Why the French Are Protesting Macron’s Pension Overhaul, Again

Classrooms were closed, trains ground to a halt and demonstrators marched around France on Tuesday for the second round of vigorous protests against President Emmanuel Macron’s widely unpopular plans to raise the legal age of retirement to 64 from 62.

The number of protesters was expected to reach, or even surpass, the more than one million people who protested earlier in January to voice their anger over the pension overhaul plans, a major test for Mr. Macron after his re-election last year. Recent public opinion polls show that over two-thirds of French people oppose his proposals.

Mr. Macron and his government say they need to change France’s pension system now to put it on a firmer financial footing for the future as life expectancy rises and as the ratio of workers to retirees decreases.

Opponents, including a united front of labor unions, dispute the urgency of the need for an overhaul. They say that Mr. Macron is attacking a cherished right to retirement and unfairly burdening blue-collar workers because of his refusal to increase taxes on the wealthy. Neither side has shown any sign of backing down.

Protests and intermittent walkouts by workers in schools, public transportation, fuel refineries and power plants have made clear the widespread discontent, but the overall disruptions have been limited. Yet the pressure is mounting as the pension bill comes up for debate in the lower house of Parliament, where Mr. Macron’s party has a tenuous majority, few allies and opponents who are gearing up for a legislative showdown.

Wait, why does this seem familiar?

Pension overhaul has long been a third rail of French politics, prompting large protests in 1995 and 2010, long before Mr. Macron took office. This is the second time that Mr. Macron’s pension plans have been met with fierce resistance.

In 2019, during his first term, Mr. Macron’s effort to overhaul France’s generous pension system led to huge street protests and grinding strikes, including one of the longest transportation walkouts in the country’s history. The government shelved those plans after the coronavirus pandemic hit.

A deserted railway station in Lyon, France, in late January.Credit…Laurent Cipriani/Associated Press

There is a key a difference between what Mr. Macron did back then and what he is doing now: Mr. Macron’s initial project did not involve increasing the legal age of retirement. Instead, he was aiming for an across-the-board overhaul of the pension system’s dizzyingly complex architecture. The goal was to merge 42 different pension programs into what he said would be a fairer, unified system, using points that workers would accumulate and cash in upon retirement. But the plans left many confused and worried that their pensions would decrease.

So what is Macron doing this time?

The latest plans are a much more straightforward attempt to balance the system’s finances by making the French work longer, an effort that the government acknowledges will be difficult for some but that it insists is necessary.

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France’s pension system relies on a pay-as-you-go structure in which workers and employers are assessed mandatory payroll taxes that are used to fund retiree pensions. That system, which has enabled generations to retire with a guaranteed, state-backed pension, will not change.

France has one of the lowest rates of pensioners at risk of poverty in Europe, and a net pension replacement rate — a measure of how effectively retirement income replaces prior earnings — of 74 percent, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, higher than the O.E.C.D. and European Union averages.

But the government argues that rising life expectancies have left the system in an increasingly precarious state. In 2000, there were 2.1 workers paying into the system for every one retiree; in 2020 that ratio had fallen to 1.7, and in 2070 it is expected to drop to 1.2, according to official projections.

Antoine Bozio, an economist at the Paris School of Economics, said that there was no short-term “explosion of the deficit” that needed to be addressed urgently. But “once you’ve said that the system isn’t in danger or on the verge of a catastrophe,” he said, “that doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem” in the long term.

French high school students in Paris blocked access in late January.Credit…Lucien Libert/Reuters

To keep the system financially viable without additional taxpayer money, the government wants to gradually raise the legal age of retirement by three months every year until it reaches 64 in 2030. It also wants to accelerate a previous change that increased the number of years that workers must pay into the system to get a full pension.

“This reform is indispensable,” Mr. Macron said on Monday evening during a visit to the Netherlands.

Why is the plan so unpopular?

Opponents say that Mr. Macron is exaggerating the threat of projected deficits and refusing to consider other ways to balance the system, like increasing worker payroll taxes, decoupling pensions from inflation or increasing taxes on the rich.

Making people work longer, opponents argue, will unfairly affect blue-collar workers, who often start their careers earlier and who have a shorter life expectancy, on average, than white-collar ones.

“Sixty-four isn’t possible,” Philippe Martinez, the head of the CGT labor union, France’s second-largest, told the BFM TV news channel on Tuesday. “Let them visit a textile factory floor, or a slaughterhouse, or the food-processing industry, and they will see what working conditions are like.”

Some worry about being forced to retire later because older adults who want to work but who lose their jobs often deal with age discrimination in the labor market.

The plan’s unpopularity also has much to do with pre-existing anger against Mr. Macron, who has struggled to shake off the image of an out-of-touch “president of the rich.”

By making pensions a cornerstone of his second term — he cannot run for a third consecutive one — Mr. Macron has also made them a referendum of sorts over his legacy.

“That’s why he has not only all the unions, but also a large part of public opinion against him,” said Jean Garrigues, a leading historian on France’s political culture. “By tying himself to the project, opposition to it is heightened, dramatized in a way.”

What comes next?

The government has announced measures intended to mollify opposition: a raise of the minimum monthly pension to 1,200 euros, or about $1,300; continued exemptions allowing those who begin working at younger ages to retire earlier; and other measures to help seniors stay employed.

But the government has shown no sign of backing down on raising the legal age of retirement, which Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne said last week was not negotiable. Labor unions are digging in for continued, if not continuous, protests and strikes.

Attention has also shifted to Parliament, where lawmakers, especially on the left and the far right, are expected to wage a fierce battle against the pension bill. Lawmakers in the National Assembly, the lower and more powerful house, are expected to vote on it in February before sending it to the upper house.

Riot police and protesters clashed during a rally in Nantes in late January.Credit…Loic Venance/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But Mr. Macron’s party, Renaissance, and its allies have a fragile majority in the National Assembly, and would struggle to pass the pension bill on their own. They will have to rely on France’s Republicans, the mainstream conservative party, whose leadership has said it could support the bill.

Mr. Macron is hoping to weather the protests and get the bill through, much like Nicolas Sarkozy did as president in 2010, when he raised the retirement age to 62 from 60 despite huge demonstrations.

But some rank-and-file Republicans — and even members of Mr. Macron’s party — have expressed discomfort with the current version of the bill, meaning the vote could go down to the wire if protests from constituents push individual lawmakers to back out.

The government could use a rare constitutional tool to ram the bill through without a vote, a move that would expose the cabinet to a no-confidence motion and that Ms. Borne successfully used multiple times in the fall to get finance bills passed.

But using it on a far more contentious and consequential piece of legislation could further inflame tensions on the streets.

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