is.”
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