A scroll The country’s The strike was launched on March 7 and on the third day economist Published on March 9, a union leader declared, it would “bring the economy to its knees”. With nearly 1.3 million protesters in the streets across France on the first day, a third of classrooms were closed and there were sporadic illegal power outages, as the country’s trade unions confronted the government over a looming pension reform. The deadline for parliament to review President Emmanuel Macron’s legislation is March 26. The union, which has renewed its strike every day, wants him to back off and shelve plans until then.
At the heart of the reform is raising the minimum pension age from 62 to 64 and accelerating the annual contribution from 41 to 43 to receive a full pension. Every French leader who has tried to delay the retirement of its citizens knows that pension reform is a powder keg. This time, the hostility grew stronger as the protests continued. Street turnout on 7 March was slightly higher than the record set on 31 January. Two-thirds of French still say they want the government to shelve its plans, as they did at the beginning of the year.
Pensions minister Olivier Dussopt, who joined Mr Macron’s centrist movement from the Socialist Party, patiently tried to explain why an aging population and generous retirement plans meant some concessions had to be made. Unless the rules change, the pension system will run an annual deficit of 14 billion euros ($15 billion) by 2030. He and Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne held discussions for weeks and made various concessions to win parliamentary support. But Mr Macron lost his majority in the National Assembly last year. Center-right Republicans, who he needs votes for, have been playing hardball — even though they themselves have raised the retirement age in the past while in office.
In the National Assembly, the debate has become toxic. France Disobeyed by Jean-Luc Mélenchon NUPESThe largest opposition, the left-wing Parliamentary Union, has been on a mission of sabotage. It originally proposed around 13,000 amendments to delay proceedings and prevent the House of Commons from holding its first vote on the article raising the pension age. Mr Mélenchon now wants Mr Macron to dissolve parliament or call a referendum. He said the president was implementing unfair reforms “against the will of the people.”
France’s inability to engage in a serious debate on pension reform does not bode well. Neither side is in the mood to back down. Mr Macron and his government have failed to convince public opinion of the merits of their reforms, even though it has retained a generous system less radical than the one he initially proposed and put on hold because of covid-19, and in his election last year declaration.
If the government cannot cobble together votes in time, it can still resort to constitutional provisions to force reforms. This will put the new rules into the codex. But such a choice carries its own risks. Not only would it prompt opposition claims of government abuse; it could also trigger new legislative elections. ■