France is rising against Macron’s pension reform, which will increase the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 and was passed alienating the National Assembly. Macron took a calculated risk, accepting gruesome political consequences for the rest of his term and vehement protests across France that keep rising. Yet, he reached an objective that past presidents did not manage to achieve: making one of the most expensive pension systems in Europe more economically sustainable.
On the evening of Tuesday, March 28th, I was sitting in a pub in the heart of Paris’ Latin Quarter, one of the liveliest neighborhoods in France’s capital. Around 11 pm, I noticed that a small crowd had gathered outside the bar’s entrance, their backs turned on me, looking at something and discussing animatedly. Curious as to what had sparked such trepidation, I stood up and walked out as well. A few meters away from us, there was a pile of trash on fire, a cloud of smoke filling the air around it. Three policemen were already there, distractedly watching the scene and keeping people away while waiting for the firefighters. It was a small fire: not for a moment did anyone have the impression that there was any real danger. Still, we stayed there to watch how things would develop. I asked some of the people who were already there if they knew what had happened, and they told me that a few minutes before, a man in his 30s had kneeled next to the pile of trash with a lighter. “C’est pour les retraites,” said one of them, shrugging his shoulders distractedly as the firefighters arrived at the scene and started putting it out. “It’s for pensions.”
March 28th had been the tenth official day of weekly nationwide mobilization against the widely criticized reform of the pension system that has been pushed for by French President Emmanuel Macron over the past few months and will come into effect by the end of 2023. An eleventh official day of mobilization has since occurred on April 6th and a twelfth one has been called for April 13th. Criticized by virtually all political sides and according to polls disapproved by most of the French people, the reform will increase the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64. The objective is to make the system less expensive for the French economy and hence more sustainable in light of the increasing life expectancy. Macron has repeatedly referred to the reform as an “unpopular but necessary” step to “save” the pension system. Despite the opposition’s hostility and unfavorable public opinion, the President has convincingly pushed for the reform, hardly hesitating before alienating the parliament and the French people and accepting to pay a remarkably high political cost, since it will now be quite difficult to work with the oppositions over any future legislative proposal.
A complicated system and a controversial legislative journey
Macron is not the first French President who has attempted to reform the pension system over the past few decades. Not only is it one of the most expensive pension systems in Europe, as it weighed about 13.6% of GDP in 2020, but it is also deemed by several analysts to be one of the most complicated, inefficient, and inequitable systems in the EU. Even though on paper the minimum retirement age is 62 for all, there is a lot of variation across various categories of workers due to old labor union accords, which cause wide differences between the public and private sector. State railway engineers, for instance, retire at 50, subway employees at 55, employees of public companies at 57, while dancers in national corps of ballet can retire already at 42. In the private sector, on the other hand, it is not rare for “non-protected” workers like entrepreneurs or agricultural workers to have to work until 67 to accumulate enough contributions to obtain a sufficient pension.
In the 2019 version of the reform, Macron’s idea was to intervene on these inequalities by introducing a uniform system for all workers. In that case, the reform was put on standby due to the pandemic, to be then taken on again in the President’s current, second term. The bill that ended up being passed and will come into effect by the end of 2023 is, however, different and more openly focused on making the system less expensive for state finances. There are mainly two parts to it: first, the raising of the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64; second, the anticipation from 2035 to 2027 of the so-called Touraine Law, which increases the period for which it is necessary to pay contributions from 42 to 43 years.
The bill was presented by the head of government Elisabeth Borne at the beginning of January, after weeks of fruitless discussions between the government and labor unions that the prominent French newspaper Le Monde referred to as a “dialogue between deaf,” emphasizing how neither side was able to acknowledge the motivations of the other. The bill sparked the outrage of opposition parties and of labor unions, which called for massive strikes across all of France. That did not stop the government from seeking a parliamentary majority vote on the bill. While there were no problems in passing it in the Senate, where the majority that supports Macron is solid, problems arose in the National Assembly, the other branch of the French Parliament. Since he was not sure that he would obtain a majority, Macron decided to activate article 49.3 of the Constitution, which states that “the Prime Minister may, after deliberation by the Council of Ministers, assume the responsibility of the Government before the National Assembly on the vote on a finance or social security financing bill.” In other words, it allows the Prime Minister to pass a law provided it regards social security financing without a parliamentary vote. The article also states that “the law is considered adopted, unless a motion of censure, tabled within the following twenty-four hours, is voted.” Two motions of censure were voted for on Monday, March 20th, and they both failed at striking down the law.,
Protests have intensified even more following the activation of 49.3 and the passing of the bill. It is not only the pension reform and the retirement age that angered the people, but also the decision to ignore and arguably disrespect the culture of discussion and parliamentary debate that is traditionally associated to France. Some of the figures that surround the popular response to this bill indicate the magnitude of the popular response to what is happening: 11 nationwide mobilization days between January and now, with the participation of about 1.3 million people (2 million according to labor unions); 521 non-fatal injuries, mostly in violent confrontation between a few of the protesters and the police, and a government that, according to a poll run by the French statistical agency Ifop Opinion, meets the approval of just 29% of the people, the lowest ever.
The bill’s impact goes beyond the figures, though. It is visible in everyday life, not necessarily always in exceptional situations like the fire I witnessed in the Latin Quarter, but in trivial things that are noticeable strolling around Paris. It is in the increasing number of graffiti that are appearing on buildings around the city with the number 62. It is in the piles of trash that in some parts of the city remain untouched, as trash management workers have been on strike for weeks. It is in the shattered glass of the windows of several shops, banks, gyms, and supermarkets in areas where protests have gotten out of hand over the past weeks.
They are all signals of a wider social process: a widespread refusal of any change to the status quo social welfare system that is interestingly supported by both the extreme left, embodied by the founder of the populist leftist party La France Insoumise Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and the extreme right, represented by leader of the far-right National Front party Marine Le Pen, who was defeated at the last round of the 2022 Presidential Election by Macron. Extremists on opposite sides of the political spectrum are seemingly using the same pretext – the pension reform – to capitalize on people’s anger and grow their respective popular support.
The next round of elections is to be held in over 4 years, but it is worth wondering whether, after Marine Le Pen’s exploit to the final round of the election, it will now be the time that an extremist becomes President. Most political analysts agree that the votes Macron received during the second round of the 2022 Presidential Election were votes against his opponent Marine Le Pen, rather than votes for him. In other words, they were votes cast to avoid putting an extremist in power rather than votes cast to put Macron back in office. The implication is that Macron’s technocratic government did not really receive adequate political legitimacy to govern in the last election but was confirmed in office simply because of a lack of alternatives. Thinking about the future, it is worth wondering what will happen at the next election in 2027: given the current political climate, will a Macron-like technocracy still be seen as the lesser of two evils in 2027?
Macron’s political calculation
We can safely assume that Macron realized the political danger of passing the reform, especially through the activation of 49.3. He knew that his support in the country, which had already been waning for quite some time, would decrease profusely the moment he would go for it and that all oppositions would react aggressively. Yet, he chose to do it anyway, accepting the political cost of now having to govern for four more years in a very hostile environment. There are two points of reflection that are more political but that are worth mentioning to understand the reasons behind such a choice.
First, a pension reform of this kind had to be passed eventually. France was one of the countries in which the minimum retirement age was the lowest in the Western world, and even after the retirement age is increased to 64, it will be below average for the EU. In Germany, the retirement age is 65 and will be 67 by 2029; in Italy, it is 67; in Ireland, it is 66; in the Netherlands, it is 68. Therefore, if the pension system is under economic pressure like in France, the most immediate way if not the only way to make it more sustainable is to increase the minimum retirement age. Yet, it is a very unpopular policy to pass, as Macron’s situation shows, which is why there was never enough political will to pass it.
That leads to the second point: Macron seemingly accepted the political cost of passing such a reform because, in the long term, he does not have much to lose. Firstly, he is on his second and last Presidential term, which means that he cannot be reelected and that no matter what, he will be out of office in 2027. Secondly, he does not have to worry about the long-term consequences for his party: “En Marche!” was founded by Macron himself in 2016 to run for the 2017 parliamentary election, the first ones he won. After he finishes his second term, the party as it is today would virtually cease to have the political relevance it has today. Of course, it is likely bound to keep existing at least for some time, but differently from other traditional parties, its relevance is based almost entirely on its leader, who will never be President again after 2027. That implies that the incentive to keep popular support in the polls for the party is lower than it would have been for a more traditional party or for an opposition party. Hence, even though the cost of this reform is high and even though the next four years of governing are bound to be difficult, Macron agreed to do it because he can afford to. The legitimacy of the method can be questioned and is bound to keep being questioned, but he reached an objective that former Presidents had been trying to reach for years now. And he did it because he could.