As the march against Emmanuel Macron’s pension reforms made its way along the Grands Boulevards north of Paris on Thursday, a group of women began singing and dancing in the dense crowd.
Above the sound of police sirens, protestor chants and the clatter of tear gas grenades, the music was familiar; the words were not. A female activist group calling itself Les Rosies – after Rosie the Riveter, the feminist icon of working women – had rewritten the 1990s hit Freed from Desire by the Italian singer Gala with French lyrics.
“Women on Fire! The government is failing Women on Fire! We’re in the fight. NaNaNa NaNa Na Na … stop your blah blah,” they sang.
France’s new law progressively raising the official retirement age to 64, and increasing the contributions necessary for a full pension, has sparked angry protests, strikes, blockades and violence across France for weeks. And French women are on the front line.
Female workers, especially those in poorly paid and part-time jobs, say they will bear the brunt of the legislation and will now have to work even longer than their male colleagues for lower pensions.
“If you’re a woman in France, you should be out on the streets protesting,” said Fabienne Oudart, 56, an artist who joined Thursday’s march in Paris. “Already we earn less than men and that means lower pensions. This reform shows no respect for those women working in low-paid and often part-time jobs.”
Pierrette Gobinot, 49, who is retraining as an auxiliary nurse, agreed. “Putting the retirement age up to 64 is doubly penalising for us. Even these days many women stop work to look after our children, which means we have interrupted careers and are often missing five or six years of contributions. We have to work even longer to make up for that to get a full pension, and because our salaries are lower our pensions are lower.”
Macron’s centrist government insists the pensions overhaul is necessary to keep the system financially afloat as the population ages and lives longer. In France, the contributions made by those currently in work pay for the pensions of the retired. The new law will not mean all workers packing up at 64, as it will require 43 years of contributions for a full pension. Women whose careers and contributions are interrupted by having and raising children and whose salaries are already 22% lower than male colleagues’, according to a 2022 report by the statistics agency Insee, and pensions about 40% lower, say they are particularly punished.
A Pensions Policy Council report the same year found poverty among the over-65s living alone had risen steadily since 2016 and was particularly high among women, who receive an average of €967 (£852) per month net compared with €1,617 (£1426) for men.
The sexual inequality inherent in the law was highlighted in January when the government presented the bill along with an accompanying 112-page report on its aims and effects that showed women would have to postpone their retirement by up to nine months longer than men.
Franck Riester, the parliamentary relations minister, admitted the reform would penalise women “a little”. Ministers argued other measures in the bill were specifically aimed at helping women, including raising the minimum pension to €1,200, but women were not convinced. A recent poll by Elabe found that 74% oppose the pension law compared with 67% of men.
“Pensions amplify the inequality of salaries,” wrote researcher Christiane Marty, who said it was “hogwash” to present the law as fair to women in a Le Monde editorial. “Announcing a minimum pension for a complete career is obviously welcome … but it’s already in a 2003 law and has never been applied.”
Sophie Binet, a secretary general in the powerful CGT union, said the minimum pension would only benefit a few women in the workforce. “There are two conditions for this increase: you must have worked the full 43 years – but 40% of women retire with an incomplete career – and this complete career must be full time, when 30% of women work part time.”
Elena Bassoli, from the Paris School of Economics, said it could be particularly detrimental to women working in certain sectors. “If we think of jobs often done by women like nurses, teachers and cleaners, they could be hit hard, especially at the end of their career. Staying one or two years more in this kind of physically challenging job could have a negative effect on women’s health, for example,” Bassoli told Euronews.
As well as the equality issue, the government’s use of the constitutional tool known as the 49:3 to push the legislation through without a final vote in the Assemblée nationale, where it has no majority since last year’s general election, has broadened and deepened public anger, bringing many young people on to the streets.
Macron and the unions appear to have backed themselves into an impasse with no evident way out for either side. Protests are continuing and another day of action is planned for Tuesday, forcing the cancellation of King Charles’s three-day visit.
Political scientist Dorian Dreuil from the Jean-Jaurès Foundation said that what started as a social and political crisis had now become a democratic one. “We have a blockage that has revealed something about our democracy and the limits of the republic’s institutions that are not working as they should.
“Normally the president is the arbiter in such a situation, but here we have a president who is not presiding but governing, and these are two different roles. When the president is not trying to find a solution but is out there in the front line explaining the reform, people have the impression there is no way out.”
Dreuil added Macron should suspend the law and come up with a new text and a coalition in the assembly that a majority of MPs could get behind. “There is only one person who can solve this, and that is the president of the republic.
“It’s rare for things to reach this level of tension and become a show of strength with such extreme moments of violence. I just I hope the president can feel and hear what is happening in the country and that he listens.”
Demonstrations are often testosterone-fuelled events and France is no exception. But French women are expressing their anger by making a pointed and political song and dance. During last Thursday’s march Christelle Pink, 38, from Fontainebleau, said: “Politicians may want to work until they’re 64 but their jobs are hardly arduous. They keep pushing up the legal retirement age; 60 is already too old for those in tough, underpaid manual jobs. In the end we’ll be working until we drop. Women are angry. Everyone is angry.”
Natalie, 25, a student at Sciences Po, said: “It’s harder for women to find jobs and have a career, and when they do they have to work harder for less. On top of the violence many women suffer, it is inequality and injustice right to the end. We cannot accept that, which is why we are mobilised.”
“It’s absolutely essential that this reform does not succeed,” added Fabienne Gobinot. “It’s always those at the bottom of the pile, who have poorly paid or part-time jobs like nurses, health assistants and cleaners, who are made to pay – always the same people, many of them women, asked to make the sacrifices.”