France is getting ready for new protests against pension reform

Trade unions have set May 1 as the day for a new, large protest in France against the approved pension reform. The reform raises the retirement age gradually from 62 to 64 years.

Photo: Sipa

Up to 650 thousand people, including 80 to 100 thousand in Paris, are expected to demonstrate, according to the police. Unofficially, the police anticipate coming across between 1000 and 2000 “risky elements,” including up to 400 far-right extremists who are expected to set garbage cans on fire and launch fireworks.

As reported by BFMTV, a total of roughly 300 rallies against the retirement age rise are anticipated across the nation on May 1 celebrations, Workers Day, a bank holiday in France.

Trade unions say their opposition to the recently approved pension reform won’t end there.

Support for French President Emmanuel Macron has reached a five-year low amid discontent with the pension reform; according to some polls, two-thirds of French citizens think his reelection was a mistake.

French pension system issues

“This reform is needed. I don’t like it, I wouldn’t want to do it, but I have committed myself to it… I don’t need reelection. I’ll put up with being unpopular today if that’s what it takes. I chose the public good and the country’s interests over the short-term outcomes of public opinion polls, President Macron said after the pension reform was approved.

The last time the retirement age was raised in France was in 2010 (from 60 to 62 years old). This change was a significant factor in the decrease in Nicolas Sarkozy’s popularity, which prevented him from standing for a second term.

Retirement age in France is lower vs Spain, the UK, Germany, and Italy

The retirement age in France is still lower than in the neighbouring nations, even with this increase (to 64).

For comparison, retirement age is 65 in Spain, 66 in the UK, 67 in Germany, and 68 in Italy.

And until 2030, the process of raising the retirement age should be very gradual.

Not only that, but many professions have their retirement ages; for example, train workers’ retirement age is 50 years old, which adds to the pressure on the pension fund.

In addition, France has a pay-as-you-go pension system, which implies that current workers’ taxes are used to fund pensions. Only countries with consistent population growth, which permits a steady rise in the number of workers contributing to the pension system, may successfully implement this system.

A surge in the number of seniors in France

The situation is quite the reverse in France, where the number of seniors is increasing quickly, partly because of higher life expectancy.

When President Macron began his mandate, the country had 10 million pensioners; today, there are 17 million. This is how he justified the pension reform.

A rise in seniors does not decrease their benefits; instead, it increases the tax burden on working people. As a result, according to economists, the ordinary French pensioner has a higher standard of living than the average worker, ensuring their well-being.

And it’s expected that France will have over 20 million seniors by 2030, putting unsustainable pressure on the country’s economy.

Ways to ease pressure on the economy

According to Macron, there are only two choices for extending the retirement age: either lowering benefits or putting more fiscal pressure on governments to fill in the gaps in the pension system.

Of course, no French politician will advocate for a reduction in pension benefits; in fact, the pension reform calls for an increase, but the left-wing opposition frequently supports raising taxes on the wealthy to pay for pensions.

But according to Macron, this is not the solution because such actions “contradict the government’s policy of stimulating domestic demand.” As a result, there is no choice but to raise the retirement age.

The second attempt by Macron

When Emmanuel Macron was elected president in 2017, he came into office promising extensive reforms that would strengthen the French economy. Pension reform was undoubtedly one of the top issues.

Additionally, the reform’s original draft called for a much more significant rise in the retirement age, up to 67 years. The mandate from the French voters and, more crucially, his total control over the majority in the parliament, which made it possible to adopt all required reforms, gave the newly elected president the courage to do so.

But massive Yellow Vest protests and the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted Macron’s plans.

Prioritizing pension reforms, Macron promised to resume reforms before the 2022 presidential election. According to his logic, winning this election means that the French have again given him a mandate of trust for complex reforms.

The left-wing opposition rejects the latter thesis. Observers also remind that many of the people who supported Macron in the second round of voting for president last year supported Marine Le Pen and did not support the pension reform.

Macron’s party lost the majority in the parliament

The biggest issue, though, was that Macron’s party, now known as the “Renaissance”, lost its majority in the National Assembly.

As a result, the French president is less covered for his initiatives in his second cadence than in the first one.

It was expected that Mr Macron would be obliged to drop significant measures due to the lack of a parliamentary majority. However, by presenting a draft pension reform to parliament for a second time, Macron demonstrated that he was an upright politician who was not afraid to take a risk.

Pension reform approved by the French Senate

The second draft is far less drastic at first appearance because the retirement age was only going to be raised by two years, from 62 to 64, rather than by five. By adding three months to the retirement age each year through 2030, the retirement age will rise.

The reform also harmonizes the eligibility requirements for retirement, eliminating the majority of exclusions. Additionally, this provision was met with a great deal of opposition because every exception has the support of trade unions.

The left-wing opposition drafted tens of thousands of changes to the measure to prevent it from being considered because it was anticipated that the proposed reform would be vehemently opposed.

However, the Elizabeth Born government did not wait for the lower house to consider the bill before sending it to the Senate (the French parliament’s upper house).

On March 11, the Senate passed the pension reform bill with votes from senators who were in the opposition but supportive of the Republican economy, as seen by Macron.

The National Assembly (lower house of parliament) may pass the bill with the Republican votes alone.

However, there was a significant chance that not all Republican MPs would agree to support Macron’s legislation because one of their parliamentary groups openly opposed the reform despite instructions from the party leadership.

Macron passed pension reform under Article 49.3

With these considerations in mind, the French president chose to employ a contentious constitutional clause known as Article 49.3, which enables the executive to pass a measure without consulting the lower house while still bearing responsibility for it.

This implies that the National Assembly did not vote on the pension reform. However, lawmakers could still bring up the possibility of a vote of no confidence in the Born government.

Even though a vote of no confidence in the government was also anticipated to be a significant blow to Macron, the possibility of such an event than the defeat of the pension reform vote was predicted to be far lower.

No confidence vote vs Elizabeth Born’s government failed

The truth is that many of the pension reform’s critics honestly recognized its necessity and didn’t truly want it to fall straight, but only if someone else bore the blame for enacting the unpopular law.

Since the summer of 2022, radical right and left forces have been well-represented in the French parliament. Thus, populism has been thriving in the parliament.

And that’s what occurred. Two votes of no confidence in Elizabeth Born’s government were rejected.

Macron risked and triumphed in the legislative battle.

However, the controversial way the pension reform was approved (Article 49.3 is often called anti-democratic, although it is perfectly legal) angered many French people, giving a second wind to street protests and strikes.

In addition, the rating of the head of state collapsed: Macron’s popularity fell to its lowest level since the Yellow Vest protests and only 28% of French people are currently satisfied with his work.

Constitutional Court will review the pension reform

The draft law has yet to be reviewed by the Constitutional Court, which may reject the reform or its provisions entirely. So mass protests would make sense to put pressure on the country’s highest judicial body.

Instead, if the law as a whole is recognized as compliant with the country’s constitution, the reform will come into force by the end of the year.

French trade unions promise to continue protests. So, we can expect unrest, strikes, and transport collapses to accompany France throughout 2023.

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