Why the French are on the barricades, and why retirement reform is vital nonetheless.
The French, General de Gaulle observed, only ever achieve reform through revolution. In recent decades, however, they have consistently risen up against change.
The latest rebellion was triggered by President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to raise the pension age from 62 to 64. The aim is to balance the books and protect the pension system, but that is not how voters see it. Polls show that two-thirds oppose the reform.
The government’s decision to force it through parliament without a final vote last month only strengthened resistance. Some protests turned violent, with rioters smashing shop windows, burning vehicles and hurling flares at police. Strikes have caused transport disruptions and fuel shortages. The most dramatic illustration of the chaos has been the garbage piling up on Paris sidewalks. The protests are showing signs of waning—570,000 people took part in marches last Thursday, down from over 1m in March. But tensions are still high and further strikes are planned.
The turmoil invites three questions. Are the pension reforms justified? Were they pushed through in a democratic way? Whether or not the measures can be defended in terms of policy or procedure, is widespread popular opposition a good reason to drop them?
The answers are: yes, yes and a qualified no.
The bookkeeping case for reform is overwhelming. An aging population has prompted other European countries to increase their retirement age: it is 66 in the UK and will soon rise to 67 in Germany. Such an adjustment is particularly needed in France, where there is no large pool of pension savings to draw on (state reserves, company schemes and the like). Instead, the French largely rely on a pay-as-you-go-system: today’s workers are taxed to pay for today’s retirees. As a result, pensions account for a quarter of all government spending.
And France’s finances are parlous. Public expenditure is 59% of GDP, the highest figure among rich countries. Last year the government paid €52 billion to service its debt, more than it spent on defense. With rising interest rates, the cost is bound to increase further. France’s aging population makes reform especially urgent. In 1960, there were four workers for one retiree. The figure is currently less than 1.7. If people don’t work for longer, either the tax burden will become crushing or benefits will have to be cut back.
During his re-election campaign last year, Macron promised to raise the minimum pension age to 65, the European average. The minority government then wooed the center-right to try to get the bill through parliament. Costly concessions were made, including to those who started working at an early age. The law is a watered-down version of an unambitious reform.
Whatever its merits, the way the legislation was handled has drawn widespread condemnation. An allegedly authoritarian president stands accused of bypassing trade unions and parliament.
On the union front, Macron did take risks by drafting the reform without involving the “social partners,” as the French call them. The question is: should they be granted a right to shape economic policy? For that is what calls for “social dialogue” amount to. Unions play a vital role in the workplace, but final decisions over public spending are normally made by elected assemblies.
Giving big labor a veto over such matters is a particularly dubious proposition in a country where only around 10% of the workforce is unionized. Moreover, French syndicats survive on subsidies from the state and employers—unlike their counterparts in northern Europe, which are member-financed. In short, organizations with questionable grassroots credentials are seeking the kind of political power enjoyed by British unions at the height of their clout in the 1970s.
The fiercest criticism has been over the manner in which the bill was forced through parliament. The government used a constitutional provision that allows legislation to be approved without a vote unless a no-confidence motion is passed by a majority of MPs, in which case the prime minister falls and a successor with stronger parliamentary backing is sought. The resort to this ultimatum, known as article 49-3, unleashed pandemonium in the assembly. Macron’s prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, was shouted down by MPs. Left-wing leaders accused the government of “switching to authoritarianism” and “crushing democracy.”
In fact, article 49-3 has been wielded 100 times since 1958, most prolifically by a socialist prime minister who led a minority government from 1988 to 1991. It was activated by Borne last month after leaders from the center-right Les Républicains party, who had supported Macron’s plan, failed to deliver the votes they had pledged. In the end, many center-right MPs shrank from endorsing an unpopular measure. But enough sided with the government in subsequent no-confidence votes to ensure adoption of the plan.
Article 49-3 is undoubtedly a blunt instrument, but not a dictatorial one. A head of government is entitled to ask legislators whose side they are on. In English-speaking countries, rebels are strong-armed by government whips behind closed doors. In France, the “back-me-or-sack me” confrontation occurs in the open. A prime minister puts her head on the block and dares lawmakers to swing the ax. Ultimate power rests with them.
Macron may have legality on his side, but what about legitimacy? Many commentators have urged him to listen to the voice of the people. In a democracy, shouldn’t the “wonderful power of numbers,” as one academic put it, prevail over remote institutions?
The answer, in theory, is no: people rule through elected representatives. Government by citizens is regarded as unworkable because people and groups have different priorities. Individuals don’t have the time or expertise to reconcile conflicting demands and arbitrate on complex issues. Besides, direct democracy is open to abuse by demagogues and capture by special interests.
That principle was stated eloquently by America's founding fathers, and perhaps most succinctly by Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, the chief theorist of the French Revolution: “The citizens who appoint representatives must forfeit the right to make laws themselves.”
The theory may be simple, but applying it in France is anything but. Time and again in recent decades, laws have been voted by assemblies, signed by presidents, approved by constitutional judges, only to be withdrawn after unrest. Such U-turns are not systematic, but they happen often enough to signal that the barricade can be stronger than the ballot.
This way of legislating from the street is especially striking in fiscal policy. In response to the “yellow vest” uprising of 2018-19—which saw stores ransacked, cars burned and government buildings attacked across the country—the government dropped a rise in fuel taxes and approved €10 billion in extra spending.
This is a challenge not just to elected bodies, but to the rule of law itself. During a recent protest a banner waved by unionists read: “Let's block everything.” This was a neat encapsulation of the movement. It does not matter that blockading oil depots (the reason for the fuel shortages) is an offense under France’s criminal code. A “just” cause trumps all mere legality.
Macron, who has defied mass protests in the past, has vowed once again to defend representative government. His last hurdle is the Constitutional Council—France’s closest equivalent to the U.S. Supreme Court—which is considering procedural challenges to the reform filed by opposition parties and is expected to issue a ruling on Friday.
One key complaint regards the government’s decision to present the reform as an amendment to the social security budget rather than a standalone bill, which under French law allowed the government to shorten parliamentary debate. But assuming the judges uphold the core of the legislation, which many (though not all) commentators see as likely, it will reach the statute book in the coming weeks.
Even if Macron manages to have his way on pensions, however, he looks like a spent force as a reformer. In a political spectrum composed of three blocs, he holds the most vulnerable position: the center ground. Caught between a right and a left that are both dominated by hardliners, he is attacked on all sides.
More fundamentally, the presidency, despite its imperial reputation, is a weak institution. The considerable powers vested in the president under the current constitution have made every incumbent a lightning rod—when anything goes wrong, it is their fault. The present crisis illustrates this point. When asked what they are angry about, protesters mention many grievances besides pension reform—standards of living, public services, and general exasperation with Macron.
In many ways modern France resembles the ancien régime. It is run by potentates who struggle to impose their will. The political philosopher Jean-François Revel summarized the presidential predicament with a telling phrase: “ineffectual absolutism.” A hobbled Macron occupying an overexposed institution may have right on his side—but he will find it hard to defy future revolts against change.
Henri Astier is a London-based journalist who writes for French- and English-language publications.
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