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

Paris (CNN) Impromptu protests erupted in Paris and several French cities on Thursday night following a government decision to impose pension system reforms that will raise the retirement age from 62 to 64.

While proposed reforms to France’s cherished pension system were already controversial, that’s how the bill was passed – avoiding a vote in the country’s lower house, where President Emmanuel Macron’s party is missing out. cruelly absolute majority – which undoubtedly triggered the most anger.

And this fury is generalized in France.

Figures from the IFOP polling institute show that 83% of young adults (18-24) and 78% of those over 35 found the government’s way of adopting the bill “unjustified”. Even among pro-Macron voters – those who voted for him in the first round of last year’s presidential election, ahead of a runoff with his far-right opponent – a majority of 58% disagree. agreement with the way the law was passed, regardless of their opinion. thoughts on reform.

Why is Macron so determined on this even though it is unpopular?

Macron has made social reforms, particularly of the pension system, a key policy of his 2022 re-election and it is a subject he has championed for much of his term. However, Thursday’s decision has so inflamed opposition across the political spectrum that some are questioning the wisdom of his thirst for reform.

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne conceded Thursday evening in an interview with TF1 that the government initially aimed to avoid using Article 49.3 of the constitution to ban reforms before the National Assembly. The “collective decision” to do so was made in a meeting with the president, ministers and Allied lawmakers mid-Thursday, she said.

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

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

Labor Minister Olivier Dussopt has said that without immediate action, the pension deficit will reach more than $13 billion a year by 2027.

When the proposal was unveiled in January, the government said the reforms would balance the deficit in 2030, with a billion-dollar surplus to pay for measures allowing people in physically demanding jobs to retire early.

For Budget Minister Gabriel Attal, the calculation is clear. “If we don’t [the reforms] today we will have to take much more brutal measures in the future,” he said in an interview with France Inter on Friday.

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

“No pension reform has made the French happy,” Pascal Perrineau, political scientist at Sciences Po, told CNN on Friday.

“Each time there is opposition from public opinion, then little by little the project passes and basically public opinion resigns itself to it,” he said, adding that the failure of the government was unable to sell the project to the French.

They are not the first to come across this obstacle. Pension reform has long been a thorny subject in France. In 1995, mass protests that lasted for weeks forced the incumbent government to abandon plans to reform public sector pensions. In 2010 millions took to the streets to oppose raising the retirement age from two years to 62 and in 2014 further reforms sparked widespread protests.

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

For many in France, the pension system, like social assistance more generally, is seen as the foundation of the state’s responsibilities and the relationship with its citizens.

The post-war welfare system enshrined rights to state-funded pensions and health care, jealously guarded ever since, in a country where the state has long played a proactive role in ensuring a certain level of life.

France has one of the lowest retirement ages in the industrialized world, spending more than most other countries on pensions at nearly 14% of economic output, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

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

Will the controversy give leverage to Macron’s detractors?

Macron is still at the start of his second term, having been re-elected in 2022, and still has four years to lead the country. Despite any popular anger, his position is secure for now.

However, Thursday’s use of Article 49.3 only reinforces past criticism that it is out of touch with popular and ambivalent sentiment about the will of the French public.

Far-left and far-right politicians from Macron’s center-right party were quick to pounce on his government’s decision to circumvent a parliamentary vote.

“After the slap that the Prime Minister has just given the French, by imposing a reform which they do not want, I think that Elisabeth Borne should leave,” 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 placards as French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne addresses MPs to confirm the entry into force of the law on pensions without a vote of Parliament on Thursday.

The leader of France’s far left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, was quick to hammer the government, calling the reforms “without parliamentary legitimacy” and calling for a nationwide spontaneous strike.

Certainly popular anger over pension reforms will only complicate Macron’s intentions to introduce further education and health sector reforms – plans that have been frozen by the Covid-19 pandemic. – political scientist Perrineau told CNN.

The current controversy could ultimately force Macron to negotiate more on future reforms, Perrineau warns – although he notes the French president is not known for compromise.

His tendency to be “a little imperious, a little impatient” can make political negotiations more difficult, Perrineau said.

This is, he adds, “perhaps the limit of macronism”.

With additional reporting by Aurore Laborie and Oliver Briscoe.

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