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“REFORM” is a word with a varied history. At the beginning of the last century there were many battles among progressives over whether capitalism as a system could be reformed or whether it needed to be abolished.
Some time in the ’80s with the rise of neoliberalism, with its idea that markets can fix and resolve all social problems and create unlimited abundance, reform began to take on another meaning.
In corporate capital’s unceasing attack on workers, reform became the code word for a series of changes that supposedly needed to be made in order to guarantee the survival of workers’ benefits which the neoliberal states were continually eroding, the money from which was then ending up in the pockets of corporate board members. See Donald Trump’s recent attack on food stamps, just in time for Christmas.
Here in France, the latest “reform” by the ex-Rothschild banker now running the country, Emmanuel Macron, is a “reform” of the pension system — not at the moment healthy and robust but adequate to ensure at least a minimal guaranteed income for retiring workers.
Under the guise of extreme caring and equality, Macron wants to abolish the current system which is now laden with bonus incentives for each occupation to make up for the fact that it does not adequately account for inflation.
The pension system has taken a hit since 2008 and money is needed to support it, but his plan, which follows on the heels of his rewarding the rich with a huge tax giveaway and making it easier to fire workers, titled respectively “tax reform” and “labour reform,” would require workers to stay longer at jobs that are very demanding to earn the same pension as they have today, as well as reducing the special arrangements workers have made over the years.
Macron’s administration has a name for this policy, it calls it “equality.” That is, they want everyone to be equally poor.
In response to the creation of this new system, the French workers took to the streets last week in protests that harken back to 1995 when one of the key issues was also retirement and where striking workers caused the plan to be withdrawn.
Thursday saw the onset of strikes, especially in the transport industry, which closed down much of French commerce through the halting of trains, planes and buses.
These strikers were also joined in the street by French hospital workers, protesting against a heavier workload, defunding of the hospitals, and falling salaries; teachers, protesting against increased monitoring; students, one of whom lit himself on fire in Lyon a few weeks ago to protest against the removal of scholarships; plus firefighters and police.
Macron may in fact have succeeded in doing something no French leader has done before, with the entire country, workers and small shop owners, urban and rural, united and coming together as one, against his policies.
The strikes, which will reach a crescendo on Tuesday, the day before Macron’s prime minister presents the actual pension reform, were led by the public unions and for the first time featured the appearance alongside the unions of the gilets jaunes, the movement of workers outside the globalised cities who have been staging weekly demonstrations since last November, with this Saturday being titled Act 56 — that is, their 56th week of protests.
Public opinion is overwhelmingly against this “reform” with 70 per cent of the French supporting the workers whose numbers on the first day of the strike, if we average the official and trade union accounts, amounted to approximately one million people in the streets.
The public supports these strikes because the public unions, only a small fraction of French employees, are battling for the pensions of all the French.
Should the government not back down the strikes may go on through Christmas and are now being talked about as extending into the new year.
This would be a heavy blow to the luxury industry, a backbone of the French economy, and to retailers and restaurateurs in general, the second year in a row of a disruption of Christmas consumer spending and tourism. Black Friday is being replaced this year by Red Thursday.
The pension system is more crucial now than in 1995, when the retirement age was 55. It is now 62 and growing, alongside the fact that through automation and continued deindustrialisation, more people are losing their jobs at an earlier age and finding it difficult to retrain and re-enter the workforce.
Thus workers kicked out of the workforce at 45 or in their early fifties have no income beyond a shortened unemployment insurance period and under this new regime they will be asked to retire later in order to receive full benefits.
How to end this battle and ensure a decent retirement for workers in the future with a pension fund that is declining?
There are at least three ways to increase pension revenue, but all involve thinking beyond the purely defensive.
One is, not more taxes on the rich, but a global effort to close down tax havens so the rich pay some or their fair share of taxes.
A second is the tax on the digital industries, what the French call a “Gafa tax” (an acronym for Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon) and the third is increasing employers’ contributions to the pension system.
Instead in Macron’s world, all “reform” comes out of the pockets of those who can least afford to pay.
Dennis Broe lives in Paris. He is a cultural and political correspondent for Arts Express on the Pacifica Network, and for Arts District Radio in Paris. He was a professor of film and television at the Sorbonne, and is the author of Birth of the Binge: Serial TV and The End of Leisure; Film Noir, American Workers and Postwar Hollywood; Class, Crime and International Film Noir; and Maverick or How the West Was Lost.
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