Emmanuel Macron has got a lot on his plate right now. After declaring he intended to raise France’s retirement age in a way to protect the country’s finances in the long run, hundreds of thousands protesters have taken to the streets in protest, creating serious disruptions in the country.
Macron’s plan to ensure adequate funding for government pensions down the road has had a prior history. Since he first started campaigning for re-election last year, Macron knew it would not be an easy decision to make. In April 2022, facing heavy opposition, he indicated he could compromise his plan, in a clear attempt to court voters ahead of the decisive second-round presidential election against Marine Le Pen – which he obviously won.
“I am ready to change the timeline and say we don’t necessarily have to do the reform by 2030 if I feel that people are too worried about it,” he said on that occasion.
Three months into 2023, Macron’s new proposed plan is to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 gains momentum. The retirement age previously went up from 60 to 62 in 2010.
It is not difficult to understand, therefore, why the population has responded against the proposed reforms. Macron argues that, with people living longer, France’s pension system (which depends on those in work paying directly for those who have stopped), cannot be financially balanced without the reform.
The people, however, think differently. “I had originally planned to retire at 60, then it was pushed to 62 and, with the latest reforms, it will be 64. It is not fair for the timeframe to keep changing in the middle of my career”, Isabelle, a public servant, told America’s CBS News. The protests, which are still ongoing, has been joined by workers from all walks of life, a kind reminder that the changes will affect everyone in France who is not already retired – or, worse, planned to retire this year.
French labour unions said they were pleased with the turnout and with the numbers who went on strike across many sectors, from transport to education to energy. The nationwide strikers (the sixth time since the start of the year) hit rail, road and air transport very hard, provoking severe delays and cancellations – disrupting international routes such as the EuroStar, and cancelling up to 30% of flights.
“The idea is to bring France to a standstill,” said Fabrice Michaud, of the railway workers’ branch of the CGT trade union.
The transport minister, Clément Beaune, told France 3 TV station it would be “one of the most difficult” strike days for travellers since the start of the protests.
Schools and power plants have been forced to close and there have been blockades at ports and oil refineries. Those blockades, in fact, come at a very delicate time, given that France and Europe is currently struggling with the ongoing energy crisis.
The unions say there are other ways to ensure France’s finances will be in good conditions to pay for today’s young people when they do retire – without having to raise the retirement age. Although the initial marches were peaceful, the tone has changed considerably throughout the week. Violent clashes took place on the sidelines of the protest in the streets of Paris, with local police blaming “radical elements”, who, in their words, had nothing to do with the actual marches.
Despite the Union’s optimistic tones, many protestants seem to be less optimistic. It was reported that many who took the streets on Tuesday said the government was simply refusing to listen. French women, for instance, say they will lose more than most, joining a new protest on Wednesday, which was Women’s International Day, to make their voices heard in front of the Senate building, where the debate over the bills was taking place.
And if the French people feel they were let down, President Macron is in a similar position, too – at least politically. He has been left severely undermined on the domestic front since his centrist grouping failed to win an absolute majority in parliamentary elections in June, at the expense of the far right and radical left rivals. Without internal support, Macron’s government now has to rely on the right wing to support pensions changes, although their senators and lawmakers are pressing for alterations.
Discussions are believed to end by the end of the month, but the situation is far from resolved. Macron is determined to press on with the pensions changes, backed by the government’s spokesperson claim that there were more pressing issues to deal with, such as the cost of living crisis. And with the local Sunday paper, Le Journal de Dimanche, finding that only 32% of French people support the President’s changes, the local societal tension remains incredibly high.