Paris (CNN) Impromptu protests erupted in Paris and several French cities on Thursday night after a move by the government to push through reforms to the pension system that will push the retirement age up from 62 to 64.
While the proposed reforms to France’s taxed pension system were already controversial, it was the manner in which the bill was approved – bypassing 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 rage is widespread in France.
Figures from the IFOP pollster show that 83% of young adults (18-24) and 78% of those over 35 found the government’s way of passing the bill to be “unfounded”. Even among pro-Macron voters – those who voted for him in the first round of last year’s presidential election, before a reshuffle with his far-right opponent – a 58% majority disagreed with how the law was passed, regardless of their thoughts on the reforms.
Why is Macron so determined on this, even though it is unpopular?
Macron made social reforms, particularly of the pension system, a flagship policy for his 2022 re-election and an issue he has championed for much of his time in office. However, Thursday’s move has fueled opposition across the political spectrum, with some questioning the wisdom of his hunger for reform.
Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne admitted in an interview on Thursday evening with TF1 that the government initially aimed to avoid using section 49.3 of the constitution to put the reforms past the National Assembly. The “collective decision” to do so was made at a meeting of the president, ministers and allied lawmakers mid-Thursday, she said.
For Macron’s cabinet, the simple answer to the government’s commitment to reform is money. The current system – relying on the working population to pay for a growing age group of pensioners – is no longer fit for purpose, the government says.
Labor Minister Olivier Dussopt said that without immediate action, the pension deficit will reach more than $13 billion annually by 2027. Referring to opponents of the reforms, Dussopt told CNN affiliate BFMTV: “They imagine that if we pause the reforms, do we want to put the deficit on hold?”
When the proposal was unveiled in January, the government said the reforms would balance the deficit by 2030 with a surplus of several billion dollars to pay for measures to allow those in physically demanding jobs to retire early.
For Budget Minister Gabriel Attal, the math is clear. “If we don’t do (the reforms) today, we will have to do much more brutal measures in the future,” he said on Friday in an interview with France Inter broadcaster.
Why is it such a big deal for the French, who still have generous pensions compared to other Western countries?
“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 passes little by little and basically public opinion is resigned to it,” he said, adding that the government’s failure was its inability to sell the project to the French.
They are not the first to fall at that hurdle. Pension reform has long been a difficult issue in France. In 1995, weeks of 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 widespread protests.
For many in France, the pension system, as with social support more generally, is seen as the basis of the state’s responsibility and relationship with its citizens.
The post-World War II social system embedded rights to a state-funded pension and health care that have been zealously guarded ever 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 and spends more than most other countries on pensions at nearly 14% of economic output, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
But as social discontent mounts over the rising cost of living, protesters at several strikes have repeated a common mantra to CNN: They are taxed heavily and want to preserve the right to a dignified old age.
Will the dispute give leverage to Macron’s critics?
Macron is still early in his second term after being re-elected in 2022 and still has four years to serve as the country’s leader. Despite any popular anger, his position is secure for now.
However, Thursday’s use of Article 49.3 only reinforces earlier criticism that he is out of touch with popular sentiment and ambivalent about the will of the French public.
Far-left and far-right politicians in Macron’s centre-right party were quick to jump on his government’s move to avoid a parliamentary vote.
“After the slap the Prime Minister just gave the French people by forcing a reform they don’t want, I think 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.
Popular anger over pension reforms is sure to only complicate Macron’s intentions to introduce further reforms to the education and health sectors – 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, warns Perrineau — though he notes that the French president is not known for compromising.
His tendency to be “a little imperious, a little impatient” can make political negotiations more difficult, Perrineau said.
That, he adds, is “perhaps the limit of Macronism.”
With additional reporting by Aurore Laborie and Oliver Briscoe.