Pension protests in France: how did it get to this and what is next?

Ciarán Crowley, a law lecturer at Lille University, looks at President Macron’s handling of pension reforms and why people are so angry (and it is not just about working two more years)

Protestors hold up a sign asking President Macron to listen to their anger during a march against the pension reforms

Cities across France have been in flames for many nights now, ostensibly due to the government’s decision to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64.

More broadly, however, the unrest can be seen as the last straw for President Macron’s long list of long-term detractors: the left, unions, some public servants and semi-state workers, transport workers, low-paid workers, middle-class urbanites, anarchists, anti-Capitalists (les black blocs) and university-going youth (principally-though not exclusively-with left-wing sympathies).

For the public watching on, a mood of resignation reigns in a country accustomed to violent street protests: whilst some polls have said as much as 70% of people are against the pension reform as it stands, only 21% think Mr Macron will give in and abandon his reform.

The tension has been building for some time and the French translation for the ‘last straw’ (la goutte d’eau qui fait déborder le vase) has been seen and heard around media outlets since January when the government announced its decision to raise the retirement age.

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The political situation is a moving feast, however, and political commentators admit it is very difficult to predict how things will develop now.

Poor government communication

The government has consistently (if unconvincingly) argued that pension reform is necessary from an economic point of view: its opponents argue it is a cruel political choice that hits the poor and working people the hardest.

When the government increased the military budget by €100 billion in January (to total €400 billion for the years 2024-2030), arguments that its pension reform may make savings of €12 billion per year by 2030 (and effectively cancel the deficit in the pension system) were greeted with derision by political opponents in parliament.

Mr Macron’s decision was not based on sound economics, opponents could easily counter. In reality it was merely a political decision to shift government spending away from the poor and hard-working towards other priorities, such as defence.

Timing is everything in politics and so is perception. President Macron has ignored both in pressing ahead with his reform: even his wealthy supporters have admitted as much.

Cui bono? the average earner in France may rightly ask. The answer? Next to nothing, except being legally required to work two years more to qualify for a retirement pension in France.

Thomas Piketty, a respected French economist, has criticised the reform arguing that all the savings made by the current reform will almost exclusively be felt by those with the least and modest means. Piketty adds that the richest have been spared by such reforms. A detached observer might therefore wonder ‘what was Mr Macron thinking and why now in particular?’.

Presidential discretion or diktat?

How we make the law is important. Laws in western democracies are overwhelmingly made by parliaments, which are elected by the people. Such a method is used as it is seen as the most democratically legitimate system we have (as imperfect as it sometimes may be).

With Mr Macron seeing the writing on the wall and facing the increasing possibility that the parliament (l'Assemblée nationale) was not going to vote in favour of his flagship reform on Thursday March 16, he decided to take a dangerous political gamble and use Article 49.3 of the Constitution to push his reform through.

Such a decision is perfectly legal (the president asks the prime minister to ‘engage the government’s responsibility’ to pass a money bill, but, and crucially, without the parliament voting on the bill). Whether such a method of making a law is democratically legitimate is open to debate and has been questioned by constitutionalists, such as Professor Jean-Philippe Derosier of Université de Lille. Article 49.3 is relatively arcane and pushing through pension reforms without the approval of parliament resembles a presidential diktat to many in France. Some polls suggested nearly 80% of the French public opposed the use of Article 49.3 beforeMrMacron used it last week.

Should he have ignored such widespread public scepticism? Whilst the president can say pension reform was in his election manifesto, politicians should also accept that public opinion can change. As an erudite friend on my local football team remarked before training: Mr Macron should have taken a leaf from President Charles de Gaulle’s leadership and brought the parliament together to restart the pension reform from scratch and engage in the hard work of creating cross-party legislation.

A billboard in France covered with a poster depicting President Macron dressed as a king and a slogan accusing him of being against Republican values Pic: Alexandros Michailidis | Shutterstock

Lyndon B. Johnson masterfully used such ‘Consensus Building’ to brilliant effect in passing historic legislation such as the Civil Rights Act 1964 and the Voting Rights Act 1965 in a United States bitterly divided by the Vietnam War abroad and the Culture Wars at home. ‘Let us reason together’, the charismatic Texan used to whisper in the ears of sceptical senators as persuasion was used to overpower his rivals’ misgivings. It is highly doubtful, however, that Mr Macron has the personality to engage in the same way and in a very different era with an opposition that cannot abide him.

If you do not have the support of the parliament should laws be passed?

Mr Macron’s opponents in parliament reacted with predictable fury when Article 49.3 was unleashed. The left, Marine Le Pen, as well as some conservatives in the traditional centre-right party, Les Républicains, all denounced Mr Macron’s manoeuvres as ‘imperial’ and symptomatic of his ‘top-down’ decision-making style, since he became president in 2017.

It has been terribly theatrical timing that the new king of the United Kingdom, King Charles III, had decided to pay his first official state visit to France this weekend (March 26-29). With striking workers saying they would refuse to provide the red carpet for the new monarch as well as the risk of more violence on the streets of Paris, Mr Macron has now cancelled the visit.

Indeed, the man who did most to block the reform, Charles de Courson, a centrist parliamentarian, has compared Mr Macron to behaving like a king. De Courson’s vote of no confidence against the pension reforms would have toppled the government and the pension reform with it. An eternal winner, the president survived by a mere 9 votes (287 against the motion versus 278 in favour).

Is such political and public fury and fulmination a natural reaction to a Machiavellian manoeuvre? Possibly. Or was such anger partially a political performance pre-orchestrated by an opposition who clearly loathe Mr Macron? This is likely too. Finally, did Mr Macron himself foresee such fury and violence playing out in the streets? Last Thursday (March 23) the mairie in Bordeaux was set on fire and rubbish left by refuse workers on strike was set alight across the streets of Paris as over a million protestors hit the streets again.

Whilst Mr Macron probably foresaw street violence and protests, it is yet unclear whether the public and political anger he has unleashed will subside as quickly as he gambled for. He has bet that the vast majority of people who are not protesting and are quietly going about their lives will grow weary of the protests and silently, if grudgingly, accept the government’s argument that the rise in retirement age is an ‘economic necessity’.

What options are open to the President?

Controlling the Narrative

In politics narrative is everything and Mr Macron’s choice to use Article 49.3 has allowed his opponents to seize an opportunity to swing the public opinion and media coverage in their favour. ‘Macron is arrogant’, ‘Macron belittles the common man’, ‘Macron is for Big Business’, ‘Macron is not for France nor the French’. Whilst such personality traits and opinions may or may not be true, the opposition will seek to repeat such slogans and develop a storyline in their favour, for a number of reasons:

-political (to weaken the government further and blame all the country’s ills on his leadership)

-ideological (the pension reforms are not for the good of the French people, but foreign investors and ‘Big Business’, whatever that may actually be)

-personal (re-election prospects in parliament)

-and of course, political power (namely the next presidential election in 2027, in which Mr Macron cannot run for a third consecutive time under Article 6 of the French Constitution).

Political debate is shaped by the language we use and encounter in the press. In the UK it is ‘the cost of living crisis’. In Ireland it is ‘the housing crisis’. Repeated ad nauseam the issue begins to take on a greater degree of fact, public consensus on the issue is assumed, alternative debates are sidelined. Nuanced debate becomes impossible. For example a detached outsider may try to say that Ireland has an ‘urgent shortage in suitable accommodation’ or argue that ‘everybody is entitled to accommodation, but does everyone need a house?’ Such statements may be as accurate but are less politically expedient for the political classes (mainly the opposition) than the politicised term ‘the housing crisis’.

President Macron knows well that his opponents are furiously trying to shape the political narrative: he used a televised interview this week to recalibrate the debate. His arguments, chiefly that fewer workers will struggle to pay the pension pots for an ageing society, are unlikely to change the minds of his opponents who flocked to the streets in their millions on Thursday, 23 March. His aim was more likely to reassure the non-protestors, many of whom would have voted for him only last year. According to polls after his interview, however, 76% of French people were left unconvinced (about as identical as the percentage that oppose the reform). Logically, we can therefore assume that 76% of French workers believe the current pension reform will not work in their favour.

What next?

A political impasse has been reached. Most in France are at a loss as to what will happen next or which side will give way first. Mr Macron will hope that the protests will lose steam as fatigue amongst the public and the protestors sets in. Contestaire is a word used in French to describe people who protest, complain or give out about everything. Those in his camp would employ this word to describe the people marching on the streets each week as well as the students blocking university campuses and setting alight refuse and plastic bins in Paris.

His opponents, on the other hand, hope to paralyse the country and the government. They will also take an appeal to France’s highest court, le Conseil constitutionnel, and seek to have a referendum (Référendum d'initiative partagée or ‘RIP’) on the question (a RIP has never been used since its inception in 2008 and about five million voters would have to sign a petition in support of it). The risk for both camps is that the protests turn too violent as police patience wears thin (the police have not been spared by the reform either and will have to work two years longer, until 54) and as protestors realise the president will not repeal his reform.

The events in France neatly exhibit why we cannot abide politics and cannot look away at the same time either: we simply do not know what will happen next. What is certain is that life goes on and that there will always be many people left unhappy with the status quo.

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