Will strikes force Macron to back down over France’s pension reforms?

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France is seeing a wave of strikes against Emmanuel Macron’s pension reforms on Thursday as trains, flights, schools and even hospitals will be disrupted. Polls show a majority of French people oppose the president’s moves — and analysts say maintaining public support for strikes will be crucial to unions’ chances of turning the tide.

It’s the moment everyone saw coming – the moment after Macron pushed ahead with pension reforms and France saw the massive industrial action it is (infamously) known for.

The last time Macron wanted to change the pension system was in the winter of 2019-2020. France saw its biggest strikes since 1968. Covid soon made that upheaval strange and led Macron to shelve his plans. But Macron was re-elected in April 2022 after promising to reintroduce these reforms and present them to parliament earlier this month. And now the opposition seems even bigger than before: France’s largest and most moderate major union, the CFDT, has joined the strike after refusing to act last time.

“Prognoses show that huge numbers of people will take to the streets; 1 million to 1.5 million people, which the strike movement will be very happy with,” said Arnaud Benedetti, editor-in-chief of the specialized French political publication Political and parliamentary review.

‘They don’t want to change it’

Many polls have shown that a majority of the French are against Macron’s proposals. The two main pillars of the reform both fall badly: 66 percent oppose raising the retirement age from 62 to 64, while 60 percent oppose extending the length of payment to the system needed for a full pension to 43 years, according to a survey by OpinionWay for Les Échos and Radio Classique.

“Much of the public backlash stems from this persistent idea of ​​a French model that needs to be defended,” explained Paul Smith, a professor of French politics at Nottingham University. “It is very difficult for the Macron government to get over that and point out that the retirement age is currently higher everywhere – it doesn’t work because people think this is the French model, the French exception, and they don’t want to change it .”

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“In addition to the French attachment to the current system, the Macron government has made communication errors in trying to sell the reforms — inconsistencies in their justifications,” Benedetti added. “First of all, Macron said he was against increasing the amount of time people have to work, and of course he changed his stance on this. The government then tried to legitimize the reforms by saying they would free up money for other parts of the public sector, such as education, before moving on to claim that they are necessary to make the pension system sustainable and thus save it.”

The unions are hoping for a repeat of what happened in 1995, when protracted disruptive union action combined with widespread public support forced the government of then-President Jacques Chirac to scrap pension reforms.

“The unions won in ’95 because they mobilized with massive public sympathy, and they know they have to do the same thing again if they want to win,” said Smith.

So the big question is whether a majority of the French public will remain on the side of the unions during a protracted standoff with Macron’s government. The two other big factors in determining which party will win, Benedetti noted, are “whether union members have the resources to continue striking during a long stalemate and the impact of the strikes on parliamentary politics”.

Macron lost his parliamentary majority in June’s parliamentary elections, complicating the passage of the bill. Lucky for Macron, France’s traditional conservative party Les Republicans (LR) have the numbers to get the bill through the National Assembly, and the party leadership is in favor of it.

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This was by no means self-evident, however, as many LR politicians are keen to emphasize their distinctiveness towards Macron, as he occupies their historic territory in the centre-right of the political spectrum – while LR’s recently elected hard-right leader Eric Ciotti sees himself closer to the far-right ex-presidential candidate Eric Zemmour than Macron.

Nevertheless, LR and its ancestor parties, including Chirac, have long considered reforming France’s pension system in the same way as Macron. Senate President Gérard Larcher, one of LR’s most influential grandees, is particularly enthusiastic about Macron’s pension reforms, stating that “although they are unpopular, these reforms are essential”. Then Ciotti and his lieutenants met Macron’s Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne last week and said they were being “listened to” after making demands in return for a deal, notably to set the minimum monthly pension at €1,200.

“Ciotti is mercurial, and many LR MPs don’t want to look too ‘Macron compatible’ as they say,” Smith noted. “But the bottom line is that pension reforms are something they have supported historically, while there is a general sense that if Macron gets the support he needs, they will look important again rather than go up in smoke. And the Republics in the Senate have exerted pressure Republics in the National Assembly to support the compromise with Borne. Gérard Larcher is the key figure here.”

Public opinion to ‘define’ MPs’ positions

That said, LR’s support for the pension reforms is not guaranteed, especially if the strikes continue for months and maintain broad public support. In the coming months, “LR behavior will be determined by public opinion and what happens on the street,” Benedetti stressed.

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It’s not just LR MPs that Macron has to keep aside. The president’s parliamentary bloc ensemble takes its name from the French word for “together” – but in reality it is a heterogeneous group of MPs ranging from the social-democratic left to the neo-liberal right. Various MPs ensembleMacron’s left wing is skeptical of Macron’s pension reforms. One of the most prominent is Barbara Pompili, Macron’s environment minister from 2020 to 2022, who told BFMTV on Monday that she “couldn’t vote for the reforms at this stage”, saying that raising the retirement age carries the risk that “social injustice” arises.

“Even now it is not at all certain that Macron can be trusted ensemble as the largest party in the National Assembly to pass the reforms,” Benedetti noted. “And as is the case for LR MPs and others, public opinion and the course of the strikes will determine the behavior of those in Macron’s party.”

The National Assembly will begin the debate on pension reform on February 6. After that, the House of Representatives and the Senate have until March 26 to vote on it. If parliament rejects the legislation, Macron can always use Article 49.3, the Fifth Republic’s most controversial constitutional instrument. This allows the presidency to pass legislation without a parliamentary vote – although MPs can respond with a vote of no confidence, which if successful would shoot down the bill and the government with it, leading to new parliamentary elections. So far, Borne has used it 10 times, but on much less controversial matters.

“No president wants to use Article 49.3 unless he has to,” Smith said. However, if Macron does deploy it, opposition MPs may be reluctant to provoke new parliamentary polls: “Politicians hate elections most because they are unknowable.”