Marine Le Pen Isn’t on the Same Side as France’s Pension Protesters

Far-right leader Marine Le Pen has often claimed to defend France’s welfare state from liberals. But as millions strike against Emmanuel Macron’s retirement reform, Le Pen seems to be aiding Macron's agenda rather than siding with the protesters.

Marine Le Pen speaks to the media after the debate on the government's pension reform plan at the National Assembly in Paris, February 18, 2023. (Ludovic Marin / AFP via Getty Images)

A common saying in France tells us that “truth arises from a conflict of opinions.” Today, the country finds multiple sources of conflict crystallized in the fight against the pension reform currently being railroaded through parliament. The change would raise the retirement age from sixty-two to sixty-four, justified by the false idea that the pension system needs to be overhauled to keep it funded. President Emmanuel Macron’s policy would also require workers to make forty-three years of pension contributions before they have the right to a full pension.

This reform surely faces broad public opposition: 65 percent of France thinks the government should withdraw the measure, and 81 percent of people under thirty-five are opposed. Since the bill’s introduction in the National Assembly in January, millions of people have marched in the streets, with the country’s two largest trade unions, the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) and the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT), creating an alliance not seen for over a decade. They have united behind a mass strike, which begins today, until the government withdraws its plan. Moreover, all opposition parties have criticized the policy one way or another — some cautiously, others with bombast, some from the Left, others from the Right.

In the National Assembly, the strongest opposition to the passage of the bill came from the New Ecological and Social Popular Union (NUPES), the left-wing coalition led by perennial presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who after the last election used his powerful score to attempt to establish hegemony over the Left. MPs from his party, La France Insoumise (LFI), the largest member of the NUPES coalition, waged the fiercest battle against the bill, introducing a blizzard of thirteen thousand amendments to prevent a vote on the seventh article, which raises the retirement age to sixty-four. They’ve also presented their own counter-bill: to lower the retirement age to sixty, with forty years of contributions for a full pension, and a minimum full pension payment of €1,600 a month.

But rather different is the approach taken by the force often cast as the main opposition to Macron — Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National (RN). Even in criticizing his government’s approach, it has shown the hollowness of its supposed “social” agenda.

Le Pen’s Retiring Opposition

Le Pen surely has long supported a retirement age of sixty with forty years of contributions. This has even placed her at odds with the rest of the RN, including her father, the Holocaust denier Jean-Marie Le Pen, who supported a retirement age of sixty-five during his 2007 presidential campaign.

This “social turn” was explained by Jean-Marie in 2012. “I think that if Marine Le Pen has taken this decision, it’s because she seriously thinks it’s useful for workers and the country,” he said. It was part of a long process of sanitizing her image, notes TF1 Info, “notably by the development of social reform propositions [aimed at] workers and the popular classes of the country.”

But in 2022, when Marine Le Pen came closer to the presidency than ever before, her policy changed. Now, retirement at sixty with forty years of contributions would only be possible for workers who started working before twenty. As for the rest, she proposed retirement at between sixty-two and sixty-seven years, after forty or forty-three years of contributions.

This more ambiguous positioning lets Le Pen oppose Macron’s reform as it’s written, all the while inching away from a policy of universal retirement at sixty with forty years of contributions.

In the National Assembly, her party has sought to paint itself as the sole opposition to Macron’s project. This is helped by the mainstream right-wing party Les Républicains (LR), which is broadly favorable to raising the retirement age.

Macron’s justification for the pension reform is based on the claim that France’s system is in urgent need of restructuring before it becomes financially untenable. He’s backed by a chorus in LR, whose leading members are on the record supporting retirement at sixty-five, and who call Macron’s plan “indispensable,” with opposition to it “irresponsible.” The far-right presidential candidate Éric Zemmour, who competed with Le Pen for the reactionary vote in 2022, also supports raising the retirement age to sixty-five. It’s the only way, he says, to restore the value of labor.

Zemmour’s attacks on opponents of the reform echoed those of Macron’s interior minister, Gérald Darmanin. At the end of January, Darmanin attacked Mélenchon and the entire left’s opposition to the retirement reform as a symptom of their defense of a “leftist, bobo idea, of a society without work, without effort.”

No Enemies

Le Pen, then, is trying to position herself as a defender of France’s working classes, contra LR’s traditional right. And with her attacks on LFI and the wider left’s parliamentary opposition to the bill, she’s also claiming to step in for a Left that supposedly abandoned them.

Yet, RN’s lack of a credible social agenda creates an uncomfortable contradiction whenever it tries to paint itself as the party of opposition. A prime example of this compatible opposition came in the middle of February. In a speech on the floor of the National Assembly highlighting the explosion of workplace deaths in France since Macron came to power, LFI MP Aurélien Saintoul called the Labor Minister Olivier Dussopt a “murderer,” which provoked a flurry of condemnation from the chamber. Saintoul was highlighting Macron’s responsibilities after he cut the number of safety inspectors in French workplaces.

Saintoul soon apologized for his language — but not before Le Pen stood up and made clear her compatibility with Macron’s government. Denouncing the LFI MP’s “verbal escalation,” Le Pen asked the members of the chamber to remember that “in politics, we don’t have enemies, we have adversaries.” Cue applause from the chamber and cheers. “All of [the members of] my group give their support to Oliver Dussopt, who was very certainly wounded by this severe and serious insult.”

But even beyond declarations of solidarity with the government against insults, RN’s entire discourse carries water for Macron’s agenda by accepting its premises. As Attac pointed out, RN has repeatedly promoted the government’s mendacious line about the necessity of “saving” France’s pension system. During the presidential election, Le Pen proposed a xenophobic choice for how the system could be saved: France faced the alternative, she said, between immigration or boosting the number of French children. Either “submerging” the country with more foreign immigrants or promoting a higher birth rate among native French would provide the labor market with the necessary workers to “save” the pension system (how diaper-clad infants would contribute to the pension system with contributions from their Playmobil paychecks hasn’t been explained).

The reality, of course, is that France’s pension system isn’t threatened by an aging population. As Sciences Po economist Michaël Zemmour told Harrison Stetler in Jacobin, the reform has nothing to do with raising more money to pay for future pensions.

Instead, it’s about cutting spending entirely, with a goal of lowering taxes.

“There are deficits and there are funding issues,” he explained, “but there is no structural danger.”

A 2022 report by the Conseil d’orientation des retraites (COR), an independent government body tasked with analyzing the state of France’s retirement system, concluded that there was no imminent funding crisis. Absent any changes, spending is projected to rise from 13.8 percent of GDP in 2021, to 13.9 percent in 2027.

“The real reason for this reform and its timing is to balance out tax cuts,” Michaël Zemmour explained. “This is written in the budget and in commitments and communications with the European Union. Finance minister Bruno Le Maire has been saying it for two years: my strategy is to lower spending in order to lower taxes. This, of course, would make the reform politically unacceptable, which is why the narrative has changed again in recent months, so that we now hear that the system is in financial danger, if we don’t do this, it will collapse. This is not true.”

Yet, Le Pen has been banging the drum about the danger of the system collapsing for years. This claim dovetails with her racist narrative that African and Arab immigrants are looting France’s social system and displacing the native French. Part of her plan for keeping the financing of the pension system stable includes establishing a “priority for nationals” in all social welfare funding. This would mean social spending goes only to French people who’ve lived in the country continuously for at least five years.

An RN Attack on NUPES

In the days before the debate on the bill ended, a swell of voices from NUPES attacked LFI for the gallons of amendments they’d dumped onto the law. Le Pen had long been attacking LFI for just this reason.

Mélenchon’s non-LFI allies in NUPES, particularly those in the Socialist Party and the Greens, in any case oppose him on a raft of issues. These range from Mélenchon’s opposition to the destruction of the labor code under 2012–17 Socialist president François Hollande, to his criticisms of NATO and France’s foreign policy, and long-standing struggle for hegemony over the Left. While they joined with Mélenchon for last year’s parliamentary elections to avoid being wiped out in the National Assembly, ever since they were sworn into their seats there’s been a battle to separate themselves from LFI, whose anti-systemic opposition they find embarrassing.

Le Pen’s strategy — which the non-LFI members of NUPES and the unions also pushed at the last minute — was to bring a vote on Article 7, which raises the retirement age, so that the National Assembly could clarify its position.   Le Pen said that this was the only way to get everybody on the record and launched a motion of no-confidence against the government that she called a “referendum” on the retirement reform.

Yet Mélenchon opposed such a move, which he accused of playing into the president’s hands. With such a vote, the National Assembly, which Macron claims represents the voice of the French people, would have endorsed raising the retirement age. The masses on the streets could thus be wrongly painted as the voices of a discontented minority.

In a post written on February 17 celebrating the success of LFI’s strategy in heading off such a move, Mélenchon explained that Macron himself wanted a vote on Article 7. The president “would be able to oppose the legitimacy of the Assembly to the [legitimacy] of the social movement with a favorable vote in the National Assembly.”

Mélenchon’s strategy has faced harsh criticism from his contingent allies in NUPES, including the Communists, Greens, and Socialists. But it has also denied Macron a clear democratic endorsement of the reform. It can be legitimately claimed that this reform never had any democratic judgment, except for that which will be passed on the street through days like today’s protest.

So, despite Le Pen’s efforts, Mélenchon and his party denied Macron a victory in the National Assembly, and he now has no democratic fig leaf to cover himself with. All that remains is the judgment of the people.