Macron’s pensions reform battle

President’s plan to increase pension age from 62 to 64 is proving deeply unpopular in France

More than a million people took part in strike action across France
The scale of recent protests has echoes of the gilets jaunes of 2018
(Image credit: Alain Pitton/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

More than a million people took to the streets across France last week to protest against President Emmanuel Macron’s controversial plans to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64.

Some 1.12 million people took part in the nationwide protests, according to the interior ministry, with trade unions claiming the figure was even higher. The size of the demonstrations “took the government and its internal security services by surprise”, said John Lichfield for UnHerd. The marches were “especially large in the mid-sized, provincial towns where trades’ unions appeals for nationwide strikes usually go disregarded”, Lichfield added.

The protests will worry President Macron, who “has staked his second term – and his reputation as an economic reformer – on making the French work longer for their pensions”, said Politico’s Paul Taylor.

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What are Macron’s pension reforms?

Under proposals outlined earlier this month by the French prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, the number of years that citizens must work in order to qualify for a full pension will increase. Beginning in 2027, individuals would be required to work for 43 years, rather than the current 42.

It is part of a sweeping welfare reform agenda, which Macron sees as the “defining act” of his second term, said The Times. The French president says that reform is vital to ensure the solvency of the state pension system, which is facing a deficit for the next five decades. “Otherwise, we’ll be financing our retirement system on credit,” Macron told Le Monde.

Speaking during a Franco-Spanish summit in Barcelona, he said the reform was “just and responsible” and pledged to carry it through with “respect and a spirit of dialogue but with determination”.

His allies highlight that even with the proposed increase in the legal retirement age to 64, it would still be earlier than in many other developed countries.

Many European nations have “taken steps to raise the official retirement age”, said the BBC, “with Italy and Germany, for example, on 67 and Spain on 65. In the UK it is currently 66”.

But despite the government’s assertion that this measure is necessary to preserve the country’s share-out pension system, the reform has met with significant opposition. A poll conducted by IFOP this week revealed that 68% of the French public is against the proposed change.

One protester told AFP: “Macron wants us to die on the job. We get up very early. Some colleagues wake up at 3am. Working until 64 is too much.”

What next?

France’s leading trade unions have been “buoyed” by the success of Thursday’s strike action and are now calling for a second day of strikes on 31 January, in a bid to force Macron and his government to back down, said Reuters.

“Now, the government finds itself with its back to the wall,” said France’s leading unions in a joint statement. “Everyone knows that raising the retirement age only benefits employers and the wealthy.”

The unions “are hoping to pull off a repeat of what happened in 1995, when prolonged disruptive industrial action combined with broad public support to force then-president Jacques Chirac’s government to ditch pension reforms”, said France24.

Macron will also be “conscious” of the legacy left by the gilet jaunes, an “anti-government protest movement that erupted in 2018 from the ground up, without trade union leadership”, said The Guardian.

But it remains to be seen whether public anger over the change to the pension age, as well as the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, will be enough to “swell” the current protests into a broader movement.

It’s not the first time Macron has had to deal with opposition to his pension reform plans. A previous attempt in 2019 left the president facing the longest-running rail strikes since May 1968, with those plans eventually being shelved during the Covid-19 pandemic.

And Macron’s proposals will also still need to make it through parliament, where his Renaissance party no longer enjoys an absolute majority. The government will therefore have to rely on the support of the right-wing Les Republicains to get the bill passed.

It is not certain that “Macron’s determination and appeal to rational economics is enough”, but “what model might a second Macron failure set for the rest of the world?” asked CNN’s David A. Andelman. “If France can’t reform, how can other countries, weighed down by rapidly aging populations and fragile economies, manage?”

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