EXPLAINED: Why is there so much anger in France about pension reform?

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EXPLAINED: Why is there so much anger in France about pension reform?
French cities have seen repeated protests, some violent, in recent weeks. Photo by ARNAUD FINISTRE / AFP

France has seen weeks of increasingly violent protests over a pension reform that seems to many outside observers to be fairly moderate and limited - so what is really causing all the anger?


What's happening?

Since January 31st France has been seeing regular one-day strikes and huge demos - up to 1.2 million people on a single day - in opposition to proposed reforms to the French pension system.

Among the proposed changes are a raising of the pension age from 62 to 64, and the scrapping of the 'special regimes' that allow many in the public sector to retire early.


Protests kicked up a notch on Thursday, March 16th when the French government used the constitutional tool known as Article 49.3 to force the reform through without a vote of MPs. Since then, cities including Paris have seen nightly protests from small groups of demonstrators who set fire to bins and street furniture and sometimes clash with police.

The night of Thursday, March 23rd saw serious violence in cities including Paris, Bordeaux and Rennes with more than 400 people arrested and 441 police officers injured, according to the Interior minister.

On Friday morning it was announced that the French government has asked Britain's King Charles III to postpone his planned state visit, which protesters had threatened to disrupt.

What's the pension reform?

The first reaction of many foreigners on learning of all this is shock that the current French pension age is so low; the standard retirement age in France is 62, and the reform would raise that to 64 by 2030 - which will still give France one of the lowest pension ages in Europe. 

The reform does, however, include other things such as scrapping the 'special regimes' which allow many public sector workers to retire early and increasing to 43 the number of years worked needed to qualify for a full pension, a move that many have argued will disproportionately affect women.

The French government argues that reform is necessary to balance the books as people live longer, while unions argue that the changes unfairly impact women and people who do physically demanding work.

The Economist's France correspondent, and Macron biographer, Sophie Pedder wrote on Twitter: "France needs pension reform. It spends 14 percent of GDP on public pensions, nearly double the OECD average. Its population is ageing: 17 million pensioners today, 4 million more than in 2004.

"Raising the retirement age is the soundest way to close the financing gap, as other European states have done."

"But it's not always enough to be right in politics. Democratic leadership requires constant and careful forging of consent."

"Macron’s popularity is down to 28 percent, its lowest level since the gilets jaunes. The level of violence is chilling in a country that romanticises the mob."


5 minutes to understand . . . French pension reform

These fairly modest reforms don't sound like something you need to riot about?

There's no doubt that opposition to pension reform is deep-seated - polls suggest that around 70 percent of French people oppose this reform, although a majority of those polled also acknowledge that some type of reform is needed as life expectancy rises.

But the anger has really kicked up since the government's use of Article 49.3 to push through the reform, without allowing MPs in the French parliament a vote on it.


This constitutional article is perfectly legal and has been used almost 100 times since the beginning of the Fifth Republic in 1958, but its use on such a contentious issue - which it seemed likely that parliament would vote down - has led to charged of the government being 'undemocratic'.

"It's a social law of physics," Jean-Marie Pernot, a political scientist specialising in trade unions, told AFP.

"If you don't respect any of the channels meant for the expression of dissent, it will find a way to express itself directly."

Historian Jean Garrigues told TV station TF1 that by ignoring the will of the people and bypassing the democratic process with the use of Article 49.3, Macron has "neglected also the French tradition inherited from 1789 and the revolutions of the 19th century: that of popular sovereignty.

"In doing so, he widens the already yawning gap between the two legitimacies of people and parliament, which opens the way to all the possibilities of violence and demagogy."



The charges of ignoring the will of the people have tapped into long-simmering resentment at president Emmanuel Macron's style of governing, which is seen as arrogant, remote and aloof.

He is frequently styled as 'le roi' (the king) which is very definitely not a compliment in France.  (The below banner reads 'On Monday the king will dine at Versailles . . and he will invite Charles III')


The president faced a lot of personal anger during the 'yellow vest' protests of 2018/19. These eventually fizzled out, and in 2020 were overtaken by worries of the pandemic, but the anger in recent days has brought back memories of these days.

To further compound the anger in recent days, there have been numerous videos circulating on social media of extremely heavy-handed policing of demos, and chants of tout le monde déteste la police (everyone hates the police) have once again been heard on demos while ACAB (the anglophone slogan All Cops Are Bastards) is frequently seen on protest banners and grafittied on the street.

In France, the police are seen as agents of the state and are often referred to by political opponents as 'Macron's police' when they are reacting violently to protest.

So what next?

The pension reform bill has passed, but it still needs to be ratified by the Constitutional Council, whose opinion is expected in the next few weeks.

If it is approved, the government can go ahead and begin the changes - the original timetable for enacting the reform was September, although Macron said in his TV interview this week that he wanted it to happen "before the end of the year".

But can it really begin amidst all the anger?

The leader of the moderate trade union CFDT, Laurent Berger, said on Friday that he had spoken to an aide to the president and suggested a pause on implementing the pensions law for six months.


"It's the moment to say 'listen, let's put things on pause, let's wait six months'," Berger told RTL radio. "It would calm things down."

"No one knows where the way out lies. There's not an easy one," political scientist Bastien Francois from the Sorbonne University in Paris told AFP.

"Everything depends on one man who is a prisoner of the political situation."

You can keep up with the latest planned strikes and demos in our strike section HERE


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