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Why is the French pension reform so controversial?


Source: Wikimedia


Already in 2020, the French government was trying to pass its pension system reform but decided to interrupt the legislative process because of covid. Pension reforms are a sensitive topic in France, many are the governments that unsuccessfully tried to bring change to the country’s retirement system. At the time, foreign newspapers were describing this process as a “never-ending boxing match.” French people are indeed not going through their first pension reform, they know governments can back down if protests and strikes are big enough. However, Emmanuel Macron just seems to have given the last punch, putting an end to the match. As a matter of fact, the Constitutional Council just approved the most controversial part of his reform, the raise of the legal retirement age from 62 to 64.


In March 2023, tourists visiting Paris were welcomed by piles and piles of trash. With garbage collectors refusing to work, the city of love quickly turned into an open-air dump. Since debates around the project started, 13 days of national strikes took place to freeze the economy, especially the transport sector. While this would have been unacceptable in many countries, one can be surprised to hear that the French were actually quite supportive of the protests. In fact, according to polls (Toluna Harris Interactive), nearly 3 French people out of 4 support the social movement around the reform. But why is it so?


Let’s first look at history

We all have in mind the 1789 French Revolution against King Louis XVI’s monarchy. A widespread analysis is that, since then, massive protests and strikes are particularly accepted by French people as it is precisely what helped them build their nation. But, as this analysis might explain the overall support of strikes in France, it does not explain why pension reforms are such a hot topic.


France has one of the most ambitious systems for workers’ protection. From the 1864 Ollivier law recognizing the right to strike, many laws aiming at improving workers’ rights were passed. The very first national strike took place in 1906, and it resulted in the capping of the daily worked time to 8 hours. Progressively, many of what we call “acquis sociaux”, social achievements, were implemented throughout the 20th century. This includes for instance the right to unite, social insurance, minimum wage, the 35-hour week, a national unemployment fund, social insurance, or 5 weeks of paid leave. After the second world war, the legal retirement age was of 65. However, in 1982, President François Mitterand is elected promising to lower it to 60, which he did, invoking a “fight for the time to live”.


In French people’s minds, there was thus clear historical trend in dedicating more and more time to leisure. As productivity increases with new technologies, people are able to produce equally in a fewer amount of time. Instead of working longer, companies would employ new workers to take advantage of this increase in productivity, allowing for more leisure time (note leisure time is known for encouraging consumption). French people had faith in this virtuous cycle.



Productivity and GDP per capita in France, base 100 in 1950


One can imagine what the French people’s reaction was when in 1995, Prime Minister Alain Juppé presented his plan to align pensions of some public professions (with more favorable conditions) to those of the private sectors (with less favorable conditions). The “glorious thirty” are over, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan opened the way for a less interventionist State, and France starts taking on this new trend. Three weeks of strike follow the announcement, with more than 2 million protesters in the streets, Juppé decides to back down on his announcements around pensions. It is in 2003 that a similar reform is passed, the Fillon reform. Even with a social movement of the same magnitude, labor unions finally agree to let the reform pass after softening some aspects of it. From this moment on, the system has been revised a few times by successive governments, resulting in a net increase in the contribution period for French workers.


This more historical analysis brings us to the French people’s relationship with labor. Indeed, there was this idea they would live a more comfortable life than their parents, have more free time, and dedicate the end of their life to grandchildren, charity, or traveling. The frustration is thus big as France realizes year after year this won’t be the case. As it is known some previous governments withdrew their reforms in the past, mobilization is now coordinated and intense whenever the words “pension reform” are heard.


Another factor explaining the strong opposition is the fact that most people have good reasons to be against it. Both left and far-right parties are opposed to these measures; the former because of an attachment to Welfare State, and for the latter, mainly to gain the support of the masses. Except the upper class that can already sustain itself with no financial support, these reforms affect everyone; whether young or old, no matter the industry, no matter the gender. To be precise, the 2023 reform does not affect genders equally; some members of the government even admitted it was “slightly unfair to women.” Indeed, the raise of the retirement age is linked to issues such as life expectancy of poorer people, gender equality, as well as working conditions. Also, as most of the population is against the reform, some talk about a “Democracy crisis”. These various debates lead to what is called “convergence des luttes”, a concept related to the fact that these reforms can worsen many broader social injustices. In recent protests, the question of the climate crisis was also raised as young people claim they will not be able to enjoy their last years peacefully, the climate getting worse and worse.


To conclude, these reforms are for French people much more than about retirement age, they also are about French history, democracy, gender equality, solidarity across generations, the meaning of work, or more recently about climate justice.


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