Railroad workers, airport ground staff and workers from public organisations such as schools, universities and hospitals, laid down their work to protest against the planned pension reforms. According to the Interior Ministry, around 800.000 people participated. The "Confédération Générale du Travail" (CGT), the biggest trade union estimates the number at about 1.5 million.
What caused the strike?
During his presidential campaign, Emmanuel Macron announced his plan to simplify France's pension system, which dates back to the 18th century. He wants to introduce a point system, which makes the amount of the pension dependent on the length of the contribution.
With 62 years, the average age of retirement in France is relatively low compared to the OECD average. But the current system includes 42 different pension schemes dependent on profession, thus making it complicated and costly.
Not everybody is in favour of a new, systemic pension regime. Large parts of the population see one of their most treasured values at risk: Solidarity. The systemic approach the government proposed would be based on individual contribution rather than collective financing. This would challenge the social model, in which the French take a lot of pride. Furthermore, the unions fear that the reform would lead to a number of jobs losing their advantageous pensions. Another issue is the uncertainty whether this means that people will have to work longer and face reduced payments when they retire.
This would not be the first time the public resistance stopped a reform of the French social welfare system. In 1995, prime minister Alain Juppé had to give in after a 3-week-long string of strikes. This event is still very present in the minds of the thousands of people who filled the streets in the last days.
Why are young people joining the demonstrations?
In France, the constitution guarantees an individual right to strike, which is not restricted to the negotiation of collective labour agreements. A lot of students have taken the opportunity to bring their issues to the streets as well. They voice complains about their precarious situation: deficiencies in financial aid for higher education, the struggle to obtain healthcare and the growing uncertainty about future employment.
After 8 November, these charges reached a dramatic peak when a 22-year old student in Lyon set himself on fire in protest against the rising costs of university life. He gave voice to his desperation in a message posted on Facebook a few hours before his suicide attempt:
"After our studies, how long will we have to work, pay dues, for a decent pension? Will we be able to have a pension amid mass unemployment?"
- excerpt of the message the student published
His words resonated with many students across the country and sparked a wave of demonstrations - to which the government still owes a sufficient response.
What is next?
With over one year of the "Gilets Jaunes" (Yellow vests) protests, the social climate in France has been tense for months. Now, the general strike slowed down the entire country. Everything considered, there is a lot of pressure on President Macron at the moment. Still, the reform was one of his central campaign pledges, not following through with it now would cost him a significant proportion of his electorate. So it came to no surprise when he announced that he would be moving forward his plan to present the reform law in early 2020.
But Macron isn't the only one who has a lot to lose. The unions count on a win to strengthen their position. After the first week of the strike, the Secretary-General of CGT-Cheminots set the direction for the following days:
"There will be no truce for Christmas unless the government comes to its senses until then."
- Laurent Brun, Secretary-General of the CGT-Cheminots