Of all the issues that can sink a French government, perhaps none is more potent than pension reform. Any change to the country’s generous pension system is guaranteed to bring demonstrators out on the streets and prompt strikes.
That is what happened today (16 February). Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest for the fifth time this year against Emmanuel Macron’s proposal to reform the pensions system. The main measure the government is proposing is to push the age of retirement back two years, from 62 to 64. The government argues that reforms are necessary to ensure the long-term sustainability of the pensions system – France currently spends 14.5 per cent of GDP on pensions, the third-highest in the OECD.
Political opponents of the reform – from Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally to the Nupes, a left-wing coalition – have public opinion on their side. A poll published yesterday by the CSA Institute indicates that two thirds of the public oppose the reform while just a third support it.
Passing pension reform has proved all the more complicated because Macron’s party, La République en Marche (LREM), lost its parliamentary majority in last year’s legislative elections. As a result, it relies on allies from the right-wing Republican party to pass controversial reforms. It has also repeatedly resorted to using article 49.3 of the constitution, a controversial provision that allows the government to pass legislation without a vote in parliament.
The Republicans have, however, realised how dependent Macron is on them in parliament. Cynically, despite the party’s historic support for raising the retirement age, it has chosen to needle the government on certain issues, such as voting against a measure the government says would incentivise employers to keep older people in employment. It’s unclear how far Macron’s government will go to pass the reform. The government would likely prefer to pass the measure with opposition votes, granting it democratic legitimacy, if not popular support. But if the Republicans do not play along, Macron’s government may be forced to use the 49.3 to force it through parliament.
The pension issue, then, is likely to be the most significant indicator of Macron’s ability to continue shaping the country since his re-election last year. If he retreats, he will appear weak and risk looking like a lame-duck president less than a year into his second term. The likelihood of his government being able to pass major reforms during the remainder of his time in office would drop significantly.
If Macron forces the pension reform through without a vote using article 49.3, he will face accusations of disregarding parliament and risk the National Assembly taking a vote of no confidence in his government. Losing such a vote would lead to fresh legislative elections, which might well result in his party performing even worse than it did in 2022. Opposition parties, of which the National Rally is the single strongest, might make gains, potentially further complicating the parliamentary arithmetic for the remainder of Macron’s time in office.
But even if he won the necessary votes in parliament and was able to pass the law, the government would be presented as being in the pocket of the Republicans and their hard-line leader Éric Ciotti – a sharp contrast to the moderate image the president likes to portray.
The first phase of the debate on the reform is scheduled to end on Friday (17 February). Debates will restart in March. The highest-stakes showdown yet could happen on 7 March, when trade unions and left-wing parties have threatened to “bring France to a standstill” if the bill is not withdrawn. That is a high-risk strategy that risks eroding support among the population, suffering from the effects of high inflation and low growth. But neither side has indicated they are prepared to back down in this struggle for France’s future.