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16th May 2023

Vive La Revolution? What can we learn from the French protests

With the French protests showing no signs of dying down what can those striving for more learn from our European neighbours?
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Vive La Revolution? What can we learn from the French protests
Photo: Roland Godefroy Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paris-2023-01-19-manif-retraites05.jpg

As the Labour Day protests on May 1 have shown, France has experienced a tumultuous few months since President Emmanuel Macron announced, and signed into law, a new bill to raise the state pension age from 62 to 64. But why are the French up-in-arms about it?

Outrage at a mere 2-year increase in the French retirement age could almost seem laughable, considering the deterioration of the welfare state we are experiencing here in the UK – with the retirement age at 66 for some, 67 for many, and proposed to rise to 68 in the coming years. But the difference between English and French retirement ages is exactly why we shouldn’t tell the French to count their blessings. Rather, we should be applauding the cross-society solidarity that can be seen in the protests that have swept across the country.

In a show of strength from trade unions and the French public, multiple protests have been staged across France, peaking at an estimated 1.28 million people in a single day. Whilst the proposal has been signed into law by Macron, the President’s battle doesn’t end here, as he faces further opposition. From hordes of people banging on pots and pans to drown out his national address to the trade union day of action, it doesn’t appear as though Macron has succeeded in stifling unrest.

The unrelenting action from cross-party groups in society shows just how much the French value their welfare state. With hundreds of thousands involved in anti-governmental protests on May 1, and an estimated 291 detained, any question of this movement losing momentum has been answered. The dispute is symbolic of a wider effort to protect the important safety net that the welfare state provides in France, with the clear rhetoric being that any concessions made now will set a precedent of future problems.

So how should we react in the UK? Whilst to us it may seem that there are bigger fish to fry, protests at seemingly small changes like the pension bill in France are key in preventing a race to the bottom. The protest movement in France is symbolic of the French spirit that won’t accept an erosion of rights, with the retirement age representing a first step in what could be the beginning of a slippery slope towards sweeping changes for the worse. We should learn from the French as we too are in the midst of a race to the bottom. Increases in relative child poverty, NHS cuts, and institutional failings in the police – our national action leaves a lot to be desired, and we still have a way to go before we can achieve French levels of disruption.

Whilst I commend the recent wave of strikes and protests in the UK, opposing injustice in many forms, I believe that Sunak’s stubborn government will need a lot more persuasion in order to give in to demands from public sector workers and the public. Whilst the RMT was successful in gaining a pay increase from bosses at Network Rail, no such concessions have been made to the multitude of other demands being made by workers as of late. From teachers demanding a funded pay rise, to junior doctors pushing for a pay increase merely to restore what they previously earned just over 10 years ago, there has been little in the way of success. The government is keen to do anything other than concede to these reasonable demands, with proposed bills to introduce minimum service threshold which threaten future demonstrations so that piecemeal action will not have any effect. 

Therefore I urge workers, students, and anyone in the UK to take action now together, before this chipping away at our welfare state causes it to crumble. There needs to be a concerted effort from those across the political spectrum of society, inspired by the French, in order for real change to be made. Issues like funding, the NHS, and other public services are things that we value in British society and that Britons truly do care about, but will fall to the wayside unless we collectively voice how much we value our institutions and welfare state.

So we too should get our pots and pans, and the whole nation should band together and show French-style resistance, before the race to the bottom has been lost.


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