OPINION: Macron’s pension reform is wildly unpopular and badly timed – but essential for France

One thing that everyone can agree on is that Emmanuel Macron's new pension reforms are likely to be highly unpopular and lead to strikes and demonstrations - so why is he doing it? John Lichfield looks at the president's thinking and why France, in fact, needs this reform.

OPINION: Macron's pension reform is wildly unpopular and badly timed - but essential for France
Demonstrations against pension reform in France. Photo by MEHDI FEDOUACH / AFP

The Belgians do it until they are 65. The Germans keep going until they are 65 and 7 months. The British manage it until they are 66. But the French – in theory – stop at 62 (and French train drivers give up much younger than that).

We are talking, of course, of work and the minimum legal age at which European countries can retire on a full state pension.  

President Emmanuel Macron is about to declare war on the French people. He thinks that they should work longer. An overwhelming majority of French people – at least 70 percent according to recent polls – believe that they should not.

President Macron decided on Wednesday night to push ahead rapidly with a new version of the pension reform which was abandoned (when close to enactment) in March 2020 because of the Covid pandemic.

Militant trades unions have – by coincidence – organised over 200 demonstrations across the country today to protest against several things, including Macron’s desire to delay the retirement age. That is just a taste of the mayhem to come.

Remember the long rail and power worker strikes of 2019? Or the protests of 1995 which almost brought France to its knees? They were both about pension reform.

You can hear John talking more about pension reform in the latest episode of Talking France – download it HERE, find it on Spotify, Apple or Google podcasts or listen on the link below.

After a meeting with senior ministers and leaders of his centrist alliance, Macron has, for now, put aside the idea of imposing pension reform by Christmas by parliamentary putsch. He will allow two months for discussions on detail – but no negotiation on fundamentals – with the unions.

 A draft law to increase gradually the minimum retirement age to 65, or maybe 64, will be presented in December and pushed through by February. The 2023 budget plan published this week assumes that the first stage in delayed retirement will take effect from July.

Macron no longer has a majority in the national assembly to be sure of enacting pension reform by normal vote. He let it be known today that the government will use, if necessary, its powers under Article 49.3 of the constitution. This allows the government to pass one piece of general legislation by decree in each annual session (and an unlimited amount of financial legislation).

READ ALSO What is Article 49.3? 

Opposition members could block a new pensions law by supporting a vote of no confidence (as is their constitutional right). In that case, Macron warned today, he will dissolve the assembly and force new parliamentary elections (as is his constitutional right).

In other words, Macron is ready to play hard ball.

But does it make sense to play hard ball in such hard times?

My favourite French left-wing politician, François Ruffin, the deputy for the Somme (who is sometime annoying but often practical and sensible) describes Macron’s approach as “an act of madness”.

Ruffin said: “After two years of the Covid crisis, with people exhausted, with Emmanuel Macron re-elected without any momentum or enthusiasm, when people don’t know whether they can pay their bills…in this time of exasperation and democracy fatigue, he is going to defy the vast majority of French people – 70 percent to 80 percent according to the polls – and impose pension reform by force.”

So why is Macron doing it? And why now? The first question is easier to answer than the second.

There are two strong arguments for pension reform in France.

As people live longer, a supposedly self-financing system will start to run into deficit next year. According to the official projections, short-falls as high as €10 billion by 2027 and €20 billion by 2032 will have to be paid out of  taxation or state borrowing.

In other words the pension system – in which pensions are supposedly paid from workers’ and bosses’ contributions – will start to limit other spending or swell the French deficit and debt.

Secondly, there is a strong, economic argument that France should work for longer. It is unsustainable for the French to retire three years (at least) earlier than their European partners and competitors.  

France is not a “lazy” country. Those French people who do work do so very productively.  But, taken as a whole, France works less hours than other nations – partly because of the 35 hour week, partly through unemployment but mostly because of the early minimum retirement age.

According to a OECD study, France worked 630 hours a year per inhabitant in 2018, including children and the retired. Germany worked 722 hours per inhabitant; the UK 808 hours, and the USA 826. 

Macron argues that France can only afford its generous social model and can only compete successfully with its European partners and global rivals if – as a nation – if it puts in more hours.

Both these arguments are admittedly open to challenge. The state pension fund deficit is not as big as was once feared. There is actually a surplus this year because so many old people died during the Covid pandemic. In the long run, however, the deficits will grow.

The economic argument can also be quibbled with. Many French people already work beyond 62; many other older people would like to work but can’t find jobs.

In the medium to long term, however, the arguments for pension reform are as powerful as Macron says. But that leaves the question: “why now?” 

Does not France, and the world, have problems enough this winter without Macron picking a huge new fight on the French retirement age?

The President argues that he was given a “mandate” for pension reform by his victory in the presidential election in April. That is dubious. It would be more accurate to say that he lost his parliamentary majority in June because voters detested the idea of working for longer and Macron failed to make the argument why they should.

Now, after a period of drift, the President has decreed that pensions will be the ground on which he fights for a domestic legacy.

Despite a first term disrupted by Covid, despite the loss of his parliamentary majority, Macron wants to be the first President for half a century to leave France stronger than he found it – whether France likes it or not.

Let battle commence.

Member comments

  1. You could also say, ‘If not now, when?’ The reforms were abandoned in 2020 because of the Covid crisis. Undoubtedly another crisis will come along that will serve as a reason for inaction. French people have got to face up to the unsustainability of the current system – as you say, whether they like it or not!

  2. People will adjust, if given sufficient notice. The shambles of the changes in the UK, meant that some women were within two years of retirement and suddenly, received a letter stating that the state pension would not be paid until they were 66 years old.

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OPINION: Macron knows the political dangers of dragging France into a greener future

The French President's new plan for a green-ish future reveals the ecological conundrum France faces and that Macron is rightly worried of the danger of pushing voters towards Marine le Pen, writes John Lichfield.

OPINION: Macron knows the political dangers of dragging France into a greener future

President Emmanuel Macron’s much delayed statement on Monday on planning for an ecologically-friendly 21st century was a curious mixture of courage and evasion.

In comparison with the UK government’s recent lurch towards climate scepticism-lite, Macron boldly confronted the threats, challenges and opportunities of the next decade.

READ MORE: Heat pumps and suburban trains: What’s Macron’s climate plan for France?

In comparison to a rupture with the past demanded by green activists – and some in his own government – Macron was cautious and vague.

There would, he said, be no refuge in the climate “denialism”, increasingly promoted by the Right and Far Right. Nor would there be the “cure” (shock-treatment) of reduced economic activity, as prescribed by the Greens.

Instead, Macron said, there would be a “French-style ecology”, which would increase “sovereignty”, “control” and “prosperity”.

France would produce a million electric cars in the next three years. State subsidies to allow poorer motorists to lease electric cars for €100 a month will be announced in November. The government would give €700 million towards the €10 billion cost of building or extending new, fast, commuter train networks in 13 French conurbations.

French carbon emissions would be reduced by five percent a year to reach the target of 270m tonnes by 2030 – half what the country produced in 1990.

To achieve this goal, Macron said, there would need to be a “policy of a general change in behaviour.”  

But he said there would be no question of abandoning or punishing modest households or farmers or people in rural areas dependent on cars or banning household gas boilers. He made no mention of higher taxes on flying or a 110 kph speed limit on motorways – measures to force “changes in behaviour” proposed by moderate climate activists and some voices within government.

This was finally a very political statement – and maybe rightly so. It was a recognition that there is growing risk that the case for radical climate action is being lost on the right and far right of European politics, in the UK, in the Netherlands, in Germany and potentially in France.

Marine Le Pen’s far right Rassemblement National sees in a cynical downplaying of climate change a big vote winner – bigger possibly than immigration – in rural and outer-suburban France. Mathilde Androuët, the Rassemblement National spokeswoman on ecology, says that Macron angers the struggling middle classes every time that he mentions the “green transition”.

“All of that stuff is seen as a fad of the elite by the people who will bear the burden of change,” she said. “Don’t forget that the Gilets Jaunes movement began with a tax on petrol and diesel prices.”

Macron has not forgotten the Gilets Jaunes. They were absent but ever-present in his speech on Monday.

The president faced a double or triple conundrum. Despite a burning hot summer (literally in some places), popular opinion is more concerned at present with inflation than with climate change – “the end of the week, rather than the end of the world”.

Macron needs to spend state money to soften the impact of inflation. He needs to spend more state money to “accompany” (as he puts it) carbon-reduction plans in household heating and transport.

He is also trying to reduce France’s budget deficit. The sums do not easily add up.

Macron chose to present the conundrum as a great opportunity – a chance for France to rebuild its industrial base by investing in electric cars and batteries and heat-pumps, to clean the air in cities and to boost the economy by reducing imports of fossil fuels.

“Our dependance on fossil energy costs us €120 billion a year—that’s the cost of our dependance”, he said. Reducing fossil fuel use to 40 percent by 2030 will create a “value-added ecology” and a country that is more “sovereign” and takes back “control”.

The repeated use of right-wing buzz-words was deliberate. It is a way of confronting the Right and Far Right with their own incoherence on climate policy.

But the speech was meant to jolt as well as reassure public opinion. That balance was lost. Cutting carbon emissions by 5 percent a year for seven years will be painful; Macron admitted as much and tried to conceal it at the same time.

The president has also been forced by bad memories of the Gilets Jaunes into incoherences of his own. He had announced the previous evening that a €100 a year state subsidy for poorer car users would be restored, weeks after his government said that such hand-outs must end.

Many of the president’s announcements on Monday were not new. The €100 a month lease for electric cars was in his campaign platform last year. The “new” urban train networks were announced in the spring and already exist in some cities.

The plan has now been extended to 13 conurbations – almost every large metropolitan area in France. But the government’s €700million is only a fraction of the €10billion needed.

Compared to the muddle on climate policy in some neighbouring countries (Germany as well as the UK), there was much to welcome in Macron’s speech. Offering a positive case for climate change action makes ecological as well as political sense.

Hard choices remain hard choices all the same. It remains to be seen whether in the remaining four years of the Macron era, the balance will be long-term ecological or short-term political.