French workers may have to retire at 64. Many are outraged


impromptu protests broke out in Paris and several French cities on Thursday evening after the government passed measures to implement reforms to the pension system that would raise the retirement age from 62 to 64.

While the proposed reforms of France’s cherished pension system were already controversial, procedure for passing a bill – the vote-avoidance in the country’s lower house, where President Emmanuel Macron’s party is sorely lacking in an absolute majority, has arguably sparked the most anger.

And this rage is widespread in France.

IFOP poll data shows that 83% of young people (18-24 years old) and 78% of those over 35 years old considered the way the government passed the bill “unjustified”. Even among pro-Macron voters – those who voted for him in the first round of last year’s presidential election, before the second round with his far-right opponent – a majority of 58% disagree with how the law was passed, regardless of their thoughts on reform.

Macron has made social reforms, especially the pension system, the main policy of his re-election in 2022, a theme he has championed for most of his time in office. However, Thursday’s move has fueled opposition across the political spectrum to such an extent that some question the wisdom of his desire for reform.

Prime Minister Elizabeth Bourne admitted Thursday night in an interview with TF1 that the government initially sought to avoid using article 49.3 of the constitution to hinder reforms outside the National Assembly. The “collective decision” to do so was made at a meeting with the president, ministers and union lawmakers mid-Thursday, she said.

For the Macron cabinet, the simple answer to the government’s commitment to reform is money. The current system, based on the working population paying older retirees, no longer serves its purpose, the government says.

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

Labor Minister Olivier Dussaud said that without immediate action, the pension deficit will reach more than $13 billion a year by 2027. Referring to opponents of the reforms, Dussaud told CNN affiliate BFMTV, “They think that if we put the reforms on hold, we’ll put the deficit on hold?”

When the proposal was unveiled in January, the government said the reforms would balance the deficit in 2030 with a multibillion-dollar surplus to pay for measures to allow those who work physically hard to retire early.

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

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

“Every time there is opposition from public opinion, the project gradually passes and basically public opinion comes to terms with it,” he said, adding that the government’s failure was its inability to sell the project to the French people.

They are not the first to face this obstacle. Pension reform has long been a sensitive issue in France. In 1995, mass protests lasting several weeks forced the then government 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 massive protests.

Written by a participant in a demonstration against pension reform

For many in France, the pension system, as well as social support in general, is seen as the basis of the state’s responsibility and relations with its citizens.

The post-World War II social system cemented rights to state pensions and health care that have since been jealously guarded in a country where the state has long played an active role in providing a certain standard of living.

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

But as social dissatisfaction with the rise in the cost of living grows, protesters repeated a common mantra to CNN during several strikes: they pay high taxes and want to preserve the right to a decent old age.

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 popular anger, his position is secure for now.

However, Thursday’s use of Article 49.3 only reinforces past criticisms that he is out of touch with public opinion and ambivalent to the will of the French public.

Far-left and far-right politicians in Macron’s center-right party were quick to seize on his government’s attempt to evade parliamentary elections.

“After the slap that the prime minister just gave the French people by forcing a reform they don’t want, I think Elizabeth Bourne should go,” far-right politician Marine Le Pen tweeted on Thursday.

MPs from the left-wing NUPES (People's New Ecological and Social Union) coalition hold banners as French Prime Minister Elisabeth Born asks MPs to approve the entry into force of the pension law without a parliamentary vote on Thursday.

France’s far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon was also quick to strike at the government, calling the reforms “lacking parliamentary legitimacy” and calling for a nationwide spontaneous strike.

Surely popular anger over pension reforms will only complicate Macron’s intentions to push further reforms in education and healthcare – projects that have been put on hold by the Covid-19 pandemic, political scientist Perrineau told CNN.

Perrineau warns that the current divisions could eventually force Macron into more talks on future reforms, although he notes that the French president is unwilling to compromise.

According to Perrineau, his tendency to be “a little bossy, a little impatient” can complicate political negotiations.

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