ANALYSIS: Who won the great French pension battle?

John Lichfield
John Lichfield - [email protected]
ANALYSIS: Who won the great French pension battle?
The pension protests brought huge numbers of people onto the streets - but who has really 'won' the battle? Photo by AFP

It is all over. After five months the great pensions battle of 2023 is won and lost, writes John Lichfield. So from the unions to the politicians to the French people themselves - who are the winners and losers?


The new law increasing the official French state pension age from 62 to 64 will take effect from September 1st as planned.

The 14th trades union day of strikes and marches on Tuesday was a resounding flop. The government will out-manoeuvre the opposition when a final attempt is made to ditch the reform in the National Assembly on Thursday.

READ ALSO Are French pension strikes over?

Who won and who lost? Some obvious winners (like President Emmanuel Macron) are also losers. Some losers, like the trades unions, are also partial winners.

Emmanuel Macron - a badly bruised winner

The President has won a victory against 70 percent of his own people. At some point in the future, he may be given credit for his tenacity, if not his tactics. In the meantime, the legacy of anger – real amongst some people, synthetic amongst many others – will make the remaining four years of his political career an obstacle course in a minefield.


Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne - an unlucky loser

The Prime Minister shaped the government’s tactics. She counted on a split in the trades union and wagered on the pro-reform unity of the centre-right Les Républicains.

The unions remained united. Les Républicains split. As a result, the government was obliged to resort to its special constitutional powers to enact the reform.

She will probably pay the price when Macron reshuffles his government in the autumn or earlier. Would any other PM have done better? Probably not.

The trades unions – losers but winners

Despite 14 days of action since early January, the union (inter-syndicale) of the eight main trades union federations has lost. The outgoing leader of the moderate CFDT, Laurent Berger, admitted yesterday for the first time that the pensions reform WILL take effect from September 1st.

Asterix-like, guerrilla actions will no doubt continue among saucepan-banging hard-liners. Legal attempts will be made to challenge the decrees gradually implementing the delayed pension age over four years.

But union boasts that France would be “brought to a halt” and the reform vanquished have come to nothing.

The unions can, however, console themselves with – and build on – two victories in defeat. The united front of radical and moderate unions held firm. The more successful days of action mobilised larger numbers of protesters than most commentators thought possible.

If the unions draw the right conclusions from their achievements under their new generation of female leaders, neither this nor future governments can assume that union power in France is broken.

The Left – a bombastic loser

The party-political Left, united under the Nupes label, emerges from the pensions battle damaged and divided. Its de facto leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, promised victory “by force”.


He came close on several occasions to justifying violence. He shaped parliamentary tactics of insults and blockages which proved counter-productive.

The widespread popular opposition to pension reform offered at least a moral victory to the Left. They muffed it.

The Centre-Right – a self-defeat

France’s former “family of government”, incorporating the Gaullist movement, has campaigned for a later pension age at the last three presidential elections. Confronted with a choice between a) coherence and b) tripping up Macron, they split down the middle.

Les Républicains (LR), with less than 5 percent of the vote in last year’s presidential election, can hardly afford to splinter. They have. They will continue to do so.

The 2023 pensions battle – not the real one but the one within the LR party – may mark the beginning of the end of the rump of the Gaullist movement.

The Far Right – winning by default

By common consent, Marine Le Pen emerges as one of the great winners of the pensions battle. By almost common consent, she and her party, Le Rassemblement National, said or did nothing memorable in the last five months.

They played little part in the parliamentary debates. They stood aside from the street protests (where they were not welcome). They offered no sensible alternative to Macron’s reform.


They want to reduce the retirement age to 60 (for some) and somehow fill the resulting financial chasm by penalising “immigrants” who have paid part of their wages into the system.

Le Pen’s “victory” is, I believe, ephemeral. She benefits because she is vaguely seen as Leader of the Opposition and because the other oppositions are divided. In 2027, she will fail once again, I believe, because she has no coherent vision to offer to the French people.

The National Assembly – a loser and a winner

The lower house of the French parliament was denied the right to vote “yes” or “no” on the pension reform in March. It would almost certainly have voted “no”. President Macron therefore decided to use his special power (under Article 49.3 of the constitution) to turn the decision into a vote of confidence in his government, which he narrowly won.

Arguably, that proved the weakness of the National Assembly – arguably the weakest parliament in the European Union.

But the Assembly, so often ignored, has been at the centre of French politics in the last five months. A divided French lower house with no clear majority is actually quite a powerful body.

It will be at the centre of attention again on Thursday when the government will use another constitutional manoeuvre to defeat an attempted opposition manoeuvre to call the pension reform into question.

Overall, the Assembly emerges defeated but strengthened from the pensions battle.

Firstly, it has been constantly in the news. Secondly, the De Gaulle-era government power to override parliament has been understood for the first time by many young French voters. They don’t like it.

No government will be able to use its Article 49.3 powers without careful consideration in the future.

The French people – won despite themselves

The virulence of the French opposition to working until they are 64 seems odd to some outsiders and heroic to others. The French, we are told, are protecting their way of life against the demands of the global “system”. In that case, the French “way of life” has only existed for 40 years.

President François Mitterrand reduced the official retirement age to 60 in the early 1980s. Until then, the French worked until they were 65. Under the present reform, the minimum age to claim a full pension (except for the many exceptions) will not become 64 until 2030.

The Macron reform may have been muddled and poorly sold. It was also modest and necessary. France works, overall, less than its neighbours and competitors. Its life expectancy is growing.

The French, despite themselves, will eventually be the great winners from pension reform.


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