By Aine Pennello
On Tuesday 19 October, three hundred French students barricaded the road at the Place de la République in Paris, chanting and throwing bottles at police. Objecting to the government’s proposal to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62, students as young as 15 have joined the nationwide demonstration movement.
If signed into law, the pension reform will come into effect in 2018 and will raise full pension payment rights from the age of 65 to 67.
“It’s impossible to think of working that long,” 15-year-old Julie Allard told the BBC at Tuesday’s protest. 16-year-old Cassandra from Bel Orme High School made a similar remark at a protest in Bordeaux as she told reporters, “I don’t want to die at work”.
Students are also concerned about the worsening effect such pension reform will have on youth unemployment and the poor if older generations are forced to hold onto their jobs for an extra two years.
“It’s hard enough to get jobs already, so they will make people work longer and do nothing about youth unemployment,” student Florent Soubier explained.
While demonstrations have been ongoing since September, it is only in the past month that students have joined trade unionist protests. This includes three national protests on October 12, 16 and 19, each of which were attended by 3 to 3.5 million people, according to union estimates. However there has been much uncertainty surrounding these figures, with French police reporting much lower estimates of 800,000 to 1.2 million, while the General Confederation of Labour estimated that over 5 million people have attended the protests, roughly equivalent to eight percent of the French metropolitan population.
For some of the younger partakers it is their first protest, with media outlets reporting high school students shouting at police only to retreat excitedly to their friends. Other students, such as 16-year-old Victor Colombani, have demonstrated a more serious approach to the issue.
“The government is trying to ruin all our prospects,” said Colombani, President of the National Union of Student. “Extending the age of retirement means reducing almost a million jobs for young people. We call for a fairer reform that takes into account years of study and periods of forced unemployment for young people.”
With his approval rates at an all-time low of 29 percent, Nicolas Sarkozy has defended the pension reform as necessary if future generations hope to receive any government pension. The reform is also part of a number of measures to counter the country’s growing deficit. However with polls indicating 70 percent of the public in favour of the strikes, the French government appears to be fighting an unpopular battle.
Up to 379 high schools were closed or barricaded by students on 19 October to encourage peers to take to the streets in protest. Students closed Turgot High School in Paris Thursday morning, October 21 following a student union vote. The students sat in the middle of the street, blocking traffic while some sang songs and chanted slogans as police looked on.
While this and other student protests including a 4000 strong march in Paris remained peaceful, there were numerous clashes between students and riot police in Lyon on Thursday, 22 October.
Police used water cannon and tear gas as students threw bottles and overturned cars. A 16-year old student almost lost an eye when police used rubber flash-ball pellets to disperse a protest in the Parisian suburb of Montreuil.
President Sarkozy, who condemned the clashes as “scandalous”, said rioters would be “stopped, tracked, down and punished, in Lyon and elsewhere, with no weakness”. According to The Guardian, 1400 youths from the ages of 14 to 20 had been arrested by 20 October.
So far, 1200 of France’s 4300 students aged 15 to 18 attended the demonstrations France’s second largest high school union. Although the bill is due to be signed into law Wednesday 27 October, experienced trade unionists are hopeful the actions of student protestors will make a difference.