Why are the French protesting?
For months, people in France have been protesting the government’s plan to increase the pension age from 62 to 64. According to polls, more than 70 per cent of the public is against the move.
Protests and demonstrations have been ongoing for months. On January 31, the biggest day of national protests, 1.27 million people are estimated to have taken to the street. The French are deeply attached to keeping the official retirement age at 62, which is among the lowest in European countries.
French President Emmanuel Macron made the proposed pension changes the key priority of his second term, arguing that reform is needed to make the French economy more competitive and to keep the pension system from diving into deficit. France, like many richer nations, faces lower birth rates and longer life expectancy.
The entrance door of the city hall of Bordeaux burned during a wild demonstration, a few days after the government carried out a pension reform using article 49.3 of the constitution, March 23, 2023
Firefighters checks rubbish after extinguishing a fire during a demonstration, a week after the government pushed a pensions reform through parliament without a vote, March 23, 2023
What are France’s pension reforms?
The new retirement age will be 64, rising by two years from the current age of 62. But the change will be gradual at first. From September, the retirement age will increase by three months each year until 2030.
Workers will now have to pay an additional year of pension contributions from 2027, rising to 43 years from 42 if they want to draw their full pension. A 2014 reform had already stipulated this but Macron’s legislation has accelerated the change.
After the reforms, a retiree will be guaranteed a minimum pension of at least 85 per cent of France’s minimum wage. Currently, this would net a payment of around 1,200 euros (£1,055) per month.
Following the first year of retirement, the minimum payment is tied to inflation.
How does this affect current pensioners?
Just 33 per cent of 60 to 64-year-olds are employed in France. This is significantly lower than in Germany at 61 per cent and Sweden at 69 per cent.
Through the new law, an additional €17.7 billion will be made in pension contributions (£15.5 billion) each year. The government says this will allow pensions for the poorest 30 per cent of the country to increase from 2.5 to five per cent.
How was the controversial bill passed without a vote?
In March 2023, Macron decided to invoke the special power during a Cabinet meeting a few minutes before a scheduled vote in the National Assembly, where the legislation had no guarantee of securing majority support.
The move ordered Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne to wield a special power to push the highly unpopular bill through the lower house of parliament without a vote. The Senate, France’s upper house, later adopted the bill.
Article 49, paragraph 3, allows the prime minister, after a meeting of the cabinet, to pass the bill without a vote. MPs opposed to this then have 24 hours to table a motion of no confidence in the government to prevent the passing of the bill.
Angry critics, political opponents and labor unions around France all blasted Macron for his decision to ram the bill through the legislature. French opposition lawmakers subsequently filed a motion of no confidence against Macron’s government. Two attempts failed.
More than eight out of 10 people in France are unhappy with the government’s decision to skip a vote in parliament, and 65 per cent want strikes and protests to continue, a Toluna Harris Interactive poll for RTL radio showed.
Firefighters checks rubbish after extinguishing a fire during a demonstration, March 23, 2023
Protestors hold an effigy of French President Emmanuel Macron, during a demonstration on the 8th day of strikes and protests across the country against the government’s proposed pensions overhaul in Paris on March 15, 2023
What do critics of the new pension age say?
A number of France’s trade unions say only a small increase in contributions would be enough. They have called the new retirement age unfair – particularly to low-skilled workers in manual jobs who start their work earlier than someone with a degree would.
Unions have also warned of more strikes to come.
The head of one of the labour unions, Laurent Berger of CFDT, urged Macron to ‘make a gesture’ to calm the protests and violence down. She called on him to pause the reform for six months and look for compromises.
Macron has since dismissed this but said he was open to discussing future policy changes with unions.
‘We will continue to move forward. France cannot be at a standstill,’ he said. ‘We will yield nothing to violence, I condemn violence with the utmost strength.’
He added that the pension law would simply follow its course – which is now a review of its legality by France’s constitutional council.