A Turning Point for French Democracy? Assessing the Impacts of Emmanuel Macron’s Pension Reform
By Therese Mager, Research Institute Social Cohesion (FGZ)/ ReCentGlobe, Leipzig University –
On April 14, 2023, French President Emmanuel Macron officially enacted his deeply unpopular pension reform law. The law, which will progressively raise the legal retirement age from 62 to 64 and do away with special benefits schemes for certain industries, has been at the heart of one of the largest protest movements of the French Fifth Republic; millions of French citizens have taken to the streets nationwide in 12 “days of mobilization” spanning a period of three months. Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne, fearing she did not have enough National Assembly votes to pass the law, bypassed the lower house of parliament to adopt the reform via a constitutional measure which also exposed her government to two no-confidence motions. Her government survived, as did the law, by the thinnest of margins. This dramatic series of events has left its mark in the hearts and minds of France’s many disaffected citizens. Reporting from Paris, ReCentGlobe researcher Therese Mager outlines the pension reform’s short- and medium-term consequences.
There is nothing quite like pension reform to mobilize the French. When President Jacques Chirac’s prime minister Alain Juppé sought to change pension contribution requirements for public sector employees in October of 1995, massive transport strikes brought France to a halt for weeks, ultimately forcing Juppé to backtrack. Nicolas Sarkozy and his Minister of Labor, Éric Woerth, undertook another pension reform in 2010; they were ultimately successful in raising the legal retirement age from 60 to 62, boosted by their right-wing party’s strong majority in the National Assembly, but they faced widespread and long-lasting opposition in the streets. 2023 has seen a continuation of this tradition, with millions joining demonstrations and participating in mass strikes to protest President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne’s proposed reform. Numerous experts have called this the largest mouvement social that France has experienced since Juppé’s failed 1995 bill.
Understanding the 2023 Reform
Pension reform is always a touchy issue, but the recently adopted law, which among other things will progressively raise the retirement age to 64, has been fraught with difficulties and missteps for months. For one thing, the government has struggled to demonstrate why this reform is so urgently needed only a decade after the retirement age was last increased. Holding up comparisons with other European countries as evidence, the executive branch has insisted that workers must contribute more years to the system to sustain pensions for a growing body of elderly citizens; however, this reasoning has been undermined by the government agency responsible for monitoring the nation’s retirement system, which has emphasized that the system is not in dire straits, despite potential shortfalls in the future. Some Euroskeptic observers have assumed that the reform has been imposed by the European Union, but the European Commission itself insists that changes to the French pension system have only been recommended, not dictated.
In all likelihood, the Macron-Borne government has undertaken the reform in order to reassure France’s creditors that national spending is under control, prevent the possibility of future pension fund deficits, and, in the event of a surplus, finance other social expenditures. But from the perspective of the majority of French citizens, who nurture a distinct philosophical understanding of work and broadly embrace progressive, redistributive economics, this reasoning is insufficient and the reform profoundly unfair. Opponents fear that the new law will disproportionately penalize low-wage and manual workers as well as women; they also object to the government’s refusal to consider alternatives, such as balancing the retirement system via a more progressive distribution of pensions. Beyond the pension system, it certainly doesn’t help that the government has resisted taxing the windfall profits of multinational energy corporations while simultaneously lightening the tax burden for the nation’s wealthiest citizens. The timing could not be worse; as of April 2023, the world’s richest man and richest woman are both French.
In light of the pension bill’s unpopularity and its relevance for all citizens, the Macron-Borne government’s decision to force it through the National Assembly without a vote on March 16 sent shock waves throughout French society. In resorting to this “nuclear option,” permitted under Article 49.3 of the French constitution (and therefore legal), the president and prime minister nonetheless robbed the reform of its appearance of democratic legitimacy. (Note: This marks the 11th time since her appointment last May that the prime minister has invoked Article 49.3 to force through an amendment or bill.) Resulting protests and supply chain blockages, some of which have turned destructive, have been met with aggressive police tactics, leading to national discussions about state violence as well as condemnations from international bodies. Continuing protests and strike actions will likely peter out amid school vacations this spring, but there’s no question about it: a fresh crisis of confidence has gripped the country.
A Pyrrhic Victory for Emmanuel Macron
While the pension reform bill was defended and passed by the prime minister, no one doubts that President Macron directed all of the particulars in this affair, including the decision to bypass a vote in the National Assembly following uncertainty that the bill would garner enough support. As a consequence, Macron is once again the focal point of intense national anger, with his approval rating at its lowest since the Gilets Jaunes (“Yellow Vests”) protests in late 2018. Considering the circumstances of the reform, which only took shape in the last year and is not perceived as critical, many observers wonder why the president has exhausted so much political capital. Having refused to discuss the bill’s most controversial provisions with France’s powerful trade unions, he and his cabinet have shut out labor movement leaders and appeared closed off to negotiation. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Borne and National Assembly deputies from Macron’s centrist coalition have criticized deputies from the right-wing Les Républicains party—their only political allies for the reform bill—for not standing united behind the measure. Having once again been sidelined by the executive branch, several deputies from Macron’s own party, Renaissance, have publicly expressed their dismay. Moreover, Macron’s claims that he was given a mandate to pursue the reform thanks to his reelection last year—when he was up against far-right leader Marine Le Pen—has infuriated the many voters who chose him by default.
In addition to leaving Macron’s camp isolated, the pension reform drama has also devastated much of the parliamentary opposition. Les Républicains, once one of France’s two leading parties (alongside the now-collapsed Parti Socialiste), has seen its small bloc in the National Assembly flounder amid internal disagreements over whether and how to support the bill. On the other end of the political spectrum, deputies from Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s far-left La France Insoumise movement have undermined their own standing by being the loudest and most disruptive opponents to the bill, filing thousands of amendments in the National Assembly to stymie the deliberation process. Amid La France Insoumise’s unwavering support for street protests and its constant criticism of the ruling government, Macron’s cabinet has cast the left-wing party’s leadership as irresponsible and even undemocratic.
More troubling still, this episode threatens to further erode public trust in French democratic institutions, all of which (alongside President Macron) are polling at their lowest point since the Gilets Jaunes movement. Talk of institutional reform has been growing in France; the current constitution was designed to favor an extraordinarily strong executive branch, and changes to elections cycles in the last few decades have left still fewer checks on the president’s power. While last year’s legislative elections drastically reduced the number of National Assembly seats held by Macron’s coalition of centrist parties, reflecting voters’ desire for compromise and a stronger opposition, the executive has turned to legal measures which allow it to sidestep parliament and stifle debate. Experts such as historian and sociologist Pierre Rosanvallon (a highly renowned scholar of democracy) have expressed concern that while President Macron may have respected the letter of the law, he has neglected the spirit of French institutions. For Rosanvallon and other observers, the government’s use of the “forceps” to pass the deeply unpopular pension reform while shunning dialogue with relevant stakeholders has exacerbated a long brewing “legitimacy crisis” of democratic institutions.
Marine Le Pen and the Rassemblement National: The Last Ones Standing?
An inordinate amount of media coverage, both in France and abroad, has already been dedicated to the notion that Marine Le Pen and her far-right Rassemblement National (RN) party have emerged as the real winners in this episode. Rather than contribute to a problematic and potentially self-fulfilling prophecy, we might ask ourselves, why should the far right dominate the field? Indeed, the RN has set itself apart over recent months thanks to what it has not done rather than what it has. The party’s deputies in the National Assembly were not particularly active throughout the bill’s legislative journey; they have not initiated or supported protests or strike actions; and they have not established themselves as creators of effective counterproposals. The RN has simply positioned itself against the reform and largely kept quiet, continuing its “normalization” strategy by striving to look like a well-behaved party of government. The RN parliamentary group’s noteworthy actions of resistance—such as when they filed a second, superfluous no-confidence motion against the government in late March—could be interpreted as traps, meant to discredit other opposition parties which refuse to acknowledge the far right as a legitimate partner.1
Nonetheless, the RN may profit from being the last major parliamentary faction standing, as the pension reform battle has at least temporarily weakened most other stakeholders and parties. The RN also has the enduring advantage of being the party that the French haven’t “tried” yet under the Fifth Republic, having never been part of a governing coalition in the National Assembly; capitalizing on voter disillusionment with mainstream politics has been at the heart of the party’s strategy for decades. Buoyed by a parade of favorable opinion polls, Le Pen has even taken to calling for the dissolution of the National Assembly, highlighting her confidence that snap legislative elections would expand her group (which only last year defied expectations by winning a historic 89 seats).2 However, her eagerness also indicates her greatest disadvantage: time. The nearest direct elections in France (for the European Parliament) are still a year away, and the next presidential and legislative elections are slated for 2027. It’s difficult to say whether the RN can reap the benefits of the current flare-up in popular discontent over the long term.
To conclude this drama—or so he hopes—President Macron delivered a solemn televised address on the evening of April 17. Expressing regret that “a consensus could not be found” for the reform and acknowledging that it had not been accepted by the public, he nevertheless called on citizens to look to the future as he outlined several broad policy goals for the next 100 days. Among them was a new “pact for working life” to bring better working conditions and compensation to France’s active population. In an attempt to flip the script, he called on trade union leaders to meet with his government to discuss the way forward, claiming that “the door will always be open” and that there would be “no taboos” in their negotiations. (Having been snubbed for months over the pension reform, Laurent Berger, head of the moderate CFDT trade union confederation, joined other union leaders in refusing any meetings with the government until after Labor Day on May 1. “We don’t just answer when they whistle,” said Berger in response.) Beyond work, Macron’s speech focused heavily on security issues, but also measures to bolster France’s health and education systems and to make the country more resilient in the face of climate change.
Buried amid these proposals was a brief statement concerning democratic renewal: “…we must fight against the persistent feeling that voting no longer means deciding. In this respect, I have proposed… some major guiding principles to make our institutions more efficient, but also to increase citizen participation.” This point has been met with skepticism, not least because Macron’s past initiatives to encourage civic engagement and examine institutional reform have yielded very little. The president faces a severe lack of public trust—which many protesters have recently taken to showing by banging on pots and pans in the presence of his ministers—and he has his work cut out for him as he seeks to move on from the pension reform. Still, he has time on his side, with four years remaining until the end of his second and final term. As tensions wind down, we can only hope that these years will witness meaningful efforts to revive and rejuvenate French representative democracy.
- The first no-confidence motion was tabled by LIOT, a small centrist opposition group, for strategic reasons: deputies from across the political spectrum could vote for the motion without compromising their principles or fearing a backlash from constituents. As a consequence, this motion received votes from 278 deputies (out of 577, and including deputies from the RN), falling just nine votes short of the number needed to topple the government. The RN, seeking to emphasize its opposition to the pension reform, tabled a second no-confidence motion, knowing that most deputies would refuse to support any measure from the far right. Their motion garnered just 94 votes, 88 of which were RN deputies. The party’s parliamentary detachment often engages in these kinds of tactics in order to accuse their political enemies of hypocrisy, but also to chip away at the “cordon sanitaire” by which other parties refuse to cooperate with the RN.
- The RN lost one of its seats in a special election in January. It now has 88 deputies in the National Assembly.