February 5, 2023


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PARIS — France is bracing for a day of severe disruptions and strikes on Thursday as trade unions and opposition parties vow to force the government to abandon French President Emmanuel Macron’s flagship pensions reform.

Schools, universities and public administrations are expected to close, public transport will be severely affected and demonstrations are planned in major cities across the country.  

“It’s going to be a [day] of hassles… It’ll be a Thursday of great disruption of public services,” warned Transport Minister Clément Beaune.

Workers are protesting the government’s decision to raise the legal retirement age to 64 from 62. As part of the proposed overhaul, the number of years of contributions needed for a full pension will also rise faster than previously planned and will be set at 43 years from 2027.

This is one of the biggest tests for Macron since losing outright majority in parliament in June. Macron was reelected last year on promises he would reform France’s public pension system and bring it in line with European neighbors such as Spain and Germany where the legal age of retirement is 65 to 67 years old. According to projections from France’s Council of Pensions Planning, the finances of the pensions system are balanced in the short term but will go into deficit in the long term.

“Whatever pension projection you look at, the system will be go into the red within 15 years… it is difficult to deny the funding issues … The level of expenditure has stabilized but it’s simply higher than the revenues,” said Antoine Bozio, director of the Institute of Public Policy in Paris.  

French polls suggest that the French are opposed to the reform but are aware of the need to overhaul state pensions. There is, however, deep disagreement on how to achieve that. Both the far-right National Rally party and the leftwing NUPES coalition staunchly oppose pushing back the age of retirement to 64 and argue that it will unfairly hit French working classes. Both groups vow to fight the government and stall debates as the pensions bill goes through parliament.

“The Macron-Borne reform is a serious step back for French welfare,” tweeted Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the far-left France unbowed party — which is planning a second day of protests on Sunday.

Macron is hoping to get the votes of the conservative Les Républicains to get the reforms passed in parliament, where he does not have absolute majority.

In the battle to win over public opinion, French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, who unveiled the reform last week, has repeatedly maintained that the changes include several measures that benefit the poorest. The government plans to increase the minimum monthly pension by close to 10 percent to €1,200 for low-income earners, and vows to improve access to early retirement schemes for employees who work in difficult professions.

According to Bozio, while the government’s aim is primarily to balance the books amid increased funding needs for health, education and support for businesses, there are legitimate questions over the fairness of the reform.

“Pushing back the retirement age will not hit the poorest in France, so in that sense the reform is fair,” said Bozio referring to precarious workers who have checkered careers and often leave the workforce later at 67 years old.

In the battle to win over public opinion, French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has repeatedly maintained that the changes include several measures that benefit the poorest | Pool photo by bertrand Guay/AFP via Getty Images

However, lower-income groups, who start work early, will be disadvantaged compared to higher-income groups who have later careers.

“Those hit by the reform will be qualified factory workers, less qualified office workers … Senior managers, the intellectual classes who have done long studies, will be less affected,” he said.

There were other options on the table. In 2020, Macron’s government worked on a more balanced reform, which had the backing of one of France’s main trade unions the CFDT, but was forced to shelve it following months of strikes along with the COVID-19 pandemic which brought the country to a halt.

France has a long history of showdowns between government-led pension reforms and the public backlash on the street in the form of mass protests and walking off the job. In his second term, Macron has settled for a less aggressive, more topical reform focused on raising the legal age of retirement in the hope that it would be easier to pass through parliament. The breadth of Thursday’s protests will be a first test of that choice.





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