Thursday, 19 January 2023 was a historic day in France, with well over 1 million people turning out in the streets as part of a nationwide strike to protest proposed reforms to the country’s vaunted pension system. Sound familiar? It should, because a similar reform proposed by President Emmanuel Macron was blocked by popular protest just a few years ago.
Ethan Earle is a Paris-based political analyst and a long-time partner of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation.
The exact crowd numbers are disputed, as always, with the police estimating 1.12 million, while the Confédération générale du travail (CGT), France’s most important trade union federation, claims more than 2 million turned out across the country. That said, nobody disputes the impressive size of the strike actions, and less so their breadth, with smaller cities, towns, and villages across France recording levels of public turnout not seen in generations, if ever.
One undisputed number that helps to explain this mass mobilization: all of France’s eight union federations called for strikes and mobilizations as a collective force for the first time in a generation. Another such number, probably the most important, is that around 70 percent of French people consistently oppose Macron’s plan.
So, what exactly does this proposed pension reform entail, why is it so important to the Macron government, and how likely is it to succeed?
Whistle While You Work
The proposed reform would increase France’s retirement age for most people from 62 to 64 years of age. It would also move forward the implementation of a 43-year employment threshold that would effectively raise the retirement age beyond 64 for many people.
This proposal differs from Macron’s last attempt, which sought to reorganize what are in reality many different pension regimes — arranged according to categories of work — into a single streamlined system. What remains the same is the President’s dogged insistence that the country’s pension regime is too expensive and must be changed at all costs.
To be clear, France’s pension system is expensive — coming in at around 14 percent of national GDP — and there are projections indicating that it could lead to systemic strain in coming years. However, the 0.4 percent deficit projected by the government’s own advisory council is not in itself existential, and policy experts have floated a raft of alternative proposals to balance the budget without changing the age of eligibility.
Meanwhile, this system finances an average 74 percent of workers’ pre-retirement take-home pay. As a result, France boasts the second-lowest rate of elderly poverty in the OECD, behind only Denmark, and well ahead of Germany, Japan, and other large, wealthy countries.
While itself not perfect, the current regime provides elderly workers — particularly those in physically demanding jobs — a real basis of material support to lead meaningful lives after the end of their careers. As a system based on solidarity and universality of access, it provides a modicum of truly social security in the collective imaginary of the French people. This is what the French people so overwhelmingly support, in the polls and on the streets, and this is the system that Macron wants to change.
If the previous reform proposal left any doubt about the government’s reasons, the current plan does not. Where the last effort comprised a complex and technocratic neoliberal reform, the current reform is much simpler and much blunter: the poorest and most vulnerable workers — those whose jobs destroy their bodies, whose average life spans dip into the mid-60s in many professions — will spend more of their sentient lives at work, pain be damned.
Take time off to care for your baby or your dying sister? You’ll work longer, too. The implications for the deepening of inequalities not only between social classes, but also between ethnicities and genders, is obvious.
Rather than a technical fix designed to balance the budget, this can only be interpreted as an ideologically motivated political project to expand the power of big businesses and related capital interests over workers. More than three years into a global pandemic, France’s largest corporations are getting bailed out, while their lower-wage workers will not only be sold out but also taught a lesson about their station in life.
In the Assembly or on the Streets?
How likely is Macron to succeed? By conventional political logic, unfortunately, quite likely.
Fresh off a successful re-election campaign in which he promised to do just this, the timing is right, and it seems a stretch to think that he would take on 70 percent of the French people without the strength to force the reform through. While he holds only a razor-thin majority in the National Assembly, it also appears that he has the votes, presuming he can hold together his own party and count on the traditionally right-wing Republicans, who have dreamed of this reform for decades. Just in case he cannot, he and his Prime Minister, Elisabeth Borne, have been busy normalizing the use of France’s famous and controversial Constitutional Article 49.3, which allows Presidents to force through pieces of legislation without taking it to a vote.
Yet France has long been and remains a country where popular protest can dictate the limits of what is possible. Political strikes here are real and can work, building popular support while shutting down segments of the country, sewing chaos, slowing legislative efforts, and then entangling them in the fishnets of surrounding political conflicts. Moreover, despite his paper majority in the National Assembly, Macron faces institutional opponents with the capacity to entangle him.
Macron will either emerge triumphant in his risky bet, or be chastened by his own people and permanently diminished in his capacity to enact major legislation.
First and foremost are the trade unions, who, despite having among the lowest membership rates in the European Union, continue to wield an outsized influence in the country due to their structural inclusion France’s democratic institutions. While perhaps not equal, the unions in France have a say in legislative outcomes. Contrary to countries like Germany, where this voice is more often heard in consensus-oriented negotiations held behind closed doors, in France it is heard on the streets, with a megaphone and to the beat of a marching band.
A series of strike days have been called to follow 19 January, and they can be expected to continue until the matter is decided. Crucial to the success of this effort will be the CGT’s ability to hold together this bloc of eight trade federations against the government’s attempts to mollify and split off one or several of them, especially the large and relatively centrist Confédération française démocratique du travail (CFDT).
Then there are the political parties, historically strong in France but trapped in existential crisis since Macron’s ground-breaking (and partially party-breaking) victory in 2017.
While still fragile, the broader Left has managed to stitch together a political bloc in the National Assembly under the banner of the the New Ecological and Social People’s Union, or NUPES, led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France insoumise together with Socialists, Communists. and Greens. Taken as a whole, this alliance comprises the second-largest force in the Assembly and sits in unified opposition to the reform. They are joined in this position, somewhat uncomfortably, by their nearest competitor, Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National, or National Rally.
While not adding up to a majority, this motley opposition is large enough to create problems. Crucial in their efforts will be the public response to the strikes: do they continue to poll favourably, and does the unaffordability of Macron’s proposal remain consistent or even rise? Even an Assembly inclined to vote against popular will must, at a certain point, react to the wishes of its people.
However, to be clear, if this is decided in the Assembly — or in any stultified hall of power — it will most likely be to Macron’s liking. It is only through a hearing on the streets that the voice of opposition may claim victory.
Gambling with People’s Lives
The pension reform nonetheless amounts to a risky gamble for Macron, and a curious one at that. Already defeated on this issue once before, he comes back a second time, his hand weakened in the Assembly, his popularity diminished, his mandate questioned, and tries to ram home an even more brutal version against the national will. To what extent is he beholden to campaign and other promises made to the French elite? Or is he merely a true believer in the need to dismantle the French welfare state in the name of “progress”?
We do not live in politicians’ heads (for better and worse) and should not speculate about what resides in their deepest hearts, but must rather judge them on the concrete basis of their actions. As far as Macron is concerned, his actions are those of a man determined to make a battlefield of the French people’s later years and defeat them on that terrain.
The least one can say is that the political alignments, as well as the stakes, are clear. Macron will either emerge triumphant in his risky bet, perhaps even vaguely Napoleonic in his stature, or will be chastened by his own people and permanently diminished in his capacity to enact major legislation going forward.
Whichever of these scenarios comes to pass, the real winners or losers will be the working and middle-class people of France.