France has been embroiled in a series of protests over the pension reforms introduced by the government. French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne announced these reforms on 10th January and constitute provisions regarding loss of privileges for some workers and making 43 years of work experience necessary for being eligible for full pension. However, its main contentious point is the increase in the retirement age from 62 years to 64. Overall, there is general discontent and opposition among the public against this agenda of pension reforms being pushed by Emmanuel Macron. It is being manifested in the rare united front by the trade unions against the government leading to massive mass mobilisation, shifting of organised strikes into spontaneous protests with violent clashes between police and protestors, and the negative approval ratings against the pension reforms in general and Macron in particular.
Despite the chaos in the streets, President Macron’s government decided not to waver in the face of public disapproval. The pension bill was due to be voted on in the Assemblée nationale after being passed by the Senate. In order to ensure the passage of the bill, President Macron utilised his special constitutional powers under Article 49-3. The decision was made due to concerns that the bill may not have been able to secure a majority vote in the National Assembly. This article empowers the government to pass the bill without parliamentary vote but also makes it subject to a no confidence motion. The government survived two no-confidence motions, but the forced passage upped the ante between the government and the anti-bill parties.
Although Macron tried to introduce pension reforms during his first term in 2019, they were deposed due to the advent of COVID-19. Later, he made them a cornerstone of his re-election bid. After re-election, he went ahead with this controversial legislation even at the cost of his political capital. Emmanuel Macron has cited the non-viability of the current pension system as the reason for the proposed reform. Currently, there are 42 separate schemes for various public-sector workers, some of which allow for early retirement. With increasing life expectancy and an ageing population, Macron argues that it is crucial to prevent the pension system from falling into deficit.
According to France’s Pension Advisory council, the existing pension system is projected to have an annual deficit of 10 billion Euros each year from 2022 to 2032. To avoid a deficit, the government wants workers to put more money into the system by working more. Hence, the age threshold for retirement has been increased. The French Labour Ministry stated that implementing these reforms would add17.7 billion Euros to the pension contribution system. Still, the unions maintain that taxes should be levied on the superrich to ensure the pension system’s sustainability.
The combative relationship between pension reforms and the French public is not new. In the past 30 years, every government’s move to increase the pension age has been met with public resistance. According to Sophie Pedder, the public opposition against Macron’s reforms stems from the fact that French culture considers the pension age and a dignified retirement plan as part of what makes ‘French society French’. The cultural association of pension rights with the right of social protection has been the galvanizing force behind the current resistance of the French public toward the changes in already existing pension-related legislation. The fear of losing this social safety net is keeping protestors constantly on the roads.
One of the biggest domestic challenges facing Macron during his second term as President is the brewing public displeasure over the proposed pension reforms, which has dominated the national political landscape in France. While increasing the retirement age may have potential benefits for the economy in the coming years, as noted by the recent report from the Fitch rating agency, the use of extreme measures to pass the reform through parliament by sidestepping the vote has angered the public. As a result, activists and unions announced a nationwide strike in April and are continuing their protests.
All in all, it is yet to be seen whether the persistent protests will transform into a national movement or they will die down in the coming days. Despite the government’s efforts, it is likely that the underlying disgruntlement against President Macron will persist among the public, particularly in light of his failure to convince them of the necessity of the proposed pension reforms. This poses a significant challenge to his governance for the remainder of his term.
Ajwa Hijazi is a Research Assistant at the Centre for Aerospace & Security Studies (CASS), Islamabad, Pakistan. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.