December 10, 2019
IntelBrief: Protests and Unrest Sweep Through France
In response to France’s plans to overhaul the country’s byzantine pension system, protesters took to the streets last week in growing signs of unrest throughout major French towns and cities. Riot police responded with tear gas to disperse large crowds, while sporadic acts of property destruction and looting also occurred. In Rennes, Lyon, Paris, and Nantes, protesters clashed with police. In all, it is estimated that 800,000 people took part in the demonstrations across the country. Transport workers went on strike, bringing France to a veritable standstill, as schools and businesses were shuttered and flights canceled. Nearly all of the high-speed trains connecting major French cities were canceled, as were the majority of regional express trains. On Monday, traffic lines into Paris stretched for more than 310 miles (500 kilometers), making for an hours-long commute to and from work. The public sector strike includes rail workers, teachers, bus drivers, air traffic controllers, healthcare workers and students. Even the Eiffel Tower was closed.
The strikes are among the most widespread in France since 1995, when similar efforts to reform the pension system by then-President Jaques Chirac were met with nationwide anger, as demonstrators numbered in the millions. The scale and intensity of the protests pose a real challenge to President Emmanuel Macron, who struggled to quell the so-called ‘Yellow Vests’ protests, which were sparked after a rise in fuel prices and widening social inequality, dating back to last year. While the ‘Yellow Vests’ are not the focus of these most recent protests, they did come out in support of labor union marchers who are incensed over Macron’s proposed changes to the pension system, which protesters believe will drive up the retirement age while decreasing pensions.
Per his campaign promises, Macron has sought to reform certain aspects of France’s generous welfare state and make the country a more welcoming environment for investors and the private sector, including tech companies. The current pension system could be facing a potential deficit approaching $20 billion, and Macron wants to streamline more than 40 separate pension schemes into a single system. France currently spends more than any other European country on its pension system, equivalent to nearly 14 percent of its gross domestic product. Protest leaders have called for the strikes to extend into the early part of this week, with union bosses set to meet government officials on Monday. It remains unclear which side will blink first and acquiesce to the other’s demands. Following the ‘Yellow Vests’ protests which lasted for months, the French government responded by offering billions in tax breaks, income supplements and other financial concessions, while pledging to deliver more services to rural areas.
The surge in protests throughout the world demonstrates a widening gap between the expectations of citizens and the provision of services from states and their governments. The protests in France come on the heels of other worldwide demonstrations against socio-economic inequality and a paucity of government services. In Chile, pension reform was one of several issues that drove protesters into the streets. But just as occurred with the ‘Yellow Vests’ protests, outside entities, especially Russia, are likely to engage in disinformation campaigns designed to sow further discord in France. The more Macron and the French government are consumed by dealing with domestic instability, the fewer resources and attention will be devoted to international affairs and countering growing Russian influence.
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