French Protests Against Pension Reform

By Ana Perez, 10th Grade

President Emmanuel Macron recently announced his plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64, sidestepping a vote from Parliament, and triggering an explosive set of protests from labor unions. While the French government survived a no-confidence vote triggered by Macron’s decision to make the change in the Lower House of Parliament without going through a full vote, opponents of the decision are vowing to challenge it both legally and in the streets through protests. Some protests over the past two months have drawn over a million attendees and the backlash has become a major problem for Macron, with this event becoming the most intense political crisis he has faced since his re-election, to the point where the streets of Paris are piled up with heaps up trash due to a walkout by garbage collectors as a form of protest.

On one side, there is President Macron and his government, who have stated they need to change the French pension system in order to “stabilize its footing” as life expectancy increases and the workers to retirees ratio decreases. On the other side, there are the protesters – a united front of labor leaders and members of labor unions, who state President Macron is attacking their right to retire and pushing the burden onto blue-collar workers due to his refusal to increase taxes on the wealthy. Neither side of the crisis has shown any sign of backing down and the long-lasting garbage collector walkout is a sign of it.

But if this seems familiar, this is not the first time the French have protested due to pension reform. In 1995, pension reform failed due to the public’s opposition. However, public backlash did not prevent the French government from its pension reform in 2010. In fact, this is not Macron’s first rodeo, as this is the second time his attempts at pension reform have received fierce backlash. In 2019, Macron’s efforts to overhaul the French pension system resulted in a huge number of protesters taking to the streets in solidarity against the reforms, which led to one of the longest transportation walkouts in French history. But the key difference between both attempts is that his project in 2019 did not involve raising the retirement age – instead, his plan included an overhaul of the pension system by merging 42 pension programs into a “fairer”  system that used points that workers would accumulate and cash in upon retirement; this left many workers confused and worried that their pensions would decrease. Now, Macron decided on a more straightforward plan – raising the retirement age from 62 to 64. The French pension system has a “pay-as-you-go” structure through payroll taxes that are used as retirement funds. But the government believes that since life expectancy has increased, the system is not as effective as before. In 2000, 2.1 workers paid for every one retiree; in 2020, that fell to 1.7 workers. This has led to anxiety over potential “disastrous” deficits.

However, opponents of the reform believe that Macron is exaggerating the deficit and refused to consider other methods to balance the system such as increasing payroll taxes, increasing taxes for the wealthy, or eliminating corporate tax breaks. Even the official agency that monitors the French pension system has admitted that no immediate threat would warrant such a response from Macron. Opponents argue that if anything, raising the retirement age would disproportionately affect blue-collar workers who would have to work longer despite starting their careers earlier and having shorter life expectancies. It’s no wonder why the French would take the streets in order to fight Macron’s reforms. The head of the C.G.T Labor Union explained that “64 isn’t possible. Let them visit a textile factory floor, or a slaughterhouse, or the food-processing industry, and they will see what working conditions are like.” Garrigues, a French historian on political culture explains that “That’s why he has not only all the unions, but also a large part of public opinion against him. By tying himself to the project, opposition to it is heightened, dramatized in a way.” And now, the French general public considers Macron an “out-of-touch president of the rich.”

However, there is hope for some form of compromise, as the French Prime Minister has agreed to meet with labor leaders from eight different unions for “mediation” starting next week. 

While it seems no side is willing to back down, the French people do have a history of successful protests and revolts whenever they feel oppressed by their government. 

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