Macron presses ahead with vexed issue of pension reform as French discontent swells

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French President Emmanuel Macron’s government attempts to revive his economic reform drive and score a major political victory this week with a launch of the pension system’s overhaul in the face of vehement trade union opposition.

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne is to detail on Tuesday plans to make the French work longer, most likely by raising the retirement age to 64 or 65 from 62 currently.

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Macron had to put the pension reform on ice in 2020 as the government rushed to contain the COVID-19 outbreak and save the economy.

Now, he can count on tougher union opposition than in 2020 with even the reform-minded CFDT -- France’s biggest union -- threatening to protest, which it abstained from three years ago despite misgivings about the reform at the time.

“If the retirement age is pushed back to 65 or 64, the CFDT will do what we’ve said we’ll do, we will resist this reform by calling on workers to mobilize,” CFDT head Laurent Berger said last week.

Calls for walk-outs could find more traction this time with frustrations already running high over the loss of purchasing
power during the current inflation crisis.

Desperate to keep social tensions in check, the government has spent tens of billions of euros to soften the blow of record
power and gas prices, which has kept French inflation lower than in most other EU countries.

Although recent strike action has been limited to specific sectors, such as refineries and airlines, outrage over pension reform could easily spark far broader protests.

The yellow vest movement, largely dormant since violent anti-Macron street protests in 2018 and 2019, held a march through central Paris on Saturday, though turnout was low.

Polls show pension reform is unpopular. However, the government nonetheless believes that the general public mood is more inclined towards resignation than anger compared with 2018, Veran, the government spokesman, said.

“We’re not reforming pensions to be popular but to be responsible. We’ll go all the way because it’s the only way our social model can survive,” he added.

Strike threat

Macron had to put the pension reform on ice in 2020 as the government rushed to contain the COVID-19 outbreak and save the economy.

Now, he can count on tougher union opposition than in 2020 with even the reform-minded CFDT -- France’s biggest union -- threatening to protest, which it abstained from three years ago despite misgivings about the reform at the time.

“If the retirement age is pushed back to 65 or 64, the CFDT will do what we’ve said we’ll do, we will resist this reform by calling on workers to mobilize,” CFDT head Laurent Berger said last week.

Calls for walk-outs could find more traction this time with frustrations already running high over the loss of purchasing
power during the current inflation crisis.

Desperate to keep social tensions in check, the government has spent tens of billions of euros to soften the blow of record
power and gas prices, which has kept French inflation lower than in most other EU countries.

Although recent strike action has been limited to specific sectors, such as refineries and airlines, outrage over pension reform could easily spark far broader protests.

The yellow vest movement, largely dormant since violent anti-Macron street protests in 2018 and 2019, held a march through central Paris on Saturday, though turnout was low.

Polls show pension reform is unpopular. However, the government nonetheless believes that the general public mood is more inclined towards resignation than anger compared with 2018, Veran, the government spokesman, said.

“We’re not reforming pensions to be popular but to be responsible. We’ll go all the way because it’s the only way our social model can survive,” he added.

Read more: French retirement age hike to 65 set by Macron ‘not set in stone’: PM Borne

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