By Joseph Ataman, CNN
Impromptu protests broke out in Paris and across several French cities Thursday evening following a move by the government to force through reforms of the pension system that will push up the retirement age from 62 to 64.
While the proposed reforms of France’s cherished pensions system were already controversial, it was the manner in which the bill was approved — sidestepping a vote in the country’s lower house, where President Emmanuel Macron’s party crucially lacks an outright majority — that arguably sparked the most anger.
And that fury is widespread in France.
Figures from pollster IFOP show that 83% of young adults (18-24) and 78% of those aged over 35 found the government’s manner of passing the bill “unjustified.” Even among pro-Macron voters — those who voted for him in the first round of last year’s presidential election, before a runoff with his far-right adversary — a majority of 58% disagreed with how the law was passed, regardless of their thoughts about the reforms.
Why is Macron so determined on this even though it’s unpopular?
Macron made social reforms, especially of the pensions system, a flagship policy of his 2022 re-election and it’s a subject he has championed for much of his time in office. However, Thursday’s move has so inflamed opposition across the political spectrum, that some are questioning the wisdom of his hunger for reforms.
Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne conceded in an interview Thursday night with TF1 that the government initially aimed to avoid using Article 49.3 of the constitution to crowbar the reforms past the National Assembly. The “collective decision” to do so was taken at a meeting with the president, ministers and allied lawmakers mid-Thursday, she said.
For Macron’s cabinet, the simple answer to the government’s commitment to reforms is money. The current system — relying on the working population to pay for a growing age group of retirees — is no longer fit for purpose, the government says.
Labor minister Olivier Dussopt said that without immediate action the pensions deficit will reach more than $13 billion annually by 2027. Referencing opponents of the reforms, Dussopt told CNN affiliate BFMTV: “Do they imagine that if we pause the reforms, we will pause the deficit?”
When the proposal was unveiled in January, the government said the reforms would balance the deficit in 2030, with a multi-billion dollar surplus to pay for measures allowing those in physically demanding jobs to retire early.
For Budget Minister Gabriel Attal, the calculus is clear. “If we don’t do [the reforms] today, we will have to do much more brutal measures in the future,” he said Friday in an interview with broadcaster France Inter.
Why is this such a big deal for the French, who still have generous pension arrangements compared to other Western countries?
“No pensions reform has made the French happy,” Pascal Perrineau, political scientist at Sciences Po university, told CNN on Friday.
“Each time there is opposition from public opinion, then little by little the project passes and basically, public opinion is resigned to it,” he said, adding that the government’s failure was in its inability to sell the project to French people.
They’re not the first to fall at that hurdle. Pensions reform has long been a thorny issue in France. In 1995, weeks-long mass protests forced the government of the day to abandon plans to reform public sector pensions. In 2010, millions took to the streets to oppose raising the retirement age by two years to 62 and in 2014 further reforms were met with wide protests.
For many in France, the pensions system, as with social support more generally, is viewed as the bedrock of the state’s responsibilities and relationship with its citizens.
The post-World War II social system enshrined rights to a state-funded pension and healthcare, which have been jealously guarded since, in a country where the state has long played a proactive role in ensuring a certain standard of living.
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 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.
But as social discontent mounts over the surging cost of living, protesters at several strikes have repeated a common mantra to CNN: They are taxed heavily and want to preserve a right to a dignified old age.
Will the controversy give leverage to Macron’s critics?
Macron is still early in his second term, having been re-elected in 2022, and still has four years to serve as the country’s leader. Despite any popular anger, his position is safe for now.
However, Thursday’s use of Article 49.3 only reinforces past criticisms that he is out of touch with popular feeling and ambivalent to the will of the French public.
Politicians to the far left and far right of Macron’s center-right party were quick to jump on his government’s move to skirt a parliamentary vote.
“After the slap that the Prime Minister just gave the French people, by imposing a reform which they do not want, I think that Elisabeth Borne should go,” tweeted far-right politician Marine Le Pen on Thursday.
The leader of France’s far-left, Jean-Luc Melenchon was also quick to hammer the government, blasting the reforms as having “no parliamentary legitimacy” and calling for nationwide spontaneous strike action.
For sure, popular anger over pension reforms will only complicate Macron’s intentions to introduce further reforms of the education and health sector — projects that were 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 — though he notes the French President is not known for compromise.
His tendency to be “a little imperious, a little impatient” can make political negotiations harder, Perrineau said.
That, he adds, is “perhaps the limit of Macronism.”
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With additional reporting by Aurore Laborie and Oliver Briscoe.