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Les Grèves: Living in France during the Retirement Controversy

Headshot of Sophia Barton.
Sophia Barton
March 30, 2023

            As you might already know, the French like to make their voices heard. Many times throughout history, we have seen that the “French” way to do things is to protest, which has proved to be very successful throughout history. While I’ve clearly seen things of this caliber in the states, I’ve never quite seen a standoff quite like this one, which concerns the retirement age in France.

           Raising the retirement age in France has proved to be a very controversial move, and I’m sure you’ve seen a thing or two about it if you’ve tuned into the local news. The French are obviously no strangers to “grèves,” or strikes, so the IES Abroad staff even warned ahead of time that we would probably see some protests and other strikes affecting our transport and other services. However, I’m not sure this is what I (or even the IES Abroad staff) was quite expecting. It started off pretty calmly. In the weeks leading up to the vote, the streets would be filled with peaceful protests; People would be holding signs, riding on trucks, and dancing and chanting to music. It almost looked like a parade. This soon became part of my routine, and I quickly realized that on most Tuesdays I would be walking half the way to school, which wasn't too much of a disruption… Little did I know how much it would escalate!

            A few weeks ago, Emmanuel Macron, the current president of France, found a loophole in the constitution (art 49.3) and decided to push through with his plan to raise the pension age from 62 to 64 without a parliamentary vote. This understandably provoked significant unrest throughout France, especially in bigger cities like Nantes. Since then, protests have become violent, trash workers are on strike, and public transportation is often affected both within the city and to/from other cities as well. More recently, fuel has also been affected with France’s largest supplier stopping its operations due to workers on strike. Being in France during all of this has undoubtedly been an experience, and it’s not uncommon to be caught in the middle of the city during a protest, which usually ends in running from the teargas set off by the police. The students at the University also tend to take action, which results in students pulling the fire alarms and blocking the university doors, canceling all classes. (Last week, this happened in the middle of class so we only had about 15 minutes of instruction.) The France I see now is nothing like France I arrived in, with trash filling the streets and several stores boarded up as a result of having their windows smashed in as a result of violence within protests.  

            Living in France during a time like this has been a matter of adapting and also learning. I am definitely in support of the French fighting for their right to democracy, and the depths to which they are willing to do so are admirable. While I received several safety alerts from my school as well as alerts from the citizen info line, I feel comfortable knowing that my host family and my program are always there to advise me on what to do if I cannot find proper transport or feel uneasy about getting home. Living in France during a time like this is truly something I will never forget, and as my host family often says, is definitely an authentic French experience. I hope that soon they will be able to find a way to resolve this unrest, or at least eliminate loopholes like article 49.3 that allow the government to take unfair advantage of the constitution.

As I said earlier, I definitely encourage you to look more into it, as it’s really fascinating. I also attached some pictures of what the city’s been looking like lately.

À tout,


Editor’s Note: Our Crisis Management team are actively monitoring the situation on the ground during these protests and providing updates to keep our students and staff in Paris safe. For more information on our health and safety policies, please visit our Health & Safety page.

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Headshot of Sophia Barton.

Sophia Barton

Hello! My name is Sophia Barton, and I'm a sophomore at the University of Portland, though I'm originally from Indiana. (Shout Midwest folks!) I'm currently majoring in Political Science and Global Affairs and French, with a Spanish minor. Can you tell that I love languages? I could not be more excited for the opportunity to immerse myself in the Nantes culture, and I'm so excited to take you all along with me. Rendez-vous à Nantes!! :)

2023 Spring
Home University:
University of Portland
French Language
Political Science
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