French Macron under pressure as backlash from pension reform peaks

President Emmanuel Macron faces a crucial test this week as the battle over his unpopular plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 is set to peak on the streets and in parliament, deepening a widely shared sentiment that hears no grudges of the French.

The 45-year-old pro-business centrist has put his legacy on the line with his pension reform plans, central to his vision of making the French economy more competitive. But he may have to force it through parliament, which would damage his democratic credentials and further infuriate those who oppose him.

French unions on Wednesday called for an eighth round of nationwide protests. That same day, the bill goes to a committee of seven senators and seven lower house lawmakers as part of the complex legislative process. Indefinite strikes disrupted some refineries, rail traffic across the country, and garbage collection in Paris.


In a letter to unions last week, Macron reiterated his views, insisting on the need to raise the retirement age to make the French pension system financially viable in the coming years.

If the parliamentary committee reaches an agreement on Wednesday, the text is expected to be put to a vote in both the Senate and the National Assembly the following day. However, the outcome in the lower house, where Macron’s centrist alliance lost its majority last year, is hard to predict.

If the government considers the risk of the bill being rejected too high, it could use a special constitutional power that would force pension reform without a vote.

According to political analyst Brice Teinturier, deputy director general of polling firm Ipsos, such a move “would appear brutal and would increase the feeling that this is an unjust measure imposed from above”.

The government has recognized that voting is the preferred option, as it would give the pension plan more legitimacy.

Opinion polls show that the majority of people oppose the reform, and at the same time that “they have in mind the idea that… Macron will pass his law, whatever the cost,” Teinturier stressed. “And yet that doesn’t mean they’re resigned… The resentment and anger remain intact.”

The use of the constitutional power would trigger a motion of no confidence. In a scenario that appears unlikely at this stage but has been raised by some government officials, it could ultimately lead to Macron dissolving the National Assembly and calling new legislative elections.

Macron “believes – rightly or wrongly – that if he doesn’t make that reform, he will no longer be able to make any reform,” Teinturier said.

French President Emmanuel Macron has faced significant political backlash over a plan to raise his country's retirement age from 62 to 64.

French President Emmanuel Macron has faced significant political backlash over a plan to raise his country’s retirement age from 62 to 64. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, Pool, File)

The French president has pushed his economic agenda forward since he was first elected in 2017 with promises to make the country’s economy more competitive, including by making people work longer. He made pension reform the flagship of his second and last term after his re-election last year.

Changes he’s made in previous years include making it easier to hire and fire workers, cut corporate taxes, and make it harder for the unemployed to claim benefits.

The government plans to present a bill in the coming months aimed at reducing the unemployment rate to around 5%, one of Macron’s pledges. The French unemployment rate recently reached 7.2%, the lowest rate since 2008.

Macron and government officials are aware of the yellow vest protests, when violent riots erupted in late 2018 which then turned into a broader denunciation of social injustice.

The situation looks different this year, with unions jointly organizing the protest movement in largely peaceful demonstrations.

Unions have promised to further increase pressure on the government. Yet they have stopped, until now, to call an indefinite general strike.

French economist Thomas Piketty has strongly criticized the pension plan, saying it “aims simply to raise money, with no goal of universality or simplification”.


“The urgency is to invest in education and health care and in the creation of a more equitable economic system, in France and in Europe, and even more on an international scale. But the government continues to pursue an anti-social policy from another era ,” he wrote in a column published in Le Monde newspaper on Saturday.

All French pensioners receive a state pension. The system is expected to run into deficit over the next decade as France’s population ages.

Left-wing lawmakers argue that businesses and the wealthy should do more to fund the pension system.

Oxford Economics France chief economist Daniela Ordonez noted that other European countries are facing similar problems.


“Currently, the minimum age at which you could retire in Germany, Belgium, Spain and the UK is 65 and it is already in the law…that this age will increase over the years to, for example, 67 in Germany and in Spain,” he stressed.


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