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‘Workers striking against French pension reform are avoiding reality’

Commentator Simon Heffer tells us why Macron does have a mandate to raise pension age and must do so despite the unions

January 19 protest in Paris was estimated to include tens of thousands Pic: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock

Life is full of ironies. Just before French workers went on strike to complain about what they consider the outrageous plan of President Macron and his prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64, the oldest woman in the world, a French nun, died in Toulon in her 119th year.

Of course, hardly anyone lives that long, but those living past their century increase with each year. 

Read more: Age, new minimum amount: What does France’s pension reform involve?

Macron has a mandate to raise retirement age

As the birth rate drops, the number of taxpayers supporting this growing cohort of elderly shrinks.

Only an imbecile could fail to see the car crash that is coming unless something is done, and President Macron, whatever else his critics may justifiably accuse him of being, is not that imbecile.

The strikers, however, have no such claim to percipience.

Their unions generally want not an increase in pensionable age, but a reduction to 60. 

Read more: Do the French public support the pension reform strikes?

They wilfully refuse to see that a country already living way beyond its means is worsening its economic position, and its ability to compete in a global marketplace, with every day it holds off confronting the inevitable.

They are also being wilfully anti-democratic: M. Macron fought his presidential campaign last year promising to raise the retirement age, and thus has a mandate to do so.

Some on the left who oppose him make the entirely specious and bogus claim that he doesn’t have a real mandate, because his opponent was the apparently inconceivable Marine Le Pen. 

In other words, they voted for him not because he had sensible and necessary policies such as this, but because they felt they had a solemn duty to keep her out. 

Read the rules, mes amis: that is not how democracy works.

Read more: France pension reform: strike and protest dates, calendar for bill

Le Pen’s plan seems unfair and unworkable

In a further irony, Mme Le Pen’s cynically populist Rassemblement National claims M. Macron should not be increasing the retirement age [she states latterly that it should be in the region of 60 to 62, providing people have paid in for 40 years].

Her plan seems unfair and unworkable, though it does not widely differ from Mme Borne’s, which says people must work 43 years (against 42 now).

Someone who has had a lifetime as an ouvrier might be retired early on a full pension; those who spent well into their 20s at university studying for a master’s degree and then for a doctorate might well have to work until 65 or 66, thus by comparison penalising their intellectual effort and (given that people with such qualifications are likely to have had higher-earning jobs and thus have paid more tax) their overall contribution to French society and to the country’s economy.

If France continues to exploit the productive sector of its economy to fund the unproductive one to this extent it will go bust, as the latter expands and the former shrinks.

France is obsessed with welfarism but the world has changed

In Britain, the retirement age of men and women has been equalised and is heading, by rapid increments, towards 67, as it is in Germany. Italy is already there.

Read more: When do French people really retire and what is the average pension?

More and more senior non-manual workers find remunerated work, either on the staff of businesses, or as freelancers or consultants well into their 70s, and many former manual workers, too old for such things and retired on a state pension, often supplement it by finding non-manual work.

Britain has scrapped a mandatory retirement age and so those who enjoy their jobs and the camaraderie of working life can stay on until they drop. 

More and more do – not just because they need the money, but because they enjoy it and it wards off the potential loneliness and isolation of old age. 

Britain is not unique in this working culture, but France, obsessed with welfarism as it has been throughout the post-war period and refusing to recognise that so much about the world has changed, sticks to the economically suicidal notion that a diminishing number of workers should fund a growing army of non-workers.

France has a to plot a new course

This failure to recognise reality is not uniquely applied to the eccentric interpretation of what ought to constitute pensionable age: wanting to live in a vacuum was partly behind the gilets jaunes movement.

Read more: Gilets jaunes group calls for new regular protests starting Saturday

Ironically, too, avoidance of reality in a different way undermines Presi­dent Macron’s ambitions about his role in an EU that has been shaken badly by the pandemic, the continent-wide migration crisis, the growing dissidence of nations such as Poland and Hungary, the lack of sure-footedness by Chancellor Scholz of Germany as leader of the bloc’s biggest power and, of course, by Brexit and its failure (so far) to lead to the economic collapse of Britain.

France is suffering a period of insecurity, and M. Macron may feel he has to call new parliamentary elections this summer.

France has to plot a new course not just in the EU, but in the world. And this will require doing things differently, as its president and prime minister – but not yet many of its people – know.

President Sarkozy succeeded in raising the retirement age

On the day of action on January 19 protests were widespread – a demonstration in Paris was estimated to include tens of thousands, and it was claimed there were up to 200 other rallies, far smaller in number, around France. 

Public transport was badly affected, but it is a sector with a long history of militancy and, to judge from the size of the SNCF’s debt, long isolated from economic reality.

France, and the world, have changed since François Mitterrand cut the retirement age to 60 in 1982; 13 years ago there were huge protests when President Sarkozy proposed to raise that to 62.

He succeeded. M. Macron deserves to emulate him, though he will need either the support of Les Républicains in the Assemblée Nationale (far from certain, for tribal reasons) or to drive it through using the constitutional provision to enforce legislation against the Assembly’s will.

On verra, as they say at the barricades, for one suspects the protests are far from over.

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