Europe has looked on in shock, confusion and admiration as France has taken to the streets over the country’s pension reform.
In March, a Belgian newspaper asked the question: “Aren’t these Gauls crazy?” in reference to the protests that have rocked France for months over the country’s controversial pension reform.
And it was not the only newspaper to react strongly to the demonstrations. The British newspaper The Guardian said President Emmanuel Macron faced a “titanic battle” to pass the legislation in France. And in Italy, il Fatto Quotidiano questioned “Why don’t Italians take to the streets like in France?”
The reforms, which passed into law last month, will push the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 – sparking 13 national days of protest.
Now, five years after the Yellow Vests protests which also fascinated the foreign press, Europeans are closely following what is happening in France and forming their own opinion on the movement.
Euronews interviewed journalists from across the continent to understand how the French social movement is perceived in Europe.
“Aren’t these Gauls crazy?”
“Aren’t they crazy to bring their country to a standstill, to let their capital city be buried under waste and to demonstrate continuously, while their government only intends to raise the legal age from 62 to…64?”
The aggressive comments – which also gave an ironic nod to the French comic book character Asterix the Gaul – come alongside surprise as France’s northern neighbours looked on at the country’s intense protest.
The current retirement age in Belgium is 65, and it is set to rise to 67 by 2030. Meaning, that in less than a decade, a worker will become a pensioner in Belgium five years after their counterpart in France.
On the other side of the Rhine, the Germans are also finding it difficult to understand the anger in France, where pensioners are better off than they are.
In Germany, not only do people retire later, but they also receive less money: €1,100 a month in Germany compared to €1,400 in France, according to the Ministry of Solidarity.
“There has even been a debate for several years about the financial viability of the pension system, and companies have been lobbying for the age to be raised from 67 to 68. However, to date, no one has taken to the streets,” a journalist from Euronews’ German service explained.
And even though the magazine Der Spiegel reported “Macron wants to pass his reform without a vote” on 16 March – a reference to the president passing the law through Article 49.3 of the Constitution – France is perceived in Germany “as almost irreformable and the French as resistant to change”.
But elsewhere on the continent, protests in France have also become a source of inspiration.
‘Protesting like the French’
“Time to protest the UK Government like the French would,” said the Scottish daily The National a few weeks ago, while the English newspaper The Telegraph said, “When it comes to pensions, we should be more like the French”.
These headlines come as the UK has also been shaken by a wave of walk-outs described as “the biggest the UK has seen in decades”.
On 1 February, half a million workers from across the country went on strike to protest the cost of living and demand a pay rise – causing school closures and transport disruption.
But while the strikes have been some of the largest the UK has seen in recent years, in France, demonstrating is seen as almost a tradition, according to the Dubai-based newspaper The National.
A habit so deeply rooted in the country’s political culture that “French governments expect citizens to protest and French citizens do not hesitate to express their disappointment in the streets.” This massive mobilisation also impressed a writer in The Guardian, who said that the protests were sending “a strong message to the rest of Europe, as politicians across the continent mull over similar reforms”, and even described the recent outbursts as a true “art of French protest”.
This is a message well received in Bucharest where, in recent months, Romanians have repeatedly gone to the streets to fight against corruption and defend farmers threatened by the influx of Ukrainian grain. And all over Eastern Europe, people are watching the situation in France unfold, particularly when it comes to mobilising the public. “The protest in France often serves as an example for Romanians to organise their own struggles and encourage other strikers to join the ranks,” Andra Diaconescu, editor-in-chief of Euronews Romania, explained.
‘The prevailing feeling in Bulgaria is sympathy’
In neighbouring Bulgaria, the strikes in France are gaining attention because it reflects the country’s own situation. The country’s lawmakers are currently calling for raising the retirement age to 65 by 2037, a jump from the benchmark of 62 for women and 64 for men.
“The prevailing feeling here is sympathy. Bulgarians generally support the French demonstrators and their desire to defend their rights, while denouncing the violence,” Marina Stoimenova, the editor-in-chief of Euronews Bulgaria, said.
But the images of clashes between the police and the demonstrators have also shocked many Europeans, especially the Portuguese, as the newspaper Diário de Notícias explained on 3 April. “These acts of vandalism never help the struggle and even harm the image of the movement,” it wrote.
Scenes of violence are impossible in Portugal, according to The Daily, which compared the anger of the French to that of the Portuguese, who have also been demonstrating for several months to denounce the rising cost of living.
But if the French social movement is highly publicised in Europe, the Portuguese protests are gaining less attention. According to Diario de Noticias, one of the reasons for this is France’s militancy and the ability of unions to convince and mobilise workers, and thus make the movement last.
In Italy, however, people had their eyes glued on the French social conflict.
‘Why don’t Italians take to the streets like in France?’
“But why [don’t these protests] happen to us?” asked a journalist in Il Fatto Quotidiano. “Here, when the retirement age was raised to 67 in 2011, the strike lasted four hours,” he explained. The answer may lie in Italy’s past, a country marked by years of terrorism that no longer dares to venture into the field of protest.
“What’s the point, given the political instability and the speed with which governments come and go,” a journalist from the daily Today Italy wondered. Especially since the Italians, he explained, have rarely won, unlike the French, who have won the battle of the streets on several occasions.
In 1995, for example, France’s first pension reform was withdrawn by Alain Juppé’s government because of demonstrations. In 2006, mobilisations pushed Jacques Chirac to hold off from implementing his government’s “contrat première embauche” [CPE], which would have made it easier to fire people under the age of 26.
But some Italians are no longer content to just watch the French, following them onto the streets on 23 March to support their neighbours.
In front of the French embassy in Rome and consulates in several other cities, demonstrations took place at the call of the Italian trade union USB [Unione Sindacale di Base]. They will be protesting again this 1 May, like the French, but this time to demonstrate against the government of Giorgia Meloni and defend Italian workers.