PARIS, Jan. 19 (Xinhua) -- Strikes, protests, and disrupted traffic that began on Dec. 5, 2019 in France, are beginning to weigh on various sectors and reflect a deep crisis for the French political regime.
The social movements in France have been pushing back against the government's proposed retirement system reforms.
This unprecedented social conflict, the longest in France since the 1960s, by a strong union movement, brought together that day 806,000 protesters throughout the country. Since then, there has been no respite, especially among unions representing the public transport sector, which are on their 46th day of strike on Jan. 19.
The pivot age (the age at which a retiree can collect full benefits), the elimination of special retirement regimes, and a universal point system for retirement make up the major impasses in the negotiations between the French government and labor unions.
Many fear the costs of these blocks and denounce a "neo-liberal reform". Carole Alibert, a primary school teacher, told Xinhua on the fringes of a protest that she had come "to defend the retirement of teachers who risk to be really misdirected with this new point-based reform."
"I have to work until 67 years old because I started in National Education after a change of professions and even in working until 67, I will not manage to receive 2,000 euros (2,220 U.S. dollars) a month for my retirement. If I stop at 60 years old, I'll be at 1,100 euros," said Alibert.
"I am fighting for my children and for my pupils. I don't know if we'll manage to stay strong until the end, but it is absolutely necessary that we be heard. All the peoples of the world are waking up," said Alibert.
Also on the fringes of the protest, Jean-Marc Cambo, civil servant at the departmental council of Seine-Saint-Denis just north of Paris, told Xinhua that "with this reform, we do not have salary raises and no career perspectives -- the future seems blocked."
After more than a month of protests against its retirement reform proposals, the French government decided on Jan. 11 to scrap from the draft legislation a pivot age of 64 years old.
The French Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, reaffirmed the determination of his government, however, concerning the implementation of a universal retirement system as well as the elimination of special regimes.
This "compromise" is not calming the anger of the unions, nor is it making way for a truce in strike activity. After the pivot age was pulled, the CGT union continued to demand "the withdrawal" of the retirement reform. In a statement, the workers' union said it was "more determined than ever to obtain the withdrawal of the text."
After several weeks of social unrest, the impact is starting to be felt in sectors as important as public transport, business or even tourism.
The SNCF (French national rail service) and the RATP (Paris public transport) have estimated losses of several million euros per day of strike. "We will soon reach over 700 million euros of revenues lost, declared the president of the SNCF Jean-Pierre Farandu. At the RATP, the impact of the strikes is estimated at "more than 150 million euros" including "60 to 90 million euros lost in ticketing."
In the sensitive sectors of commerce and hospitality, stakeholders have expressed their concerns since the first week of the conflict and have warned of the consequences of a potential prolongation of the movement.
In a survey conducted on Dec. 6-11 on the consequences of the social movement on very small and medium-sized businesses, the Confederation of small and medium businesses (CPME) said that 80 percent of the businesses are impacted either by losses in revenues, delays in deliveries, or by fuel shortages. The business sector is the most concerned by the recent events.
A 20-25 percent drop in revenues was also observed in Paris by the Union of hospitality professions and industries, starting from the first week of the social movement against retirement reform. "If the strikes continue, tourists will turn toward other destinations," had warned Jean-Marc Banquet, President of the Union of hospitality professions and industries.
On the political landscape, one of the stakes in the conflict is the struggle for public opinion. Despite the inconveniences (transport disruption, loss in business earnings, etc) linked to the strikes, public opinion continues to support the movement. According to the latest barometer conducted on Jan. 13 by Harris Interactive, 60 percent of French people say they support the movement in protest of the proposed retirement reforms.
The popularity of French President Emmanuel Macron has also taken a toll. In the latest YouGov poll held on Jan. 6-7, Macron's popularity dropped 4 points, with 25 percent favorable opinions, compared to 29 percent in December 2019.
According to analysts, public opinion could end up being reflected at the polls in municipal elections next March.
In the eyes of certain experts and analysts, this social conflict reveals the faultlines in a political system which cannot resolve impasses or reconcile a fragmented society.
"The strike can be considered as a microcosm which reveals the vulnerability of the French economy and the institutional crisis of the country," said Zhao Junjie, a researcher at the Institute of European Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
"Until now, the data on French economic growth seemed good, or at least better than the German data, but there remain many problems still, such as a relatively high unemployment rate, public debt, fragile budget balancing and a lack of innovation," indicated Zhao.
According to official figures, spending for retirement pensions in France has represented 14 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), above that of all other European countries. If the government does not take measures, the potential deficit from pensions should reach 17 billion euros by 2025.
Mu Gengyuan, a researcher at the China Institute of International Studies, told Xinhua that "the elevated spending for social security has provoked enormous budget deficits and represents financial unsustainability, which explains the absolute necessity for the retirement reforms."
She considers the coexistence of more than 40 types of retirement systems to be "too complex", which "does not favor mobility of labor power and negatively affects social justice."
In addition, Mu denounced a growing disequilibrium in French society at the basis of the "yellow vest" movement and the strikes. "Economic development has not benefited all citizens, while the gap between different social groups continues to deepen."
For French historian Maxime Tandonnet, cited by French daily Le Figaro, "this shock translates the growing defiance of the population toward a ruling class perceived as being all the more haughty and arrogant as it fails in resolving problems (unemployment, poverty, violence, deficits, migration crisis, etc.)."
According to Zhao Junjie, the protest and the strike reflect "an institutional crisis" and "a problem rooted in the capitalist system and in its political parties."
"France finds itself at a crucial stage in the reform. If the reform cannot advance, problems will only accumulate," concluded Zhao. (1 euro=1.11 U.S. dollars)