Macron gambling gestures to less-well-off will dampen resistance to pension reform

Plan to raise French retirement age to 64 brings fear of sectoral strikes as well as public demonstrations

The curtain came down on the first act of President Emmanuel Macron’s reform of the French pension system this week, after prime minister Elisabeth Borne announced the plan on Tuesday and on Thursday secured the support of the conservative party, Les Républicains, ensuring the law will pass this spring.

The reform will progressively raise the legal retirement age from 62 to 64 and will require that employees contribute to the system for 43 rather than 42 years.

The second act of the reform will open in French streets on January 19th, when all eight French trade unions will hold strikes and demonstrations, which will be joined by left-wing political parties. Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Unbowed will hold its own day of protest on January 21st.

“We are determined that this draft law will not pass, and it will happen not only in the [National] Assembly,” Philippe Martinez, head of the Communist CGT union, said after Borne’s announcement.


Laurent Berger, the leader of the moderate CFDT, France’s largest trade union, denounced “one of the most brutal pension reforms of the last 30 years”. The CFDT supported pension reforms in 1995 and 2003. Berger had warned Macron that raising the retirement age was a non-negotiable “red line”.

Yvan Ricordeau, the “monsieur pensions” of the CFDT, said that “entire sectors of the economy must be blocked to stop production, because that’s what makes employers and the government react”.

The government fears the paralysing effect of strikes more than street demonstrations.

Except for the petroleum branch of the CGT, which is planning more strikes for January 26th and February 6th, with “if necessary, a shutdown of petroleum refineries”, the unions have agreed to postpone decisions about further action until the night of January 19th, when they will pause to assess their strength.

The unions have not been this united since 2010, when the previous successful pension reform raised the retirement age to 62.

Pension reform, and the unrest which invariably accompanies it, is a recurring feature of French political life. In 1995, Jacques Chirac’s attempt to align the more favourable regime for civil servants and early retirement for transport workers with the private sector led to a three-week shutdown of all public transport and brought two million people into the streets. Chirac backed down and served two terms as a largely powerless president.

Unlike Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy stuck to his guns – quite literally, by sending security forces into petroleum refineries – in 2010. The protests lasted for two weeks and mobilised up to one million people.

With the French public both angry and resigned, their capacity to mobilise against the reform is unknown.

Unlike Chirac, Macron clearly announced his intention to carry out the reform in his presidential election campaign. Chirac had campaigned on the theme of the “social fracture” and a widespread sense of betrayal explained the fury of the street.

Unlike Sarkozy, who said there was “nothing to discuss”, Macron has deputised his prime minister to negotiate and has significantly softened the plan he tried to enact in 2019, which resulted in weeks of transport strikes before it was abandoned because of the Covid pandemic.

Difficult work conditions

Macron wanted to make 65 the official retirement age but lowered his sights to 64. He is raising pension payments for minimum-wage earners to 85 per cent of minimum wage, or €1,200, a gain of approximately €250 per month.

Those employed in public transport, the gas and electricity sectors, policemen and others deemed to endure particularly difficult working conditions will work more years, but still significantly fewer than other segments of the population. For example, a Paris metro driver will in future retire at 54 instead of 52. Personnel in metro stations will retire at 59 instead of 57.

One of the chief arguments against the reform is that it penalises the poor most, because they leave school and enter the workforce earlier than those with money and education. Macron has an answer for that too: a complex provision for “long careers” that will enable those who start work before age 16 to retire at age 58. Those who start at 16-18 can retire at age 60; between 18 and 20 at 62.

The government is gambling that these “measures of justice” will diminish the appetite of the French public for a fight over the reform.

The present retirement age of 62 is by far the lowest in the EU, an argument the government uses surprisingly little.

A poll published by Le Figaro on Friday showed that 62 per cent of French people oppose the reform. That is significantly less than the 74 per cent who supported the “Yellow Vests” revolt in November 2018, and less than the 68 per cent who opposed Macron’s reform in 2019. If the country is paralysed by strikes, 61 per cent say they will blame the government, compared to 39 per cent who say they will blame the trade unions.

“If we are honest, neither we nor the government know if this rejection can transform itself into mobilisation,” Ricordeau of the CFDT said.