Spontaneous protests erupted in Paris and several French cities on Thursday evening after the government pushed through reforms to the pension system that raise the retirement age from 62 to 64.
While proposed reforms of France’s prized pension system were already controversial, it was the way the bill was passed – a vote in the country’s lower house in which President Emmanuel Macron’s party crucially lacked an absolute majority – that sidestepped the probably caused the biggest annoyance.
And this anger is widespread in France.
Figures from polling firm IFOP show that 83% of young adults (18-24) and 78% of those over 35 felt the way the government was passing the law was “unjustified”. Even among pro-Macron voters – those who voted for him in the first round of last year’s presidential election ahead of a runoff with his far-right opponent – a majority of 58% disagreed with how the law was passed, regardless of their opinion about the reforms.
Macron made social reforms, particularly the pension system, a flagship of his re-election in 2022 and is an issue he has championed for much of his tenure. However, Thursday’s move has so inflamed opposition across the political spectrum that some are questioning the wisdom of his hunger for reform.
Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne admitted in an interview with TF1 on Thursday evening that the government initially wanted to avoid using Article 49.3 of the constitution to force reforms past the National Assembly. The “collective decision” to do so was taken at a meeting with the president, ministers and associated lawmakers in mid-Thursday, she said.
For Macron’s cabinet, the simple answer to the government’s will to reform is money. The current system, which relies on working people to pay for a growing age group of retirees, is no longer fit for purpose, the government says.
Labor Secretary Olivier Dussopt said that without immediate action, the pension deficit would reach more than $13 billion annually by 2027. Referring to opponents of the reforms, Dussopt told CNN affiliate BFMTV: “Do you imagine that if we pause the reforms we will stop the deficit?”
When the proposal was unveiled in January, the government said the reforms would eliminate the deficit in 2030, with a billion-dollar surplus to pay for measures that allow people in physically demanding jobs to retire early go.
For Budget Minister Gabriel Attal, the calculation is clear. “If we don’t [the reforms] Today we have to take much more brutal measures in the future,” he said in an interview with France Inter on Friday.
“No pension reform has made the French happy,” Pascal Perrineau, a political scientist at Sciences Po University, told CNN on Friday.
“Every time public opinion resists, little by little the project goes through and basically public opinion resigns to it,” he said, adding that the government’s failure lies in its inability to pass the project on to the French sell.
You are not the first to fall at this hurdle. Pension reform has long been a sensitive issue in France. In 1995, weeks of mass protests forced the then government to abandon plans to reform public sector pensions. In 2010, millions took to the streets against raising the retirement age by two years to 62, and in 2014 further reforms met with widespread protests.
For many in France, the pension system, like social support in general, is seen as the bedrock of the state’s responsibility and relationship with its citizens.
The post-war welfare system enshrined rights to state-funded pensions and healthcare that have been jealously guarded ever since, in a country where the state has long played a proactive role in securing a given standard of living.
France has one of the lowest retirement ages in developed countries and, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, spends more than most other countries on pensions, accounting for almost 14% of economic output.
But as social unhappiness over the rising cost of living mounts, protesters at several strikes have reiterated to CNN a common mantra: They are heavily taxed and want to preserve the right to a decent old age.
Macron is just beginning his second term, having been re-elected in 2022, and has four years left to take over as country leader. Despite all the anger of the population, his position is secure for the time being.
However, Thursday’s use of Article 49.3 only reinforces earlier criticism that it is not in touch with popular sentiment and is ambivalent about the will of the French public.
Politicians on the far left and far right of Macron’s centre-right party were quick to embrace his government’s move to bypass a parliamentary vote.
“Following the slap the Prime Minister just gave the French people by pushing through a reform they don’t want, I think Elisabeth Borne should go,” far-right politician Marine Le Pen tweeted on Thursday.
The leader of France’s extreme left, Jean-Luc Melenchon, was also quick to lash out at the government, denouncing the reforms as “lacking parliamentary legitimacy” and calling for nationwide spontaneous strikes.
Certainly, popular anger over pension reforms will only complicate Macron’s intentions to introduce further reforms in the education and healthcare sectors – projects frozen by the Covid-19 pandemic – political scientist Perrineau told CNN.
The current controversy could ultimately force Macron to negotiate more on future reforms, Perrineau warns – although he notes the French president is not known for compromise.
His tendency to be “a little bit bossy, a little bit impatient” can complicate political negotiations, Perrineau said.
That, he adds, is “perhaps the limit of Macronism.”
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