‘The start of a social battle’ – what you need to know about France’s controversial pension reform

France on Thursday saw nationwide strikes and thousands taking to the streets - with many vowing to create an autumn of chaos if president Emmanuel Macron pushes ahead with highly controversial pension reform plans. Here's a look at what is happening and why.

'The start of a social battle' - what you need to know about France's controversial pension reform
A banner from the hardline CGT union demands a €15 per hour minimum wage, maximum working week of 32 hours and a retirement age of 60. Photo by STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN / AFP

What’s happening?

On Thursday thousands of public transport employees and teachers walked out, while others took to the streets to demonstrate – but unions, left-wing political parties and demonstrators said this is a mere shadow of what is to come if Macron pushes ahead with pension reform plans.

“It’s the start of a social battle,” leading left-wing MP Alexis Corbière from the La France Insoumise (LFI) party told AFP as he took part in a protest march of tens of thousands in Paris. “My hope is that this is the starting point.”

Another demonstrator, Dominique, who has been employed as cash register worker for Carrefour supermarkets for 35 years, said for her it would be “like 2019 again.” 

Dominique said she would be prepared to go to such lengths – the 2019 strikes were among the longest in modern French history – once more.

“Many of us here today have painful, repetitive jobs. We cannot continue to the age of 65,” she added.

READ ALSO ‘We can’t work until 65’ – why French workers are ready to battle pension reform

Unions will meet again on October 3rd to discuss further strikes and protests over the autumn and winter.

It feels like only yesterday that we had massive protests over pension reforms?

It was actually nearly three years ago, but – as Dominique mentioned – the winter of 2019/20 was marked with huge protests and the longest transport strikes since 1968. Many other professions including teachers, lawyers and even ballerinas joined in the strike. 

This was also over about a Macron pension reform.

In that instance his reforms were more structural – he did away with the 40 plus different pension regimes that covered different professions in France, merging it into a single universal system, and also axed many of the ‘special regimes’ that allowed people to retire early – for example train drivers can retire at 55.

He did not, however, make a change to the overall pension age – the age at which people can retire on a full state pension – which remained at 62.

Despite huge protests, Macron managed to get his reforms passed through parliament, but elected not to impose the highly controversial changes during the pandemic, judging them too divisive when France (and the rest of the world) was going through such a crisis.

So are these protests about new reforms, or the same ones?

A bit of both. As mentioned, the 2019 reforms were never actually implemented, but instead of simply implementing them now, Macron has decided to add some new reforms and now wants to pass and immediately implement a combination of the previous reforms, plus some new ones.

What’s the new bit?

The bit that’s grabbing all the headlines is the raising of the pension age – phasing it up from 62 to 64 and then 65.

And in fairness this isn’t a surprise – Macron made this part of his campaign when he ran for re-election in April. He won, and he argues that this gives him a mandate to make the changes. 

All the same there has been some hesitation from the government over whether they are going ahead with his – since the scale of opposition won’t have come as any surprise – but Macron gathered his ministers and supporters for a dinner at the Elysée on Wednesday night, after which it was announced that the reforms will be going ahead.

But doesn’t he need to get this through parliament first?

Yes, and that could be a problem. Although Macron himself was re-elected in April, in the parliamentary elections that followed in June his party lost their overall majority in parliament, meaning it is going to be difficult for him to get any legislation passed, particularly something as controversial as this.

That’s why it seems highly likely that Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne will use something called Article 49.3 – a special power that allows the government to pass legislation without the requisite parliamentary approval. Basically it’s like passing something by decree. 

It seems like that might not be popular?

No, it adds a further line of attack for opponents who will argue that Macron is undemocratic and his reforms have no mandate (although as mentioned above, Macron regards winning the presidential election on a platform that included pension reform as a mandate for his plans).

But to be clear, many people are implacably opposed to these reforms whatever form their parliamentary journey takes, recent polling suggests that between 60 and 70 percent of the general public are strongly opposed.

So why is Macron doing this, if he knows everyone hates the idea and it will lead to chaos?

The short answer seems to be that he genuinely believes it is necessary.

France, like many European countries, is grappling with the fact that as people live longer, the current pensions model is no longer sustainable.

In France the contributions made by those in work are no longer enough to pay for pensions for people who retire at 62 and are highly likely to live another 20 years; life expectancy in France is 82.5 and rising.

Veteran political columnist John Lichfield explained: “This year the French pension fund will be financially balanced, but next year it will go hugely into deficit and then even bigger deficit over the next 10 to 15 years, so it is a huge ball and chain on the French economy unless something is done about it.

You can hear John talking in more detail about this on our Talking France podcast. Find it on Spotify, Apple or Google podcasts, download it HERE or listen on the link below.

“Secondly, and I think this is Macron’s main point, France does work less compared to other countries – not because French workers are lazy, those who do work, work very well and productively, but because of the lower pension age.

“If you look at other countries in Europe, their pension ages are all around 65, 66 or 67 so France does overall work less, and that explains in some way why the economy has rather gone off the rails in recent years and has not been able to keep up with other countries.”

Is there also an element of politics to Macron’s determination?

Probably, says John: “I think Macron’s obsession with pension reform is partly political – it’s to make a point to declare that he’s still there and he can still get legislation passed despite no longer having a parliamentary majority.

“But it was also one of his pledges in his first election campaign in 2017 so in a sense it’s unfinished business for him and he I think has come to see it also as the key to all other reforms – which in a sense it is, the 2023 Budget that he has put forward won’t add up unless the pension reforms are implemented.”

So a determined president and an equally determined opposition – buckle up, France.

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French rail workers threaten more strikes over Christmas holidays

The month of December could be impacted by more strike action on French rail services, as unions threaten to walk out over the Christmas and New Year weekends.

French rail workers threaten more strikes over Christmas holidays

After a three-day strike between December 2nd and 4th that saw around 60 percent of services cancelled on the first day, conductors and ticket collectors have filed notice threatening to strike December 23rd to 26th and December 30th to January 2nd.

There are also separate calls for strike action on Wednesday, December 7th.

December 7th

Three unions (CGT, Sud-Rail and the CFDT) representing train drivers have called for a strike on Wednesday, in a joint memo. They are calling for a “united strike” ahead of a key meeting on Thursday between unions and bosses involved in a pay negotiation.

The statement published by the three unions says that the strike period will run from December 6th at 8pm to December 8th at 8am. According to Actu France, this movement could also affect Transilien lines in the Paris region.

Detailed information regarding the strike timetables, including which trains would be affected, should be available at least 24 hours in advance.

Christmas and New Year’s strikes

Unions have also filed strike notice for the Christmas (December 23rd to 26th) and New Year (December 30th to January 2nd), with the hopes of putting additional pressure on management. However, this is not yet confirmed, as it will depend on the results of the meetings, which will run from December 8th to the 22nd.

READ MORE: Strikes, prices and services – what you need to know about Christmas travel to France

“We will have fifteen days to reopen a dialogue and reach an agreement,” Nicolas Limon, a spokesperson for the inter-union National Collective ASCT, told AFP. “We will do our utmost to ensure that there is no strike at Christmas time.”

Why are rail workers striking?

According to Limon, the issue is that train conductors and ticket collectors are “not considered in the same way train drivers are, even though we work three weekends a month and sleep away from home ten nights a month.” 

Conductors and ticket collectors are also seeking salary increases and for bonuses to be included in the basic salary structure so that they can be taken into account in the calculation of retirement payments.