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labor ‘Abandoned by All’: Why Small-Town France Is Up in Arms Over Macron’s Pension Reform

Echoing the complaints voiced by many protesters, Carlos called for a change of tactics after ten days of protests that brought millions to the streets – but failed to impress the government. “I’m fed up with these strolls around town. Macron will only listen once we shut down the economy.”

Protesters march against pension reform in Montargis, a sleepy town 120km south of Paris, on March 28, 2023, © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

France’s small and mid-size towns have been at the forefront of the battle against President Emmanuel Macron’s contentious pension reform, in some places staging the biggest rallies in living memory. In the former Yellow Vest bastion of Montargis, where protesters rallied for a tenth time on Tuesday, the deeply unpopular reform has exacerbated resentment of the government.

For his tenth protest in under three months, 69-year-old Patrick opted for a striped prisoner’s costume complete with ball and chain – and a cap reading, “Emmanuel Macron,  je t’emmerde (screw you)”.

“At the last protest I wore a blue worker’s overall, but I felt I needed to raise my game,” said the former municipal worker. “In fact we all need to raise our game – it’s the only way we can stop the government.”

Like many others in this sleepy town of under 15,000, Patrick said protests against the government’s planned pension overhaul would need to “harden” to have any chance of succeeding.

“Free yourselves from your shackles, workers of France,” he shouted through a megaphone, leading a crowd of around 2,000 protesters on a good-humoured march through Montargis – flatteringly dubbed the “Venice of the Gâtinais” owing to its river and canal.

“16-64 is a beer, not a career,” Patrick added in a pun on France’s best-known brew, echoing a slogan that has become popular with opponents of Macron’s plan to raise the country’s minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 – which polls say a large majority of the French oppose.

Patrick, 69, dragging his ball and chain through the streets of Montargis. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

Nestled in a rural region roughly 120 kilometres south of Paris, Montargis has witnessed its biggest rallies in living memory since the start of an increasingly bitter battle over pension reform, with the number of protesters peaking at around 4,000 – equivalent to almost a third of the local population – on March 7.

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Though turnout ebbed in subsequent protests, it surged again last week after Macron’s government used special executive powers to ram the reform through parliament without a vote, further enraging its opponents.

“The move brought many new protesters to the movement, particularly among the young, who recognised a threat to democracy in the use of article 49.3,” said Annaby Diaw, the local head of the Force Ouvrière union, referring to an article in the French constitution that allowed the government to bypass parliament.

“The government’s move has mobilised people we’d never seen before,” added Anne Pascaud, a deputy mayor of neighbouring Châlette-sur-Loing, wrapped in the tricolour sash typically worn by elected officials during public events. She described the rallies against pension reform as a “new phenomenon” in a region unaccustomed to street protests.

‘Not just about pensions’

The high turnout in smaller towns and cities has been a striking feature of France’s biggest protest movement in several decades. While national and international media tend to focus on the mass marches staged in Paris, turnout has often been higher – proportionally – in other parts of the country.

In places like Morlaix (Brittany), Rodez (Aveyron) or Guéret (Creuse), protests have regularly gathered the equivalent of more than a quarter of the local population. In Annonay, the hometown of Labour Minister Olivier Dussopt, the reform’s chief sponsor, some marches rallied as much as half the local population of 16,000, with protesters focusing their fury on the former Socialist who served as the town’s mayor for close to a decade.

In the northern village of Bouquehault, population 750, a large crowd rallied last Thursday during the ninth day of nationwide protests, marching behind a banner that read “Denial of democracy = Rural fightback”.

Union representatives gathered outside the town hall of Montargis at the end of the march. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

The level of grassroots opposition to the reform explains why some conservative lawmakers from rural constituencies chose to support a no-confidence motion that narrowly failed to topple Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne’s government on March 20, in defiance of their party’s leadership.

Analysts have noted that smaller cities tend to have a high proportion of civil servants, blue-collar workers and employees – all categories that are over-represented in the protest movement. Other factors of discontent include poverty, job insecurity and the dearth of public services in rural areas.

“People here feel abandoned by the state, which is pulling resources and services out of rural areas,” said Pascaud, the deputy mayor. Montargis ranks among the poorest municipalities in France, she noted, with a third of the population living on less than 1,000 euros a month – well short of the minimum wage.

“Macron boasts about unemployment figures going down, but the truth is more and more people live on low-paid and insecure jobs – particularly women,” said 60-year-old Christine, rallying in Montargis with several colleagues from a nearby distribution centre run by pharmaceutical giant Sanofi.

“It’s not just about pensions,” added Myriam, sporting a vest from the CGT trade union. “There’s nothing left where I live. I have to drive more than 20 kilometres to find anything, be it a job, petrol, grocery or a post office.”

Christine and her colleagues started working at 18 or shortly after, though career interruptions due to childcare mean many still have several years to go before qualifying for a full pension.

Macron’s government argues that raising the retirement age and stiffening the requirements for a full pension are required to balance the pension system amid shifting demographics. But unions say the proposed measures are unfair and will disproportionately affect low-skilled workers who start their careers early, as well as women.

Montargis has seen some of its biggest rallies in living memory as protesters across France battled Macron's unpopular pension reform. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

Talk of the pension reform’s gender imbalance has gained particular traction, not least since one of Macron’s own ministers admitted in January that it would “leave women a little penalised” – in one of several PR blunders that have marred the government’s attempts to promote its increasingly unpopular plan.

“I was looking forward to retiring in two years’ time and now the government wants me to go on for two more years,” Christine said. “I can’t take any more; I’m beyond exhausted.”

Ghosts of the Yellow Vests

As the crowd turned a corner, Christine pointed to the spot where local residents hurled a foam pie at Macron’s former education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, during a campaign stop ahead of parliamentary elections last year.

The incident was symbolic of widespread disenchantment with the president’s ruling party in the Loiret département (county) around Montargis, where Blanquer was swatted aside in the first round of voting on June 12. The local constituency now has an MP from Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally – traditionally the chief beneficiary of voters’ discontent.

During Macron’s first term in office, Montargis became a bastion of the Yellow Vest insurgency, which began as a protest movement against an unpopular fuel tax and quickly snowballed into an uprising against economic hardship, inequality and a discredited political establishment. The Gilets jaunes converged on the town’s rond-point cacahuète, a peanut-shaped roundabout that protesters held night and day for two months starting in November 2018.

The recent surge in violent clashes triggered by the government’s use of article 49.3 has stoked fears of a revival of Yellow Vest-styled unrest in the coming weeks – a prospect 49-year-old cleaner Karine is looking forward to.

“People used to be fighters here, but Covid-19 sent everyone to sleep,” she said, noting that the pandemic put a lid on the last of the Yellow Vest protests.

Holding a black-and-white flag, Karine described herself as a “non-violent anarchist – for now”. She said she had started occupying the cacahuète roundabout again, though only “a handful” of protesters had joined her.

“People are content with cushy little marches then go home for lunch,” she said. “It’s not enough. We need to smash everything up.”

Karine was among several demonstrators who lamented the government’s “refusal” to acknowledge the pénibilité (hardship) endured by low-income workers who perform physically-draining tasks. Macron has in the past said he was “not a fan” of the word pénibilité, “because it suggests that work is a pain”.

“Carrying and looking after toddlers all day long is exhausting, both physically and emotionally,” said Elsa, 21, a nursery worker who got her first job aged 16. “I can’t imagine doing this for the next 40 years.” Her colleague Belinda held up a banner that read, “We change babies’ nappies at the nursery; who will change ours at 64?

Nursery worker Belinda, 30, marching outside Montargis castle. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

Pushing back the retirement age makes no sense when companies already start pushing workers out at 55, added Carlos, a retired worker from the Hutchinson rubber plant where a 16-year-old Deng Xiaoping – the future Chinese leader – briefly worked in the 1920s.

“I was put on unemployment benefits at 57, after 40 years of making tyres. I couldn’t possibly have worked any longer,” he said. “This government has no idea what it means to do this kind of work.”

Echoing the complaints voiced by many protesters, Carlos called for a change of tactics after ten days of nationwide protests that brought millions to the streets – but failed to impress the government.

“I’m fed up with these strolls around town,” he added. “Macron will only listen once we shut down the economy.”