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Media-setting role in the 2010 French old-age pension Reform

par Matt 23 Janvier 2012, 12:53 English

“Comes an era in which disapproval is not enough: after philosophy, action is needed” (Victor Hugo)


These last twenty years have seen the French follow too well this advice of Victor Hugo; fourteen periods of national strikes have been launched during this period, thus nearly one per year.  The last one was a reaction to the reform 2010 old-age pension: It lasted five months; with a cumulated total number of demonstrators around ten million, which represent 15% of the French population; roads, fuel suppliers, factories were blocked by unions. Nevertheless, it was still a failure since the reform has been adopted by the National Assembly ignoring the protestations coming from the streets. Hence, it seems that even action is not enough nowadays. Greece and Spain failed protests seem to confirm this idea.


Is the crowd has been domesticated in Europe? How to explain the failure of such huge movements? The answer claimed by a lot of editorialists and journalists is resignation, people from now on accepting reforms inasmuch as it is described seen as inevitable for the sake of the country, in a context where the European debt become grievous. 


 The thesis I propose and defend in this term paper is that the 2010 French old-age pension is the first of a succession of a new sub-type of social movement. A social movement characterized by the fixed position of a government on a reform and by huge demonstrations slowly decreasing at the same time that people resign themselves, ending with the return of stability. Within this term paper, I will try to precise and define this idea, explain what are the specificities of the French reform, protestations and system and what can be generalized as a sub-type social movement. Nonetheless, defending this thesis is not the goal of my term paper, but it shows the importance of the French reform in future European politics and why I chose this case.


Indeed, the raison d’être of this paper is to explain why such huge protests have been possible whereas the reform has not been announced neither in the medias nor by the government in the first place. In our case, Mass Medias didn’t make the agenda setting, people made the agenda setting. Hence, it is forsooth remarkable. Explaining, defining, and relativizing this fact constitute the heart of this term paper. Moreover, This case, if it is really the first case of a new sub-type of social movement, revolutionize the idea of the Medias and of the agenda making, people making the Agenda, no longer the Medias or the government by announcing policies. The famous saying from Gustave Lebon “Countless are the people who never had other opinion than the one of their newspapers” or the Lasswell mass-effects media theory has never been this far away from reality.

I- Describing the Reform

The 2010 old age pension reform is composed of two parallels process; I define the first one as the reform making process (mainly a policy making process, succeeded by a parliamentary procedure applying the reform) which begun by a project of law announced by a French minister and ending with the promulgation of the law the 10thNovember 2010 by Nicolas Sarkozy. I call the second one the reaction-to-reform process beginning at the same time than the first protests and leading to the end of one of the most massive French protests in this early 21th century without any direct state intervention.

The links between these two parallels processes are multiple; obviously one influencing the others; however their roots are the same: a written document published by the Council of Pension Orientation which claimed the need of a change in the old-age pension system. The actors of the first process were mainly the French State, the Government and the leading Party (UMP) whereas the actors of the second one were the opposition political parties (FDG, FN, PS), the medias, and more surprisingly, the unions, which show their wide power and influence among French workers with the protestation.

A. Preparing the reform (before May 2010)

Details are unknown, since negotiations were not made public, nevertheless, the 12th April, the government initiated a meeting with political parties and unions in order to debate of the old-age pension system, based on a document of the Council of Pension Orientation. This document has been made public two day after the meeting.  It is a study showing that the 2008 economic crisis has a great impact on the old-age pension system. The crisis increases unemployment which causes a decrease of pension’s fees, phenomena aggravated with the fact that the baby-boom generation is going to retire.

 If negotiations were private, we can make the assumption that these 12th April negotiations were a failure with the following events that follow. Another important element to notice is that the presence in the Medias of these negotiations was non-existent, since no national newspapers or national television announced it. From this point, we can divide in two different processes. 


B. The first process (May 16th- November 10th 2010): "reform making process"

We can divide this first process in two major steps.


- The first-one is the policy making process itself. It lasts from May 16th 2010 to June 16th 2010. 

 The 16 May 2010, The minister of the Work, Solidarity and Public Service, Eric Woerth, made public a document regarding how the government is thinking to finance the pensions. In this document, he claimed that the only way to do it is to increase the retirement age without penalizing French “standard of living” and economic growth and employment rate.  The 16 June, Eric Woerth announced that the retirement age will be 62 (thus no more 60) and other measures. Since this date, the reform won’t be modified again hence we can say that the making policy process is completed.

- The other is the parliamentary procedure which lasts from June 16th to November 10th. 

 The government proposes the 7st September, at the National Assembly, the final law project which Woerth have showed the 16thJune. The law is adopted the October 26th2010 by the Senate, then by the National Assembly the day after, and promulgated by the President Nicolas Sarkozy the November 10th2010.


C. The Second Process (May 1st 2010 to November 2010: "reaction-to-reform process"

 The process, as I described earlier was the reaction of the reform from the public, and like the first process, I divide it into two periods. I call the first one the preventive reaction against a hypothetical reform, which begin in May 1st2010 (first demonstration) and I call the second the reaction against the reform, which begin the 16 June (announce of the reform) and last until November 23th 2010 (last reform).

At the beginning already, a large part of the population was favorable to the reform, and this percentage increased slowly as time passes. These polls illustrate this evolution: 

- September 2nd : Social movement is justified for 70% of the French regarding the current reform (IFOP)

- September 10th: 57% against the reform, 39% pro (BVA-Absoluce).  

- October 16th: 57% accept the reform but want a modification, 27% pro, 16% against. (IFOP)      

- October 21th: 53% pro in the current state of the reform(IFOP)    

- October 22th: 56% think unions must stop their actions, 63% think that unions shouldn’t block the fuel suppliers (OpinionWay)

- November 2nd: 64%, reform is inevitable so it is useless to contest it



We can see that it is not the only evolution. As time passes, the protestation become less popular since they cause a lot of problems, particularly a lack of fuel. Then, we can see that the reform become accepted since it is seen as “inevitable”. Moreover, since workers are not paid when they strike, they couldn’t continue the strike forever.

The mobilization in this social movement was really high. The main goal was to protest against the change of the normal retirement age from 65 to 67 (and early pension from 60 to 62).  Arguments led by the unions and opposition political parties are mainly that the reform is unjust socially, and economically wrong.

How to measure the mobilization? The number of demonstrators is I think an important clue; nevertheless it is not perfect since it represents not the full mobilization against the reform or the gravity of the caused acts. The number of demonstrators this social movement of strikers and demonstrations was really high, and represented more than one million people. We have made figure 5 & 7 to illustrate the mobilization. The cumulated number of demonstrators is around 23 million according to the biggest French union (CGT) whereas only 8 million according to the police. However, it remains for both sources a great number. In November, after Nicolas Sarkozy promulgated the law, the protestations were almost reduced to nothing.



II- Analyzing a social movement

After this first description of our case, this paper will be divided in two analyses, the first one is to define the importance of this example since it may be reproduced in Europe, the second one is a analyze from a media setting point of view and what is the role it in the social movement studied here. Hence, first, as I state earlier, this case constitutes the first of a succession of a new sub-type of social movement. What are his characteristics?


The analysis of social movements constitutes one of the major fields both in sociology and in political science. David Aberle developed in the 1960’s a simple model widely still used nowadays which permit to categorize social movements in four different movements regarding the importance of the demanded change claimed by the movement and who is concerned by this change. The model is shown in the figure 1. According to this model, the case we are studying is a reformative social movement, meaning that the protests goal is a limited change (cancelling a reform) which concerns everyone.

Moreover, many scholars developed and defined the idea of steps, or stage in a social movement (see figure 2). However, our case is not a usual social movement, since it is short and explosive, it doesn’t really fit the classical scheme.

Indeed, this movement emerges like every social movements, however, he didn’t bureaucratized or coalesced since it was emerged directly under the control of existing organizations such as unions and political parties. However, it failed and it declined. The idea here is that the failure happened is a specific way and the different steps were the same in Spain or in Greece. We summarized them in the figure 3.


1) The initial step is a relative period of stability before the protests begin. It is broken by a cumulated set of factors (which can change nevertheless depending of the case), mostly because of unemployment, weariness against the government, poor economic situation, growing inequalities, lack of security; the situation explode when the government prepare a new decreasing social welfare reform said to reduce the deficit.

2) The first step of the protests is the preventive reaction against the reform, just after the explosion which ends the initial step. Far left political parties and unions mobilize their members to organize demonstrations since they are the most susceptible to be mobilized, more politically engaged and used to protest and demonstrate and tries to convince non-far-left people to join them.

 3) The second step is the development of the reaction after the reform itself, during the parliamentary process. It is the most violent part of the protests since the social movement is increasing in size and in diversity. Protests spread politically. Demonstrators are not necessarily from the left, but people from the right may be willing to protest and demonstrate as well.  

4) The third step is the decline, or failure; usually after the promulgation of the law and the fact that the government don’t change the reform. As I said, it is mainly with the resignation of the people; however, we will explain it in the next analysis.

5) The final step is the normalization and return to stability when the social movement has totally declined and people has accepted the reform.

 Obviously, these different steps can be longer or slower regarding the context, for example political institutions, we will study it now.


III- Analyzing Agenda Setting

 In this third and last part, I will from now on analyze the media setting, using all the previous statements I have already written, associated with the media use as social action model to guide my analysis, in order to explain how, why, the media setting influence the social movement sub-type I am studying here.


 “A major concern in communication research has always been to study media impact, i.e. to measure, describe and explain the influence of television, radio, newspapers on individuals, groups and society as a whole.”



Today, we distinguish usually three basic frameworks in mass media communication. The media-centered model is the one developed by Lasswell’s after the Second World War known for the famous sentence “who says what to whom in which channel with what effect”.  K. Renckstorf distinguishes four underlying main elements based this theory:

- Mass media are Successful in reaching almost every individual in a society

- Individuals pay attention to the message

- The message is an impulse for audience behavior

- Recipients will act in accordance with the message

The audience-centered model is a direct response to the previous one, since Katz suggested to answer to “what do people do with the media” instead of “What do the media do to people”. The culture-centered model, then sees the role of mass medias “in defining, shaping and constructing societal beliefs, the norms and values of a culture of a given society”2. All of these models have drawbacks, thus, nowadays, a new model is rising in influence which can be described as a synthesis of the previous systems I have described earlier – this is mainly on this one that I will base my analysis – since it is a good, practical and simple way to describe phenomena for people inexperienced in research (see figure 4).

A. Surrounding society


By “surrounding society”, I mean mass media, and social, political, cultural economical institutions. It is important to explain the way people see and perceive the world. In this part, thus, I will mainly explain the important element of French society which could have influence the “defining” phase of the people in a media use as social action model point of view.

1) Economic situation: As I described before, the unemployment is high thus there is a wide competition between the workers which decrease earnings. The young has an unemployment rate around 23% in 2010, which is dramatic, even for universities graduates. Even if the unemployment rate is different across Europe, global situation is generally the same or very near. Since the young are usually the most susceptible to mobilize in a society, their unemployment and their dissatisfaction increase highly in the society. Moreover, the Welfare State which helps the young European for years is being disintegrated as well because of the Euro-zone crisis.

2) Actors’ situation (described in the figure 6): the current situation of the actors of the change movement we are studying is quite diverse and they have multiple positions in the society and their links are complicated. This situation is simplified and described in the figure 6.

a) The government is composed of leaders of the leading party, named UMP. This party has won all the presidential elections, owns the absolute majority at the National Assembly, the absolute majority at the senate since the creation of the Party in 2002 by Jacques Chirac. It means that the UMP totally rules the country since its creation.

b) The main political opposition seen as credible is the Socialist Party inasmuch as it is the only still-existing party which ruled France in its history (mainly from 1981 to 1995), which means that France is almost a two-parties system. Nevertheless, a very high number of middle-sized and small-sized parties exist as well. In these parties, we distinguish system parties and non-system parties.  

 - System parties can make an alliance with the PS or the UMP in order to influence their position on a precise point of their politics.

- Non-system parties cannot make an alliance with the PS or the UMP since they seek to revolutionize the country. There are two parties of this type: The Left Front and the National Front. Sometimes, these non-system parties can influence greatly French politics, for example in 2002, when Jean-Marie Le Pen, a member of Front National, a medium-sized-party, beat Lionel Jospin, the candidate of the Socialist Party at the Presidential Election. When a non-system candidate is about to win an election, all the System-Parties make an alliance called Republic Front in order to make the anti-system candidate lose. It happened for example in 2002 when Jean-Marie Le Pen lost against Jacques Chirac promoted by all the French political parties. We can add that it is nearly impossible to be a senior civil servant and a member of these parties.



c) Unions have in France a real influence even if the number of their members is decreasing. Five Unions are considered by the French State as “representative of the salaries”: CGT, CFDT, DO, CFTC and CFE-CGC Unions leaders are often invited in T.V shows, particularly François Chérèque (leader of the CFTC) and Bernard Thibault (leader of the CGT). They do not have much members but keep a huge influence in French today politics. Indeed, the number of members decreases a lot, it was 4 million in 1948 but it is only 711.000 people in 2005 for the CGT (in the same time, the French population increased, thus in proportion of total population, it was a very fast decrease). However, if the number decreases hugely, however, the influence didn’t since it was rather a professionalization of the members of the CGT than a loss of power. Moreover, CFDT gained members in the same period: 572.000 in 1965 and 851.000 in 2010. CGT and CFTC are the biggest union in France. Most of the Unions own very strong link with the Left Front (a political party, result of a fusion of far-left political parties), a lot of members being in the same organization at the same time. Students Unions and High School Unions are very active too.

d) The Mass Medias in France, finally, are described as uniform by scholars. It is a historic fact that all national television channel and radio station were state-owned for more than forty years for TV when François Mitterrand freed in 1981. Nevertheless, they remain nowadays widely public-owned. In France, approximately half of the TV channels and radio stations are public, and all newspapers are private. It is commonly accepted by scholars than French Medias are widely controlled by the State, since the public TV channels and radio stations presidents are chosen by the President of the French Republic. Newspapers and non-state TV channels or radio-station, as well, even if they are private, are slightly controlled since the State gives the right to be published or to broadcast.

However, all Medias are controlled by a State-bureaucracy called the CSA, charged to regulate and verify that the most important political parties have the same speaking time on television and radio. However, quality is not equal to quantity, an equal treatment in term of time don’t mean that the treatment is equal. To illustrate this pro-system orientation of the Mass Medias, two of the most famous French public television presenters said openly that they won’t invite members of the National Front in television, whereas the President of the National Front was at the time (according to polls) the second or third most likely French politician to be elected as French President in 2017. The illusion that the CSA control is neutral and objective makes the current political system to be legitimated as totally democratic. Nevertheless, the fact is that France is currently described as a flawed democracy. Moreover, Nowadays, Internet is beginning to be controlled, for example, with the Hadopi law.

B. Perceiving, thematising, diagnosing; defining the situation 

In a social movement, the way to perceive problems is the most important point for the media use as social action model. In this part, I will study the importance of the agenda setting in this movement.

At the question, how Medias put this on agenda setting? First, we can observe a large dichotomy between the Mass Medias and the social movement; all the mass Medias without exceptions were openly against the mobilization (even left newspapers such as Libération) claimed that it was useless since the government won’t change its policy, and it was still one of the biggest mobilizations in France for one decade. During the first and the second process, Mass Medias openly and constantly defend the urgency of the reform and the reform itself.  In order to illustrate this fact, I will present some quotes of newspapers or from TV news which I think are representative.

Radio Station

-  September 7th: Guy Carlier “Since several days, I am thinking about what I should say this morning, telling me that it must be positive and funny to make this terrible day, because of strikes, better” Europe 1 (Fabien Namias) “To all demonstrator, I say: Don’t overdo it; whatever you do, the government won’t change the policy”

- September 8th: RTL (Alain-Gerard Slama) “When I heard people saying “We demonstrated to save the old-age pension”, No! It’s the reform which will save the old-age pension”

 Television channel (TV news):

-  September 7th - Canal + (Ariane Massenet) “Yes, we need to reform”


- January 6th, La Tribune.fr : “The French are resigned to work more”

Mass Medias argumentations focus on the same elements:

 - Unions and people demonstrating are irresponsible

- It is useless to demonstrate since the government won’t move

- The French are resigned to work more

- The reform is needed

 - Striking has huge economic consequences



However, even with this treatment of the reform by the Mass Medias, the protestations last long, for five months. Why? As the figure 6 shows, the Left Front is mainly based and organized around Unions, students Unions and High School Unions, thus this network was used by the Left Front to organize the protests. Since this reform was seen as terrible at the beginning for the most of the French, since the old-age reform system is the symbol of the French welfare state, people from the left, the right and from far-right joined the demonstrators as well. In fact, Unions played a role of information and replace partially the Medias, with their members making speeches in the street, at the doors of factories, high school and universities. Internet, social network and forums were as well widely used to organize protests and to spread the movement. It is how these protests have been possible even with the opposition of the mass Medias.


Hence, a clash happened between the Mass Medias, the Leading Party and the State against the opposition and alternative organization such as Union and Internet. If at the beginning, the social movement increases in size and in intensity, the reform has been adopted nevertheless. Thus, it is hard to determine the real causes of the end of the reform, but it is probably a cumulated action of the Mass Medias actions, the determination of the government and the fact that it wasn’t possible for the workers to continue the strikes financially speaking, weariness, etc.


2. The governmental agenda


Why was this reform on the agenda setting of the government? Again, Medias were not crucial or at least, the initiators. Unions made the public agenda, bureaucracies made the governmental agenda. In fact, Mass Medias appear to be more like a tool of the government to increase the stability in the country in these protests. The reason why this reform has been made is a study from the Council of pensions Orientation, a problem in the old-age pensions were not shown before this document.




This case is a new sub-type of social movement that we can call a European counter-reformative social movement in an Aberle perspective, with the characteristic of that these movement are ascertained to be a failure on the long run. They may use alternative new Medias to organize themselves, with a long process of acceptation of the reform during which massive protests. Analyzing the other European movement born from the reaction to the crisis, such as in Spain or Greece appears to me indispensable in order to complete this analysis.

 If I answer to the questions asked in the introduction, however, people didn’t make the public agenda, it were in reality the Unions which take the initiative over Mass Medias. Hence it appears that more and more alternative channels exist in order to inform the people and to constitute the agenda setting, and not only the Mass Medias. Moreover, the governmental agenda itself was mainly built by bureaucracies instead of mass Medias. Thus, in our case, Mass Medias have been more used as a transmitter tool than an originator.  


Is it only a French case or can it be generalized in other countries? Obviously, the presence of Internet and alternative media such as Web-Radios are common to almost every country in the world, and their role in the agenda-setting, which mean their influence of the people’s way to perceive reality has been stronger and stronger, as the example of Arab Spring shows. However, our case still remains mainly French and dependent of the French context since it is hard to generalize the weak of Mass Medias of this case as a general phenomenon, the protestations mainly coming from a place where there is strong control of the Medias and where the Unions are heavily powerful and used to protest and strike, strikes are nearly described as a tradition by a lot of journalists.

 If we must not underestimate the role of the Mass Medias, since they remain the major actor in agenda-setting in a non-crisis context, hence, they might become weaker in the future…



Figure 1: A Typology of social movements (Aberle)

 a typology of social movements aberle


Figure 2: The five Stages of social movements (Blumer, Mauss, Tilly) 


the five stages of social movements blumer, mauss, tilly



Figure 3:  Failure steps sequence 


failure steps sequence

Figure 4: Agenda setting and social actions


Karsten Renckstorf, Denis McQuail and Nicholas Jankowski Ag


      Figure 5:Demonstrations in 2010, France

demonstrations in 2010 france



Figure 6:Political Parties & Medias in 2010political parties & medias in 2010


Figure 7: Processes synthesis

Event (1st process)

Date (1st process)

Date of demonstrations (2nd process)

Number of demonstrators (2nd process)

Government announced a reform


May 1st

300 000 (source : cgt)


First draft

May 16th

May 27th

1 000 000 for CGT, 395000 for the ministry of internal affairs

New measure announced : 60 to 62 years

June 16th

June 15th

June 24th

70000 (FO), 23000 (ministry)

1 920 000 (CGT), 797000 (ministry)

Law presented to the national assembly

September 7th

September 7th


September 23th

2 735 000 (CGT), 2 500 000 (CFDT), 1 120 000 (ministry)

3 million (CGT&CFDT), 997000 (ministry)

Law adopted by the senate

October 26th  

October 2th


October 12th


October 16th


October 19th


3 million (CGT), 899000 (ministry)

3, 5 million (CGT), 825000 (ministry)

3 million+ (CGT), 2,5 million (CFTC), 1,23 million (ministry)

3,5 million (CGT), 1,1 million (ministry)

Law adopted by the national assembly

October 27th

October 28th

2 million (CGT), 375000 (ministry)

Law promulguated by Nicolas Sarkozy

November 10th

November 6th

November 23th

1,2 million (CGT) 375000 (ministry)

52000 (ministry)




Les médias, cahiers français, n°266, May-June 1994

 René Mouriaux , Le syndicalisme en France depuis 1945, Repères, la Découverte

Karsten Renckstorf, Denis Mc Quail and Nicholas Jankowski, Media use as Social Action, A European Approach to audience Studies

Aberle, David F. 1966. The Peyote Religion among the Navaho. Chicago: Aldine

Katz, E (1959), “Mass communications research and the study of popular culture”, studies in public communication 2 : 1-6

Diverse French newspapers 



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