Last Tuesday, French prime minister Élisabeth Borne presented President Emmanuel Macron’s long-anticipated “pension reform” to the National Assembly. The controversial measure promises to raise France’s full retirement age to sixty-four by 2030 (it currently stands at sixty-two), while also requiring forty-three years of employee contributions for a complete pension.
The reform isn’t yet law: it still has to face the Council of Ministers on January 23, to determine its constitutionality, and then a parliamentary debate next month. Macron, who lacks a parliamentary majority, can draw on the near-unqualified support of Les Républicains (LR), the mainstream right-wing party he’s governed in tacit agreement with. Yet, the rest of the parliamentary opposition has come out against the project to varying degrees.
Importantly, the major trade unions have also shown uncommon coordination — calling for a united mobilization against raising the retirement age on January 19. It is the first such joint mobilization in twelve years.
Macron’s longtime ally François Bayrou, president of the centrist Democratic Movement or MoDem party and high commissioner for planning, has said that the reform presented by Bayrou has room for improvement. He acknowledged that a likely “arduous” parliamentary discussion will be accompanied by dialogue with the French people, as well as reflection, and protests.
But the procedural game which the government plans to push the bill through bears little resemblance to Bayrou’s talk about the wonders of democratic debate. Speaking in the National Assembly last Tuesday, the president of the Communist group, André Chassaigne, accused Borne of playing a “dirty game” of the type that only an “enemy of democracy” would attempt. Chassaigne was here addressing the rumor that the government might try to pass the reform through a social security financing bill (known as PLFRSS), which would allow for a series of constitutional delays that would significantly limit the amount of time deputies can discuss the bill. It would also block the possibility for the opposition to present their own counterproposals.
“Your retirement reform, negotiated with Les Républicains,” said Chassaigne to jeers from right-wing MPs, “is a brutal reform, a right-wing reform.”
“The retirement system . . . isn’t in danger,” Laurent Berger, president of the reformist French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT) trade union, commented. “Nothing justifies such a brutal reform.” Berger, who leads France’s largest union, which in the past has worked closely with the government, promised a “powerful, long-term mobilization.”
The General Confederation of Labour (CGT), France’s second largest union, is known for a sometimes more confrontational approach to government attacks on social programs. Eric Sellini, the national coordinator for the union at TotalEnergies oil plants, raised the possibility, “if necessary,” of shutting down refineries — a move that could disrupt the petrol supply.
Indeed, the pension reform faces a rocky road ahead. Interior minister Gérald Darmanin warned members of the government about a “period of tensions,” during which they should limit the amount of times they travel, reported Le Canard enchaîné. He warned that law enforcement resources for security would be limited because they’d likely be deployed against protesters instead. Because of this, he told ministers they might even face a heightened risk of being attacked.
What we do already know is that the reform is sure to spark major opposition, as unions and left-wing parties rally against a deeply unpopular attack on the French welfare model.
Darmanin’s warnings reflect the fact that there is no popular support for the reform. A recent poll by Elabe for BFMTV found that just 27 percent of France want to raise the retirement age at all. That’s nearly the same number (25 percent) who think it should be lowered. And 47 percent of the country says the retirement age should stay where it is now, at sixty-two.
France’s retirement system is the fruit of 1945, and the postwar consensus crystallized by the program of the National Council of the Resistance. Following Nazi Germany’s occupation of the country, this council drew together Resistance forces, expressing popular aspirations for state planning and social welfare. This was also a means by which the French ruling class integrated the potentially disruptive power of the French Communist Party, then at the peak of its influence among the French working class and the largest single party in early postwar elections.
Until the early 1990s, successive pension reforms mostly consisted of expanding access to the general pension system, which is funded by contributions from active workers to retirees. This redistributive system creates an active bond of solidarity between older and younger citizens, as those in work pay for the already retired. In the past few decades, neoliberal governments have tried to paint a picture of a pension system teetering on the edge, funded by a huge deficit, and in imminent danger of collapse without cuts.
But there are also those who paint a quite different picture. These plans, say critics on the Left like Jean-Luc Mélenchon — third-placed in the 2022 presidential election — represent an attempt to sack the current system and open up pensions to market forces and logic. The goal of privatizers like Macron and his political current is to transform a system of social solidarity into one of individual savers contributing to their own individual pension funds. In Mélenchon’s analysis, the pension system is just the next target the liberals are after, now that they’ve already gutted the education system and public health infrastructure.
It’s no secret that the current system has its limits. Two of Mélenchon’s centerpiece policies in the 2022 presidential election were raising the minimum pension to €1,500 a month, as well as lowering the retirement age to sixty. Part of the way the government has tried to sell its current reform is by promising to raise the minimum pension to €1,200 a month (a €100 increase). But this low threshold still only applies after forty-three years of full-time contributions. That means even if a minimum-wage worker went part time near the end of their career, they’d have to push back their retirement even further past sixty-four to get the full, already inadequate pension pot.
49.3 Antidemocratic Attacks
Although Macron has no popular assent, nor a parliamentary majority for his reform, he does have constitutional tools he can use to push the package through.
One, known as 49.3 (after the article of the Constitution which grants the president this power), essentially lets him bypass the National Assembly. The constitution of the current Fifth Republic grants the president these authoritarian powers to hedge against any popular sentiment that might make its way into the lower house. The use of 49.3 would suspend the debate in the National Assembly, then send the bill directly to the Senate, which is controlled by Les Républicains.
France’s Senate is another antidemocratic edifice. Instead of election by popular suffrage, its members are elected by delegates appointed by France’s around 150,000 local councilors. The result is a body that doesn’t reflect the political composition of the country, but rather overrepresents rural France and the Right, which has long dominated its benches. Tellingly, despite the decline of the major twentieth-century institutional parties, who scored single figures in last year’s presidential elections, Les Républicains have kept hold of the Senate. The Senate president, Gérard Larcher, who hails from this right-wing party, has called the pension reform plan “indispensable.” Last Thursday he called the prospect of the unions “blocking the country” in opposition to the measure “irresponsible.”
Article 49.3 has been used ten times since Macron lost his majority after last summer’s parliamentary elections. It’s been resorted to so often that it’s a running gag in his party. At the end of 2022, the prime minister resorted to it once again to pass the budget. Members of the party then gave Borne a French national soccer jersey with the number 49.3 on the back, reported Le Monde. A few weeks earlier, friends of the Macron-backed president of the National Assembly, Yaël Braun-Pivet, gifted her a bottle of wine with the label “vintage 49.3.”
Democracy is clearly a joke to the team Macron has in the assembly pushing the reform. It’s no secret that he considers it his number one priority for the term. In his first term, the project was all set to be pushed through the National Assembly until the country was shut down when the pandemic hit.
The only maneuver in the assembly which can halt the invocation of 49.3 is a vote of no confidence. Each time Borne has used the tool, France Insoumise has brought a censure motion, which triggers such a vote. If a majority of the assembly backs the vote, the prime minister has to step down and the government is dissolved. But while France Insoumise has enough numbers to force a vote, getting a majority for a no-confidence motion is a more difficult matter, even with the (not always reliable) support of the other parties in the left-wing alliance known as NUPES. Moreover, while the other main opposition force — Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National — has come out against Macron’s reform, it hasn’t voted with France Insoumise’s previous no-confidence motions. And given the all but open alliance between Les Républicains and the president’s supporters, not voting for such no-confidence motions amounts to de facto assent for the government’s program.
In the meantime, France Insoumise has prepared tens of thousands of amendments aimed at slowing down the passage of the law, part of a pattern of opposition which the prime minister has called “systematic.”
At stake isn’t just a dignified life, but a life at all. During his 2022 presidential campaign, Mélenchon called for “nationalizing time,” a flight of rhetorical fireworks under which he conveyed a rather simpler truth. He was here calling for the rhythms of production to be harmonized with the rhythms of human life — including the need for a tired human being to stop working at the age of sixty, if they want.
Mélenchon’s eloquent language stands for a retirement which working-class people can have the time to enjoy. In France, the “healthy life expectancy,” an index of one’s lifespan without being limited by health problems, is just sixty-four years for men and sixty-five for women: and the poor die long before the rich. Macron’s retirement overhaul may have the title of an anodyne, technocratic “reform.” But it promises the French working class one thing: work until you’re worn out and sick, then die.