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‘A social battle’ – what you need to know about France’s controversial pension reform

French unions have promised 'mobilisation from January' if president Emmanuel Macron pushes ahead with highly controversial pension reform plans. Here's a look at what is happening and why.

'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?

Eight of France’s largest unions have issued a joint statement promising strikes and demonstrations from January if the government pushes ahead with plans to reform the French pension system – including raising the pension age from 62 to 65.

The groups had already fired a ‘warning shot’ in September with a day of protests and walk-outs.

“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

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

It was actually 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 is the government now trying to pass 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, 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. 

So what happens next?

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne was due to lay the detailed reform plans before parliament on December 15th, however this has now been postponed until January 10th in order – Macron says – to give more time to consult with opposition party leaders. 

The reforms will have to pass through the Assemblée nationale, 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. 

She has already used this several times to get the government’s budget passed, in a highly unpopular move.

The government’s political opponents, and the unions, say using it on something major as pension reform is anti-democratic.

Unions say that after the detailed announcement, they will announce “mobilisation for January” – most likely a combination of strikes and demonstrations.

We will update our strikes section HERE as soon as dates are announced. 

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.”

Member comments

  1. To be fair, the economy does not need to keep up with other countries, it just needs to provide for its own population…adjustments are needed but hopefully France won’t fall into the trap of pursuing growth for the sake of growth. That is what has lead so much of the English speaking world into the trap it is now caught in. Life in France is better precisely because the same mindset does not hold sway here.

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