Unions unite against Macron’s pension reform plan

Prime minister Elisabeth Borne presents proposal which would see retirement age rise to 64 from 2030

French trade unions and opposition parties held disparate meetings across the French capital on Tuesday night to plan their riposte to President Emmanuel Macron’s plan for pension reform.

The plan has united all trade unions against it, including the moderate CFDT, for the first time in 12 years.

Media billed prime minister Elisabeth Borne’s presentation of the reform late on Tuesday as “D-Day for pensions”. The plan will be discussed in cabinet on January 23rd and debated in the National Assembly from February 6th.

Drivers for the Paris transport authority RATP will hold the first protest strike on January 13th. Metro and bus services have already become less frequent because of a post-Covid shortage of drivers. Under the special regime established for arduous professions, metro train drivers can at present retire between the ages of 52 and 56.

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Macron’s plan will increase the number of years one must work to obtain a full pension to 43, but will concern only those born after 1966, meaning the retirement age will rise to 64 from 2030.

As a concession to the lowest wage earners, Borne said a minimum pension of €1,200 a month will be established for new retirees, compared to as little as €900 a month at present. The National Assembly will debate extending the minimum rate to all pensioners.

The pension reform is supported by most but not all of the conservative party Les Républicains (LR), which in theory is part of the opposition to Macron. Allowing LR to take credit for broadening the €1,200 rate to all pensioners would be a way of rewarding conservatives for saving the reform.

Without the support of most of LR’s 62 parliamentary deputies, Borne would have to pass the reform by decree. It would be political folly to attempt to impose such a contested social change without a parliamentary majority.

Commentators consider Macron rash to provoke a showdown with the entire left, the far right and trade unions over pensions when the war in Ukraine, high inflation and the rising cost of living have created deep uncertainty about the future. “One wonders what could have possessed the president to take such a risk when the crises that are shaking the country create fear and strengthen the desire to protect advantages already attained,” Françoise Fressoz wrote in Le Monde.

Raising the retirement age is in the political DNA of the conservatives at LR. “It is not we who are going to vote the government’s reform, but the government which is going to hold a vote on our reform,” Bruno Retailleau, the head of the LR group in the senate said, describing the future vote as “a clear victory” for his party.

You cannot ask the French to work more to repair the state’s budgetary carelessness

—  Olivier Marleix, Les Républicains

The last two LR presidential candidates, François Fillon in 2017 and Valérie Pécresse last year, promised to raise the retirement age to 65, a measure that was extremely unpopular with socio-economically disadvantaged members of the party. Until recently, Macron too advocated retirement at age 65. LR leaders shifted to age 64, saying that forcing the French to work until age 65 would be “brutal”.

The French electorate send contradictory signals in opinion polls. A majority told an Elabe poll that the present system cannot continue to function. But another majority told pollsters at Odoxa that the government reform is bad. An Ipsos poll showed a majority believes the pension system must balance its budget, while an Ifop poll says the retirement age should be lowered from 62 to 60!

Borne’s presentation was intended to correct months of mixed signals and bungled government communication. Last autumn, Macron, finance minister Bruno Le Maire and budget minister Gabriel Attal said a revamped pension system would help finance education, hospitals, the transition to green energy and industrial policy.

“Tell your ministers to stop saying that pension reform will finance anything other than pensions!” Olivier Marleix, the head of the LR group in the National Assembly, pleaded with Borne. “You are creating ambiguity about the meaning of the plan and confusing the message to the public and trade unions. You cannot ask the French to work more to repair the state’s budgetary carelessness.”

Mr Marleix’s message was apparently heard. Mr Attal told the Journal du Dimanche on January 8th, “Let us be clear: every euro that comes out of pension reform will go to pensions.”

France’s overall debt will soon surpass €3,000 billion. The cost of servicing that debt rose to €51 billion last year. Mr Attal says that without a reform, the debt will rise another €500 billion over the next 25 years, and that it is a question of “reform or bankruptcy”. Other sources give far lower estimates.

The government’s propensity to open the taps in time of crisis, particularly during the Covid pandemic, has fostered a belief in magical money, that the government can always finance social measures when it wants to.

One reason LR supports the reform is to differentiate itself from Marine Le Pen’s far right Rassemblement National, which has vowed to fight what it calls an unjust reform.

Three left-wing candidates in last year’s presidential election promised to lower the retirement age to 60, a return to the short-lived socialist glory days of François Mitterrand. Prior to Mitterrand, the French retired at age 65.

If Macron succeeds, France will have taken half a century to bring the retirement age back up to 64.