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French workers outraged over pension reform

Many French workers are outraged that they may have to retire at age 64. Reasons why

A government initiative to impose pension reforms that will raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 sparked unplanned demonstrations Thursday evening in Paris and other French cities.

Although while the planned changes to France’s beloved pension system were already divisive, it was the way the measure was passed – by avoiding a vote in the lower house of the nation, where President Emmanuel Macron’s party crucially lacks a clear majority – that most incensed people.

And France is not alone in feeling this rage.

According to polling firm IFOP data, 78% of respondents over the age of 35 and 83% of young individuals (18 to 24) thought the government’s method of adopting the bill was “unjustified.” Notwithstanding their opinions of the reforms, a majority of 58% of voters, including those who supported Macron in the first round of the presidential election last year before a runoff with his far-right rival, disapproved of the way the law was passed.

Why is Macron so committed to this, despite its unpopularity?

Social reforms, particularly those affecting the pension system, were made a centerpiece of Macron’s bid for reelection in 2022, and he has long been an advocate on the issue. Yet, the action on Thursday has stoked resistance on all sides of the political aisle to the point where some are debating the rationality of his desire for reform.

In an interview with TF1 on Thursday night, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne acknowledged that the government’s initial goal was to avoid utilizing Article 49.3 of the constitution to get the reforms through the National Assembly. At a mid-Thursday meeting with the president, ministers, and allied parliamentarians, the “collective decision” to do so was made, according to her.

Money, according to Macron’s cabinet, is the straightforward solution to the government’s commitment to changes. The government claims that the current system, which depends on the working population to support an increasing age group of pensioners, is no longer functional. According to Labour Minister Olivier Dussopt, the yearly pension shortfall will exceed $13 billion by 2027 if no quick action is taken. Do they think that if we delay the reforms, we would suspend the deficit, Dussopt said CNN station BFMTV in reference to reform opponents?

The administration said that when the plan was presented in January, it would reduce the deficit to zero by 2030 and leave a large surplus to pay for measures that would allow those who work physically demanding occupations to retire earlier.

The math is simple for budget minister Gabriel Attal. “If we don’t execute [the reforms] today, we will have to conduct even more painful measures in the future,” he stated Friday in an interview with radio France Inter.

Why is this such a significant matter for France when other Western nations still have more generous pension plans?

According to Pascal Perrineau, a political scientist at Sciences Po University, “No pensions reform has made the French pleased.” He said this to CNN on Friday.

The government failed, he continued, since it was unable to persuade the French people to support the initiative. “Each time there is opposition from public opinion, then little by bit the project passes and basically, public opinion is resigned to it,” he added.

The first to fail at that obstacle wasn’t them. France has long struggled with pension reform. Mass demonstrations that lasted for many weeks in 1995 persuaded the government to drop its plans to restructure public sector pensions. Millions of people protested in the streets in 2010 when the retirement age was raised by two years to 62, and other amendments in 2014 were received with widespread opposition. The French pension system, along with social support in general, is often regarded as the cornerstone of the government’s obligations to and relationship with its people. In a nation where the state has historically taken proactive measures to ensure a certain quality of living, the post-World War II social system codified rights to a state-funded pension and healthcare, which have been zealously maintained since.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, France has one of the lowest retirement ages in the industrialized world and spends more than most other nations on pensions—nearly 14% of economic output.

They are highly taxed and want to retain the right to a decent old age, demonstrators at various strikes have repeatedly yelled to CNN as societal unrest over the rising cost of living grows.

Will the incident give Macron’s detractors more clout?

Having been re-elected in 2022, Macron is only a few months into his second mandate and still has four years to lead the nation. He may be unpopular, but for the time being, his position is secure.

The application of Article 49.3 on Thursday, however, only serves to support prior allegations that he is out of touch with popular sentiment and apathetic toward the will of the French people.

Left- and right-leaning politicians in Macron’s center-right party seized on his administration’s decision to avoid a legislative vote.

Right-wing leader Marine Le Pen tweeted on Thursday, “I think that Elisabeth Borne should go after the smack that the Prime Minister just gave the French people by imposing a reform which they do not want. Jean-Luc Melenchon, the head of France’s far-left, was also quick to criticize the administration, denouncing the reforms as having “no parliamentary validity” and urging a generalized walkout.

According to political scientist Perrineau, public outrage over pension reforms would undoubtedly make it more difficult for Macron to implement additional reforms to the education and health sectors, measures that were put on hold due to the Covid-19 outbreak.

The present uproar could ultimately push Macron to negotiate more on future reforms, Perrineau says – though he stresses the French President is not known for compromise.

Political conversations may be more difficult due to his propensity to be “a little haughty, a little impatient,” according to Perrineau.

That is “perhaps the limit of Macronism,” he continues.

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