President Emmanuel Macron is facing a crucial test this week as the battle over his unpopular plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 is set to reach a peak in the streets and at parliament, deepening a widely shared feeling that he doesn’t hear the grievances of the French.
The 45-year-old pro-business centrist has put his legacy on the line with his pension reform plans, central to his vision for making the French economy more competitive. But he may have to force it through parliament, which would damage his democratic credentials and further enrage those who are opposing it.
France’s trade unions have called for an eighth round of nationwide protests on Wednesday. On the same day, the bill heads to a committee of seven senators and seven lower-house lawmakers as part of the complex legislative process. Open-ended strikes have been disrupting some refineries, train traffic across the country and garbage collection in Paris.
In a letter last week to unions, Macron reiterated his views, insisting on the need for raising the retirement age in order to make the French pension system financially sustainable in the coming years.
If the parliamentary committee reaches an accord on Wednesday, the text is expected to be submitted to a vote in both the Senate and the National Assembly the next day. However, the outcome in the lower house, where Macron’s centrist alliance lost its majority last year, is hard to predict.
If the government considers the risk too high that the bill would be rejected, it could use a special constitutional power that would force the pension reform through without a vote.
According to political analyst Brice Teinturier, deputy director-general of the Ipsos polling institute, such a move “would appear as brutal and would increase people’s sense that it is an unfair measure imposed from above.”
The government acknowledged a vote is the favored option, because it would provide more legitimacy to the pension plan.
Opinion polls show that a majority of people oppose the reform, and at the same time that they “have in mind the idea that … Macron will pass his law, whatever it costs,” Teinturier stressed. “Yet it doesn’t mean that they are resigned … The resentment and anger remain intact.”
The use of the constitutional power would trigger a no-confidence motion. In a scenario that appears unlikely at this stage, but has been raised by some government officials, it could ultimately lead Macron to dissolve the National Assembly and call new legislative elections.
Macron “considers — rightly or wrongly — that if he doesn’t do that reform, he won’t be able to do any reform anymore,” Teinturier said.
The French president has pushed his economic agenda through since he was first elected in 2017 on a promise to make the country’s economy more competitive, including by making people work longer. He made the pension reform a flagship of his second — and final — term after his reelection last year.
Changes he made in previous years include making it easier to hire and fire workers, cutting business taxes and making it more difficult for the unemployed to claim benefits.
The government plans to present a bill in the coming months aimed at bringing the unemployment rate down to around 5% — one of Macron’s commitments. France’s unemployment rate recently reached 7.2%, its lowest rate since 2008.
Macron and government officials are mindful of the yellow vest protests, when violent riots broke out at the end of 2018 and later turned into a broader denunciation of social injustice.
The situation appears different this year, with unions jointly organizing the protest movement in largely peaceful demonstrations.
Unions have vowed to further increase the pressure on the government. Yet they have stopped short, until now, to call for an open-ended general strike.
French economist Thomas Piketty strongly criticized the pension plan, saying it “simply aims to raise money, without any objective of universality or simplification.”
“The urgent need is for investment in education and health and the establishment of a fairer economic system, in France and in Europe, and even more so on an international scale. But the government continues to pursue an anti-social policy from another age,” he wrote in a column published Saturday in Le Monde newspaper.
All French retirees receive a state pension. The system is projected to go into deficit in the coming decade as France’s population ages.
Leftist lawmakers argue companies and the wealthy should pitch in more to finance the pension system.
The chief economist at Oxford Economics France, Daniela Ordonez, noted that other European countries are facing similar issues.
“Currently, the minimum age at which you could retire in Germany, Belgium, Spain and the United Kingdom is 65 and it is already in the law … that this age will increase over the years up to 67, for example, in Germany and in Spain,” she stressed.