Annie Ernaux Met Workers Striking to Defend Their Pensions

For the last ten days, France has been shaken by strikes against Emmanuel Macron’s bid to raise the retirement age. Nobel Prize–winning author Annie Ernaux met strikers at a Paris rail station to discuss how working life has been devalued.

French writer Annie Ernaux, Nobel Prize in Literature laureate, in December 2022 (left); CGT union procession in Paris, March 7, 2023 (right). (Tim Aro / TT News Agency / AFP via Getty Images; Samuel Boivin / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Annie Ernaux (AE)
Stéphane Cortez (SC)
Mathieu Lambourdière (ML)
Damien Iozzia (DI)
Vincent Benaben (VB)
Catherine Fléchard (CF)
Sophie Lecointre (SL)

In February, Le Monde diplomatique published a text by the writer Annie Ernaux entitled “Walking Tall Again.” In it, the 2022 Nobel Prize winner for literature recalls her memories of the 1995 social movement against then prime minister Alain Juppé’s plan to reform pensions. She also refers to the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who took up the cause of the strikers: “Bourdieu’s political commitment to the strike made me see it as my duty as a writer not to remain a passive onlooker in public life. To see this internationally recognized sociologist getting involved in social conflicts, and to hear him, was an immense joy, a liberation.”

When Damien Iozzia, a supervisor and secretary of the UFCM-CGT union (which represents railway staff in management and supervisory positions) at Paris’s Montparnasse station, read her text, he saw it as “an invitation to ask Annie Ernaux to come here.” He contacted publisher Gallimard to suggest that the author come and talk not only to workers who had mobilized at the SNCF national rail company but also to an employee from the energy sector.

On March 14, ahead of the eighth day of protests against Emmanuel Macron’s reform raising the legal retirement age from sixty-two to sixty-four, the writer showed up at a small union hall in the Vaugirard station, a stone’s throw from Montparnasse. The room rattles every now and then as trains pass by. She was accompanied by friends — the sociologists Jean-Marc Salmon and Didier Eribon, and publisher and writer Jean-Marie Laclavetine.

Ernaux had accepted the invitation without hesitation: “The commitments I’ve had all my life, I’m pursuing them,” she told us a few minutes before the meeting, underlining the glaring absence of intellectuals and artists committed to the workers mobilized in this movement. Around the table, everyone has been on strike since March 7.

This article, from French daily Libération, recounts an exchange that lasted nearly two hours. It was a discussion not just of pensions but also of work (while also noting that the two subjects are inextricably linked), of the meaning it has lost and of the destruction of public services.

— Frantz Durupt, journalist for French daily Libération

Annie Ernaux

I’m here because I think the Macron reform is the worst injustice that can be done to people, taking years off their lives. I’ll take a personal example. I retired from the national education system at sixty. At sixty-two they discovered I had breast cancer. So, I could have died at exactly sixty-two. To think that people will die even before they retire is real violence. We don’t all have the same working conditions, and to add on an extra two years is an attack on life. Are we here on Earth simply to feed — I’m going to use the dirty word — capital? I’m here to listen, because there is usually a great silence about the world and the reality of work.

Stéphane Cortez

I’ve been working shifts for over thirty years. It’s very nice to see you and to feel that there are people who are interested in the world of work. When Damien [Iozzia] told me about it, I thought of one thing: I don’t know at what point in the company I was designated as an “N minus 1” (direct inferior). I didn’t even realize it. I’m someone’s “N minus 1.” Is that what being employed means now?

Mathieu Lambourdière

I’ve been with the SNCF for nine years. I saw a shift in 2016. Since then, I’ve been through three reorganizations, each time with job cuts. Even management has changed. Before, we had managers who came from the bottom up, who had passed competitive exams. Today, they have abolished most of those opportunities. People with high responsibility often come from schools or, when they are picked internally, are chosen for their ability to apply the company’s policy exactly. Once the labor inspector agreed with the unions that a memo from management was illegal. The managers came to us and said, “You have to apply it.” At the SNCF, we are lucky to have worker activism that protects us a little, but we are still suffering this change.

Damien Iozzia

The real switch is ideological and goes back about fifteen years. There was a turning point in the way the SNCF, or rather the SNCFs, were managed. Because there are now five SNCF companies, five limited companies. Here, around the table, we are almost all railworkers, but we don’t all have the same bosses. There are four different bosses. Even though we all work in the same place, all with the same goal: to make the trains run. On Montparnasse, there are twelve different management teams. So, when you want to question management, you have to know which one to question!

Vincent Benaben

I think it was [French communist politician] Ambroise Croizat who said, “We’re defending the right to life.” When you reach retirement, it’s the first moment when you are completely liberated. Besides, people who have the time to do what they want often start writing texts and poems. Today, we are lucky enough to have AI that writes poetry, whereas we have to work longer. When things could be the other way around.

Mathieu Lambourdière

On technology: a comrade said something really interesting yesterday. His father-in-law, a railway worker, told him that when the first TGV (high-speed trains) arrived, this was presented to him as an advance, which would allow him to make his journeys between Paris and Rennes in half the time. He said: “So I’ll work twice as much and get paid the same!” His boss said, “Well, no.” But it would only be logical for our societies to evolve toward that. One of the government’s arguments on raising the pension age is that we are all living longer than before. But under what principle should we give these extra years to the boss?

Catherine Fléchard

As a trade unionist, life is not easy, especially over the last twenty years. Before, the struggle was on much healthier terms. The dismantling of public services and all these new ways of organizing work mean that at a certain point we all need to stand together. In the energy sector, we are asking ourselves the question of opening up to meetings with employees from the competition, for example. We have to open our minds to be ready to do that.

We can start winning again. There, we won quite a lot on wages. But we’ve been taking a beating for quite some time now. I’m still very optimistic, because we’re also seeing new generations who don’t have a political background and who are helping us.

Damien Iozzia

When I arrived in 2015, there were still seventy ticket counters. Everything’s disappeared, and been replaced by a place where you have two or three colleagues standing, with tablets, shuttling around people who are completely lost. It’s called “accompanied self-service.” These sales agents, who have a certain know-how and were presented as an essential part of the process, feel they’ve been downgraded. They feel completely useless. Moreover, they’ve not been all that mobilized during the strike. Because they tell us: “It’s pointless for us, if we go on strike, nobody sees it.” The company has taken away their possibility of contributing their expertise. It’s devastating. It destroys their work. I also have in mind all those colleagues who spend their day behind beeping portals and whose only added value is to make sure there are no problems. What’s the point of getting up in the morning another two years more, just to do that?

Annie Ernaux

It’s interesting because from my point of view as a user, I am completely unable to buy a ticket on the internet. The SNCF website is deadly. Before, there were employees who gave us information. You could buy your annual holidays ticket, too. . . . In Cergy, this facility has disappeared; it’s impossible to buy a ticket at the ticket office to go from Paris to Marseille. We haven’t thought about the disarray that this causes people. It’s important to see what has become of work.”

Catherine Fléchard

That’s it. The manipulation of the employee starts from their work becoming a nonsense. That’s how we lost the public services. What Damien said about the SNCF was also true of the energy sector. These people are totally resigned. They are constantly confronted with the discontent of the user. These are people who are no longer seen in battles.

Sophie Lecointre

I arrived in Montparnasse at the escale [a point where station agents inform and direct passengers]; I worked at the passenger office — the after-sales service. We dealt with passengers’ various hitches. The plan of the new management was to close this office. From then on, everything in the station fell apart. The ticket offices started to disappear. Now, to find an agent, you have to go through a shopping mall.

Today, I’m at the control, so at the end of the customer’s journey. We are subjected to everything, all their anger, their rage, and I hear them, I understand them because I have lived through it, all these closures, all these changes. We didn’t want it, but our management said: “Yes, but it doesn’t work, there’s too much waiting, it’s easier to go and buy on the internet.” But no, actually. Nobody asked for this: it was imposed on us. It’s like all public services: in order to break them, they first say they are unworkable. But a public service must remain public; we’re not here to make money. And besides, where is our money? Where did it go? And now we are being asked to do two more years? I don’t agree.

Annie Ernaux

Listening to you, we understand that it is impossible to separate the problem of retirement at sixty-four from working conditions. The issue here is work, and we have to ask the question at the same time as we continue the strike. As a pensioner, I’m in no position to say this, but I think that only the struggle pays.

This dialogue we’ve had was important. I learned a lot about the SNCF, or what used to be called the SNCF, and what made up these big public firms like National Education, French Electricity (EDF), the Post Office. . . . In Cergy, the main post office has closed. Now, the post office is in the 3 Fontaines mall. And it follows the business hours. This is a typical example.

Damien Iozzia

Your presence is more than symbolic. For us, what is important is to be able to anchor ourselves in reality. And who else but you could have said that? We are lucky today that people whose voices are heard come to see us. The hardest thing in our daily lives is to let people know what we are living through.

Republished from Libération.

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Annie Ernaux is a French author and 2022 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Stéphane Cortez is an operational manager at the SNCF and a CGT union member.

Mathieu Lambourdière is a railway worker and resources manager, driver planning, CGT union member, and staff rep at Paris-Montparnasse.

Damien Iozzia is a supervisor and secretary of the UFCM-CGT union in Paris-Montparnasse.

Vincetn Benaben is a railway worker, SNCF resources manager, UFCM-CGT union member in Paris-Montparnasse, and secretary of the CGT UL in Paris’s 14th arrondissement.

Catherine Fléchard worked for forty years as a user service agent at EDF (French Electricity) and is now an employee of the CGT Energie union in Paris.

Sophie Lecointre has been an SNCF ticket inspector since 2008 and is a CGT union member.

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