How Emmanuel Macron’s pension reforms could paralyse his presidency

As the biggest strike for more than a decade has shown, the French president has picked a fight with the entire working population. 

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Last Friday, the Paris transport system came to a standstill. Employees at RATP, the company that runs the metro and bus lines as well as suburban RER trains, launched the biggest French strike for more than a decade: between 60 and 98 per cent of the workforce took action, according to trade unions.

With ten metro lines completely closed and buses, trams and RER trains scarcely running, the strike wreaked havoc on Paris streets. People resorted to cars to move around the French capital, which in turn led to hundreds of kilometres of accumulated traffic on Paris’s M25, the périphérique.

RATP workers were striking against Emmanuel Macron’s planned reform of the pensions system, which has proved as divisive as it is wide ranging. The measure, one of the French president’s campaign pledges, will introduce a single “universal pension system” in place of the current 42 systems based on multiple professions. Workers’ pensions will be calculated according to the number of “points” accumulated through their career, instead of the current system, which is based on worked trimesters. 

From 2025, a €10 contribution to the pensions system will be counted as one point, and once workers reach 62 years old, the number of points earned will be multiplied by €0.55 to calculate their annual pension. One euro paid under this new system, Macron has promised, will “give everyone the same rights” — but voters fear they will merely end up poorer than under the current system.

French people in careers as varied as nurses, lawyers, metro drivers or pilots fear that the reform will erase their specific pension rights. The pensions of RATP employees, for example, are currently calculated according to the salary earned in the last six months of their career, which compensates for the “arduousness” of the work (such as punishingly early starts and long hours), union representative Thierry Babec explained during the strike. Trade unions estimate that the new pensions system will lead to a 30 per cent cut in RATP workers’ pensions. “The strength of this strike shows how much the pensions system is at the heart of our social contract,” Babec said. 

During the strike, workers occupied the RATP’s HQ in Paris, shouting “our pensions are worth fighting for” and calling for “unlimited December strikes” if a solution isn’t achieved by then. RATP unions have called for the French government to allow “real negotiations” to take place and for “tangible guarantees” to be rapidly offered. They called for the “convergence of struggles” in all transport sectors, including road and rail, hailing the first strike as a “success” and vowing to continue.

If one strike can immobilise Paris, just imagine what effect comparable strikes could have across France. And anger isn’t confined to transport workers: on 16 September, three days after the RATP, lawyers, doctors, nurses and other medical professionals, pilots and stewards embarked on industrial action. In total, workers across 14 high-skilled, self-employed professions went on strike in protest at Macron’s reforms. Under the new system, their independent pension funds would be scrapped and merged into the national system. All fear that the new system wouldn’t account for their “arduousness”: stewards deal with late nights and jet lag; there will be no pension rights for spouses of pilots working in dangerous situations; and all self-employed professionals will see their contributions double to 28 per cent of their earnings. For some, this share is so large that it would force the closure of their business.

France has seen a rise in protests over the last year — from farmers, to green activists, to undocumented migrants and, of course, yellow vests, a multitude of minority groups have made their voices heard. As Macron’s breakneck reforms enter their next stage, the president is running the risk of angering not merely one or two sectional groups, but vast swathes of the working population. 

The conundrum with pensions is that every worker has one and, as every French president knows, pensions are not worth tampering with — just ask Nicolas Sarkozy, whose attempt at reforming them precipitated the previous biggest strike on record in 2007

But Macron, the youngest French leader since Napoleon, was confident enough to abolish the French wealth tax within two months of his presidency, alienating many of the country’s poor and eventually triggering the yellow vests crisis. In the name of giving all citizens the “same rights”, why wouldn’t he risk enraging the entire working population? (Around 29.6 million people.) 

Macron tested his luck, with uneven results, when yellow vests appeared on French roundabouts last year. It’s unclear whether he can afford to pretend to listen to his detractors while maintaining his course this time. What is certain is that September will bring successive waves of protests: energy workers at Électricité de France (EDF) have called a strike for 19 September, 21 September will see major unions, yellow vests, and climate activists marching together, while rail workers have announced 24 September as their own day of action. If striking workers combine their forces into a “universal system” of their own, Macron might well long for last autumn’s mild social unrest.

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency.