The huge demonstrations against the pension ‘reform’ stem from accumulating resentment under Emmanuel Macron.
On January 10th, the French prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, presented a draft pension reform, its main feature an increase in the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64. The project has evoked a major mobilisation, based in particular on broad trade union unity—rare in France with its very fragmented union landscape.
The leading confederation, the CFDT, has often distinguished itself on this kind of reform by its willingness to compromise. This is not the case—at all—this time.
We have witnessed the biggest demonstrations in France for three decades, even bigger than those of November-December 1995. Particularly striking have been those in small towns: a bit like the gilets jaunes in 2018-19, this is a revolt of la France profonde, even if the modalities are very different.
The polls are clear: 72 per cent are opposed to the reform, almost 80 per cent of the under-65s. This is the case for 78 per cent of the working population, with managers only slightly less opposed. The only people who are, slightly, in favour are … pensioners.
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Why is this so? There are three main reasons.
First, for 40 years, successive governments have been asking the French people to accept ‘reforms’ reducing social rights. These have degraded public services in health, education, transport and so on, while eroding purchasing power and worsening working conditions. They have not, as promised, ended deindustrialisation, arrested the deterioration of France’s external accounts or elevated its poor innovation. And the French are fed up.
Precisely at this moment, due to the faulty institutional system of the fifth republic, they find themselves ruled by the most neoliberal government of those four decades. The re-elected president, Emmanuel Macron, is convinced that, if all these social retreats have not strengthened the ‘competitiveness’ of the French economy, it is not because the policies were wrong—rather, France has not gone far enough, fast enough in this direction.
Since 2017, Macron has been true to his word: dismantling labour law and weakening the unions, reducing housing benefits for the poorest, limiting the rights of the unemployed and now ‘reforming’ pensions to save money. At the same time, he has reduced the taxes of the richest and is multiplying cuts in corporate tax and social-security contributions. It’s a recipe for revolutions …
The fifth republic’s electoral system allows Macron, having received the first-round support of only a fifth of potential voters in the 2022 presidential election, to enjoy all power for five years. Weakened by his first term, he did however not succeed this time in bringing in behind him an absolute parliamentary majority. But he intends to consolidate his majority by treating on the pension reform with Les Républicains, the party of the traditional right, which strongly advocates such cuts in social expenditure.
In doing so, Macron is exacerbating tension and fuelling the radicalisation in French society. Before the pandemic, the gilets jaunes had already become the longest-lasting and most violent social movement in France since World War II.
One would have thought this would have served as a lesson. Yet, barely out of Covid-19 and amid the war in Ukraine, Macron has decided on a reform of unemployment insurance and this pension reform, to reduce social spending and employees’ rights once again. Hence the massive rejection—even if, channelled by the unions, this takes a very different form from the gilets jaunes.
The second factor is that this reform is particularly unfair. The French pensions system is built around two main parameters: the minimum retirement age (currently 62) and the minimum duration of contributions required to obtain a full pension—42 years, with a planned increase to 43 years in 2035. (As well as raising the minimum retirement age to 64, under the proposal this threshold would be brought forward to 2027.)
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The project is particularly unfair since it would penalise those who started working, and paying contributions, early. These are often the people with the lowest salaries, the toughest working conditions and the shortest life expectancy, while those who have studied at university, and had already had to leave after the age of 64, will be little affected. The government has been obliged to propose some modifications to limit the injustice but they are not easily accessible and many problems remain.
This is what scandalises the public. All the more so since Macron had explained at length during his first term that he would not take such a measure, because it was too unfair. We have had pension reforms over and over again: in 1993, in 2003, in 2010 … Each time the government swears that this is the last one and the system will be safe for decades. And each time it comes back a few years later to harden the system again.
True, the share of gross domestic product devoted to pensions in France, at 15.9 per cent (including disability), is among the highest in Europe, although behind Greece and Italy. But this reflects the past.
For the future, because of reforms already introduced, France is on the contrary one of the only countries in the European Union where, in spite of the ageing population, the share of pensions in GDP should decrease, according to the European Commission. By 2070, France would no longer rank third in this regard but ninth, close to the EU average.
Given the increase in the proportion of pensioners among the population, this implies a sharp deterioration for future pensioners. The public have understood this perfectly well. This is why they do not accept that the government wants to go even further, to cut another 0.7 percentage points of GDP from pensions expenditure.
Moreover, while the minimum legal retirement age is at the bottom of the EU spectrum, what mainly determines the effective retirement age in France is the duration of contributions. This effective pension age is already increasing rapidly and will continue to do so with the arrival in retirement of the first generations with mass access to higher education. Even without reform, it will reach 64 in the coming years.
For all these reasons, the public do not see the urgency of such a reform. If there is a limited problem of balancing the pensions budget over the next few years, we could increase slightly the contributions of employers and employees.
Poor working conditions
Finally, a third dimension explains the strong resistance of the French to working longer when they become older—their poor working conditions. Although France has very comprehensive labour legislation and numerous collective agreements, it is characterised by a very low rate of unionisation, very limited powers for employee representatives, who are absent in almost all small companies, and a skeletal labour inspectorate. All this is accompanied by an authoritarian and hierarchical, feudal-type management style.
This translates into much worse working conditions—physical environment, stress and work rhythm, psychological pressure—than in the Germanic and Nordic countries, as can easily be observed in Eurofound surveys. In extremis, with 3.4 deaths per 100,000 employees, France was in 2019, according to Eurostat, the country in the EU (plus Norway and Switzerland) where one most risked loss of life at work, ahead of Bulgaria.
Macron’s government did not even try to improve the situation. On the contrary, in 2017 it abolished the health-and-safety committees that existed in companies with more than 50 employees. It is hardly surprising that the French desire to stop having to work in such conditions as early as possible.
Widening the gap
With the demonstrations due to reach their apogee on March 7th, a prolonged and generalised strike does not seem the most likely scenario. The economic situation is not good and the associated losses of purchasing power have already been significant, so workers will probably hesitate to launch themselves into such an adventure. Students, who often act as a catalyst for large-scale social movements in France, do not seem very mobilised on this subject, far from their young minds.
Could the government back down on 64 years, to renew ties with the CFDT in particular? This would be reasonable but it is unlikely. Macron has made this ‘reform’ a symbol of his ability to change the country. The measure is also key to his alliance with the traditional right. And, he has the institutional means to impose this law on parliament.
It therefore seems likely that the reform will go through. But it will have widened the gap between the people and the elites and increased again the potential for popular resentment against the system. Unfortunately, that benefits above all the far right, which has become politically dominant in the working classes.