French workers may have to retire at 64. Many are in turmoil

Paris (CNN) Unprovoked demonstrations broke out in Paris and several French cities on Thursday night after the government decided to push through reforms to the pension system that will raise the retirement age from 62 to 64.

While the proposed reforms to France’s cherished pension system were already controversial, it was the manner in which the bill was passed — bypassing a vote in the country’s lower house, where President Emmanuel Macron’s party lacks a decisive majority — that arguably sparked the most anger.

And that rage is widespread in France.

Figures from the IFOP survey show that 83 percent of young adults (18-24) and 78 percent of those over 35 thought the government’s way of passing the law was “unfair.” Even among pro-Macron voters — who voted for him in the first round of last year’s presidential election ahead of a runoff with a far-right opponent — a 58 percent majority disagreed with how the law was passed. thoughts on reforms.

Why is Macron so adamant about this issue, even though it is unpopular?

Macron made social reforms, especially the pension system, a flagship policy of his 2022 re-election and an issue he has championed for much of his time. However, Thursday’s move has so inflamed opposition across the political spectrum that some are questioning the wisdom of his reform-hungry stance.

In an interview with TF1 on Thursday evening, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne admitted that the government initially tried to avoid using Article 49.3 of the Constitution to push for reforms after the National Assembly. He said it was a “collective decision” to do so at a meeting with the president, ministers and allied lawmakers on Thursday.

For the Macron government, the simple answer to the government’s commitment to reform is money. The government says the current system, which relies on the working population to pay for a growing age group of pensioners, is no longer fit for purpose.

File photo of French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace in Paris on January 3.

Labor Minister Olivier Dussopt said without immediate action, the pension deficit would rise to more than $13 billion a year by 2027. Referring to opponents of the reforms, Dussopt told CNN’s BFMTV: “Do they imagine that if we stop the reforms, we will stop the deficit?”

When the proposal was unveiled in January, the government said the reforms would balance the deficit in 2030, when a multibillion-dollar surplus would be paid for by measures to allow those in physically demanding jobs to retire early.

Budget Minister Gabriel Attali’s 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 television on Friday.

Why is this such a big deal for the French, who still have generous pension plans compared to other Western countries?

“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 opposes, the project gradually goes through and basically public opinion has agreed to it,” he said, adding that the government’s failure was due to its inability to sell the project to the French.

They are not the first to fall at that hurdle. Pension reform has long been a difficult issue in France. In 1995, weeks of mass protests forced the current government to abandon plans to reform public sector pensions. In 2010, millions of people took to the streets to oppose raising the retirement age by two years to 62, and in 2014 there was widespread opposition to further reforms.

An anti-pension reform protester writes “64-no” on part of a roadblock to the oil terminals of the Total Energies refinery during a demonstration in Donges, western France on Friday.

For many French people, the pension system, like social assistance more generally, is seen as the basis of state responsibilities and citizen relations.

The post-World War II welfare system established rights to state-sponsored pensions and health care, which have been jealously guarded ever since in a country where the state has long played a proactive role in securing a certain standard of living.

According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, France has one of the lowest retirement ages among industrialized nations and spends more on pensions than most other countries and nearly 14 percent of economic output.

But as social discontent grows over the rising cost of living, protesters in several strikes have repeated a common mantra to CNN: They are taxed heavily and want to preserve the right to old age with dignity.

Will the controversy help Macron’s critics?

Macron is still at the start of his second term, having been re-elected in 2022, and has four more years to lead the country. Despite the public’s anger, his position is safe for now.

However, the use of Article 49.3 on Thursday only reinforces past criticism that he is out of touch with public sentiment and inconsistent with the will of the French public.

Politicians on the far left and far right of Macron’s center-right party were quick to jump on his government’s decision to circumvent the parliamentary vote.

– After the prime minister just gave the French people a reform they don’t want, I think Elisabeth Borne should go, far-right politician Marine Le Pen tweeted on Thursday.

Members of Parliament from the left-wing coalition NUPES (New People’s Ecological and Social Union) hold a sign as French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne addresses MPs to confirm the entry into force of the pension law without a parliamentary vote on Thursday.

French far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon was also quick to hit out at the government, saying the reforms had “no parliamentary legitimacy” and calling for nationwide spontaneous strikes.

Certainly, popular anger over the pension reforms will only complicate Macron’s intentions to introduce additional reforms in the education and health sectors – projects that were frozen due to the Covid-19 pandemic – political scientist Perrineau told CNN.

The current dispute may ultimately force Macron to negotiate more on future reforms, Perrineau warns — though he notes that the French president is not known for compromise.

Perrineau said his tendency to be “a little overbearing, a little impatient” can make political negotiations difficult.

He adds that it is “perhaps the limit of macronism”.

Additional reporting by Aurore Laborie and Oliver Briscoe.

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