There are widespread protests in France. This is hardly an unusual sight, with news reports of the gilets jaunes and the recent Black Lives Matter movement filling our airwaves in recent years. But these protests carry a sense of urgency with them, for although the anger about a rise in the pension age may sound on paper unexpected, it has led to a real sense of crisis. The rise, from 62 to 64, is threatening to bring about the collapse of the government and, potentially, lead to the downfall of President Emmanuel Macron. Why have these reforms fermented so much disquiet, and what is likely to happen next?
Pension reform has been on the agenda for a long time, both in France and around the world – people are living longer, and so the cost of providing pensions and other such care for older people is consequently increasing too. France has both one of the lowest retirement ages for an industrialised country (62) and spends more than most countries on pensions (almost 14% of economic output). However, as a result of older people living longer and fewer workers paying into the system (from 2.1 workers per pensioner in 2000 to 1.7 in 2020), the pension budget has swollen – and, in Macron’s eyes, has become unsustainable. Government figures projected deficits of billions of euros unless action was taken.
As a result of older people living longer and fewer workers paying into the system, the pension budget has swollen – and, in Macron’s eyes, has become unsustainable.
Reforming pensions was a major part of Macron’s platform for election in 2017, although he had to delay work because of strikes and then the Covid pandemic. He also lost his parliamentary majority in subsequent polls, in part because of opposition to the proposal. The idea was a simple one: “[In order to] keep the system financially viable without funnelling more taxpayer money into it, Macron sought to gradually raise the legal age when workers can start collecting a pension by three months every year until it reaches 64 in 2030.” Additionally, he has “accelerated a previous change that increased the number of years that workers must pay into the system to get a full pension and abolished special pension rules that benefitted workers in sectors like energy and transportation”, up from 42 to 43.
Macron and Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne revealed the details of the proposed reforms late last year, with the confirmation that the policy would be presented to the cabinet and debated early in 2023. Although both leaders of En Marche said that they would be willing to meet with unions and other relevant bodies and make potential amendments to the package, they stressed it was necessary to pass some form of deficit-reduction measure (although economists have been very divided on whether such a package is definitely required). In response, many unions called for strikes, in what was termed a “rare show of unity”, and protests followed. Elsewhere, poll after poll consistently showed that the proposed reforms were very unpopular, with around two-thirds of the public against the plan. Pensions are seen as the cornerstone of France’s social protection, a contract between the generations, and the perception is that Macron is going to damage this.
Pensions are seen as the cornerstone of France’s social protection, a contract between the generations, and the perception is that Macron is going to damage this.
After two months of debate and protest, it was soon time for the vote on whether these reforms would pass. On Thursday 16 March, Macron was still meeting with political figures, hoping that he would find the votes to actually pass the package, but it looked unlikely. According to some reports, these discussions were going on minutes before the vote was due to take place. Macron was on track to lose, and so he opted to employ Article 49.3 of the French Constitution – this allows governments to bypass the National Assembly, forcing through the bill without the need for a vote. The pension package remained on the table, but the temperature continued to rise.
Two days prior, it was reported that “ministers have said the government would not use the 49.3, widely condemned as undemocratic and which risks inflaming a volatile public mood”. It was also warned that “union leaders have said using the 49.3 would lead to a hardening of opposition and would escalate strikes”. Both of these predictions turned out to be right on the money – the response to Macron opting to ignore the legislature was swift and furious. Eight in ten people opposed legislating in such a manner, and both the president’s approval ratings and support for government and democratic institutions tanked as a result.
Invoking Article 49.3 triggers a proviso that allows for no-confidence motions to be filed in the government. On Friday 17 March, two were filed, to be held on March 20 March. The first no-confidence motion, put forward by Charles de Courson, France’s longest-serving MP and a member of the small opposition centrist grouping Liot, was narrowly defeated – it fell short of the required absolute majority by only nine votes. A total of 278 MPs voted in favour. The motion won the support of politicians from the left-wing group Nupes, Marine Le Pen’s far right party, independents and some MPs from the right-wing Les Républicains (LR). The second motion, tabled by Rassemblement National, failed to attract as much support.
Both the president’s approval ratings and support for government and democratic institutions tanked as a result
There were angry protests at the weekend after the news, with demonstrators clashing with police and blocking streets with debris fires in central Paris and in cities around the country. They threw firecrackers at the police, and were dispersed with tear gas. One protestor said that ruling by decree was “a denial of democracy… a total denial of what has been happening in the streets for several weeks”. Police eventually banned gatherings on the Place de la Concorde in order to try and contain the protests. Strikes continued, with piles of rubbish strewn across the streets of Paris, and there were talks that fuel production at a Normandy refinery would be stopped in the coming days. More protests ensued after the government won the no-confidence votes, and at least 101 people were arrested in Paris after stand-offs with the police.
The political consequences were also swift. Although Borne avoided having to resign immediately, there is speculation that Macron will use her as a fall guy, replacing her in a reshuffle in the coming weeks in a bid to reset his image. She was booed and jeered before the no-confidence votes, suggesting she has completely lost her authority in the Assembly. It has also hardened all of the Assembly against the president, with figures across the political spectrum accusing Macron of perverting democracy and failing to learn from the gilet jaunes protests. Olivier Marleix of LR said that Macron was leading France in an “isolated, narcissistic way, impervious to French people’s lives” – this is important, as Macron will likely need LR support to pass future legislation.
Macron is likely to knuckle down on the reform, which he sees as both necessary for the long-term and important to his own political legacy. According to David S. Bell, emeritus professor of French government and politics at the University of Leeds: “This is Macron’s flagship policy. He wants to push it through before he steps down at the end of this term. But the problem isn’t an immediate crisis – it’s a future burden based on economic projections. It’s the opposite to the way politics works, which is to focus on the immediate, headline-grabbing issues. His argument is that unless these reforms are made, and the French working life is made longer, the country won’t be able to afford it.”
One protestor said that ruling by decree was “a denial of democracy… a total denial of what has been happening in the streets for several weeks”.
As things stand, Macron is likely to get his way and see these proposals become law on 1 September, pending analysis from France’s constitutional court – he said in a defiant interview that he had no intention to back down, describing it as “necessary for the country”. But he has faced further criticism for failing to seek calm, with many union leaders and political figures accusing him of ignoring the public mood and showing “contempt” for the people on the streets. Whether or not these moves are required, Macron emerges from this story with his credibility seriously dented, and the likelihood of pursuing more of his reformist agenda practically nil. He may be the French president who finally got pension reform through, but as people take to the streets against him and his authority is seriously weakened, it may be a Pyrrhic victory for Macron.