by Regina Osei-Bonsu
France and its overseas territories (Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Réunion and French Guiana) have faced a series of strikes since early December continuing until the present day. While the level of strikes occurring in the mainland (France) has decreased, they have only intensified in Martinique; with no signs of stopping or at least slowing down. In L’Outre-Mer, it is common knowledge that strikes are a yearly event. However, this year’s strikes have been the worst yet.
The strikes known as ‘La grève contre la réforme des retraites’ (strikes against pension reform) are a result of the pension reform made by French President Emmanuel Macron and backed by the Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe. The reform attempts to standardise the complicated pension situation in France. Under this reform, those who will retire from 2020 onward will face cuts to their pension. The age of retirement will increase from 62 to 64. Moreover, workers will be awarded their retirement on a points-based system. The amount awarded will depend on how many points a person has earned during their career. Under the old system, workers’ pensions were contributions from their best twenty years. The new reform attempts to create a system whereby the more an individual works, the more points the individual will gain towards their pension. This almost sounds fair, however if an individual becomes unemployed that individual cannot contribute so they lose out on pensions. Also, to benefit greatly, an individual has to work for longer to gain more points. The issue is that the money an individual will make in this reform is less than what they would have gained in the old reform.
Consequently, the fear is that pensioners from 2020 onward will have to work more but will receive less money to live off in their retirement. Under this reform, workers have to earn their pension, and you have to work a lot harder to make a lot less. A pension is no longer a given, which is a constitutional right.
The cost of living in Martinique is 40% higher than in France. Therefore, teachers here get paid 40% more to match the standard of living. Take the case of a primary school teacher working in Martinique. During their final months before retirement (for example: six months) their wage drops to 4% higher than France. This reduction is already a drastic change for teachers. What the new reform sets to do on top of this 4% is essentially deduct roughly 800€ a month from pensioners pay (based on a points-based system). For some, this change means that all the time worked in their best twenty years was towards nothing. The old system was a contribution-based system across an individual’s best twenty years of employment. As you can see, it is a difficult reform to comment on and to agree to because it undermines the integrity of the workers, who feel cheated out of their retirement.
Here in Martinique, this reform has divided the nation. Those who are wealthy enough to manage the sociopolitical changes believe that the strikers and protesters should “get over it” or that there is “no point” in fighting against the reform. They think that the protesters should stop and abide by the law the French government is trying to impose. The strikes which began in December have significantly disrupted day to day life in Martinique from road blockages, transport strikes, post office strikes and worst of all school strikes. Students from all ages have significantly been affected by these strikes. They have been off school for two months, and it is unlikely they will go back until the beginning or even end of March. People argue the reliance on the state for money as opposed to increasing their streams of income is to blame, not the reform. For this reason, they believe the strikes need to stop so that the disruptions to public transport, administrative jobs and road blockages would end.
The strike against the pension reform is undoubtedly the catalyst for the other strikes; making life incredibly difficult on the island. For example, the pension reform strikes ran in parallel with the bus strikes. These strikes lasted well into early January (13th December- 6th January). Transport in Martinique is not robust. Therefore, those reliant on public transport for work and picking up their kids had the difficult choice of whether to work or whether their kids could go to school. Often the kid’s education is sacrificed for the parent’s work, as the parents cannot do both (parents would pay for taxis to work but not to take their kids to school). On numerous occasions I found myself off work. If the buses do not work, I cannot get to school. Unfortunately, this also made getting into downtown Fort-de-France (the financial, administrative and social district) very difficult.
The consequences so far have been quite severe. Since the strikes have begun, teachers, assistants and students have missed more than six weeks of teaching. For three weeks now, one of the schools I work at has been closed because of the strikes. However, my other school is always open. According to one of my teachers, their school is only open because of the Gendarmerie (police office) nearby. Those who work at the Gendarmerie have children at the school. They have put up some resistance when the school attempts to strike. I guess this way the kids benefit from being at school. Furthermore, people have said that many schools around the island continue with the strike because it is an external person who comes and physically locks the school so no one can get into the school. While in some places the hardcore protesters have resorted to threatening the headteacher’s life if the school opens. Some schools have no choice but to close for the safety of the headteacher and the students.
Moreover, when the school canteen is closed (due to dinner lady strikes), some parents have no choice but to pull their kids out of school due to concern about whether they will receive meals during the day. Finally, each week the teachers from the unions such as CGT, CGDT, UNSA and CDMT have a meeting to discuss the progress of the strike each week. If the representative from the government has no updates about the pension reform, the strikes continue.
With this being the worst strikes to have hit Martinique, it is important to question – what this means for the country moving forward. It seems that this year’s strike has been more extreme than those that have occurred in the past. There even appears to be a resistance forming between the Martinicans and the French government. A change needs to happen immediately. Martinique was once a country driven by individualism, and this is what greatly distinguished them from Guadeloupe. Now, there is a greater sense of unity to combat the deep social-economic conflicts rooted in the Martinican/French political sphere.
Study Abroad Columnist: Regina Osei-Bonsu, 3rd year BA French and International Relations Undergraduate. Currently undertaking British Council Teaching Assistantship in Martinique