News / Political Climate in France after Pension Reform

April 2023

Political Climate in France after Pension Reform

Region: Europe

Author: Lucie Gonçalves

The pension reform has been the focal point of enduring discontent from unions and a large chunk of the French population in the last few months.

On April 14, the French Constitutional Council approved the key provisions of the controversial pension reform law. Following this decision, President Emmanuel Macron rapidly enacted the law on April 15, in line with his stated intent to make the reform gradually enter into force, starting this fall.

The pension reform has been the focal point of enduring discontent from unions and a large chunk of the French population in the last few months. Unions still denounce a law they consider tainted by several legal, democratic, and social failures. Two provisions in the law are particularly controversial: the gradual raise of the legal retirement age from 62 to 64 (at a rate of 3 months per year from September 1, 2023 until 2030) and the increase of the working time needed to get a full pension from 42 years (168 quarters) to 43 years (172 quarters) by 2027, at the rate of one quarter per year. The Council deemed both unpopular provisions compliant with the French Constitution.

Following the Council’s decision, on April 18, President Macron gave a televised speech in which he briefly acknowledged the French population’s anger over the reform. He affirmed that he had heard the people’s demands for social justice and democratic renewal. However, he remained uncompromising and reasserted that the reform was necessary for the pension system’s financial sustainability and that it would produce more wealth for the country. He implied that his reform would protect French pensions from “speculation and foreign powers”. He also pushed back against protesters by emphasizing the importance of the judicial system’s “independence”, a barely veiled reference to those attacking the Constitutional Council’s legitimacy, and by rejecting both “immobility and extremism”.

Regardless, the government will need to repair or at least appease, insofar as possible, its tattered relationship with unions. Although Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said that the country “needs appeasement” and “a period of convalescence”, insisting on the importance of hitting the “right timing” to renew the dialogue with unions, President Macron chose to move quickly and invited employer federations and trade unions “who are ready” to meet at the Elysée Palace on April 18. He offered to start negotiations on a new labor law reform “without any limits or taboos”. Macron assessed those demonstrations ostensibly against the pension reform were in fact caused by decreasing living standards brought on by rising inflation. As a result, he wants to reform labor laws to address wage stagnation, facilitate career development, reduce wealth disparities, improve working conditions, alleviate arduous working conditions, reduce senior unemployment, generalize professional retraining, and more.

However, trade unions refuse to meet him before Labor Day (May 1st), still asking for the pension reform to be retracted. It remains to be seen whether the unprecedented mobilization against the pension reform, which has since morphed into an overall denunciation of Emmanuel Macron’s uncompromising top-down approach to governing, will lose its momentum. Although angry protests are not expected to vanish anytime soon, on April 13, head of France’s largest union, the – reformist – CFDT, Laurent Berger expressed his fear of seeing the movement run out of steam and expressed his reluctance to demonstrate indefinitely. On her part, newly elected leader of the – hardline – CGT Sophie Binet assured that her organization would keep mobilizing in weeks and, if needed, in months to come.

Opposition parties also intend to take advantage of the current political crisis. The Socialist party plans to table a bill in Parliament to repeal the most controversial section of the pension reform. They hope to gather a broad cross-party coalition around this text. Leftwing opposition parties are also waiting on an upcoming decision of the Constitutional Council that will rule on whether the pension reform can be challenged via a shared initiative referendum.This process allows to hold a referendum on a bill presented by at least one fifth of the members of parliament and supported by one tenth of the electorate. However, even if the Council were to approve their request, the organization of a referendum would remain unlikely given the length and complexity of the process.

On the opposite side of the political spectrum, far-right leader Marine Le Pen and her party, the Rassemblement National, are now in a particularly strong position ahead of the 2027 presidential election despite their weak involvement in the heated debates that surrounded the pension reform.

According to a recent poll, should the first round of the Presidential election be held now with the same candidates as in 2022, Marine Le Pen would come out on top (31%, nearly 8 points higher than her score in 2022), ahead of Emmanuel Macron (23%).

On their part, President Macron and his government emerge victorious but severely bruised. Emmanuel Macron’s popularity has sunk to its lowest level since May 2022 (-7 points, to 25%). He has recently justified his actions by explaining that “we ask efforts to people, it is never popular”, before adding that he “assume[s] this moment because it allows the others”.

In an attempt to turn the page, Macron has laid out three main priorities for the rest of his five-year term: labor, republican order, and progress. He has given himself and his government 100 days to launch this program, with a first stocktaking exercise scheduled for Bastille Day (July 14).

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne will detail this roadmap next week. She has also been tasked to try and enlarge the government’s majority as much as possible in Parliament, by reaching out to political forces ready to compromise on the left and right of the political spectrum. Although Macron has overtly displayed his confidence in his PM for the time being, a government reshuffle, even partial, still remains on the cards.

Caught between the contradictory need for appeasement on the one hand, and the urgency to forget the pension reform crisis and give his second term a renewed sense of momentum on the other, Emmanuel Macron faces an uphill battle in weeks and months to come.

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