Macron’s rule hangs in balance as parliament votes on retirement age plan


PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron faces a key test of his second term on Thursday, as lawmakers vote on his controversial plans to raise the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64.

The proposals have been opposed by unions and two-thirds of the French public, prompting eight days of nationwide protests and strikes in recent weeks, and there have been no signs of Macron backing down. But the French leader, who is 10 months into his second five-year term, lacks an absolute parliamentary majority and lawmakers’ approval of his plans is far from certain.

While the upper house of Parliament, the Senate, easily backed the law Thursday morning, there has been fierce criticism of the plans on the left and far right in the more powerful lower house, the National Assembly, which is set to vote on the bill later in the day. Even the backing of some center-right lawmakers who initially appeared largely supportive of Macron’s plans is unclear.

At stake is not only one of Macron’s signature projects, but also his ability to govern the country more broadly. Citing a government source, French TV network BFM suggested Wednesday night that Macron might opt to dissolve Parliament if lawmakers vote against the law, triggering snap legislative elections.

Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne could also try to pass the changes with executive powers — either before the vote today or, if parliament votes against the law, at some later point. But in response, lawmakers could then seek to topple her government with a vote of no confidence. Neither of these possibilities would end Macron’s presidency, but they could pose a major challenge to his ability to implement his plans over the next four years.

Macron has been pushing for changes to the country’s pension system since he was elected in 2017, as a way to shore up the financial position of a graying society and keep France competitive.

France has a lower minimum retirement age than many of its European neighbors, where laws similar to the one proposed by Macron have prompted less divisive debates. Germany, for instance, is preparing for an increase in the retirement age from 65 to 67, and lawmakers there have faced little public backlash.

Average life expectancy in France has increased by around three years over the past two decades, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Macron and his allies argue that the retirement age needs to reflect that, if the country wants to preserve a welfare system that relies on a sufficiently large base of working-age contributors.

The effective labor market exit age of men is almost three years lower in France than the European Union’s average, the OECD says. When accounting for differences in life expectancy, French men can expect to spend about 24 years of their lives in retirement, compared to about 19 years in the United States and across the European Union.

Opponents of an increase in the French retirement age counter that the advantages of workers are the result of hard-won battles with consecutive governments and touch the core of the country’s national identity.

Working conditions in France have deteriorated significantly over the past decades, they say, and the fierce resistance against Macron’s project is also driven by a growing disconnect between the French and their attachment to their jobs. Instead of raising the retirement age, the government should increase salaries and address precarious working conditions among many young and some elderly workers, unions argue.

Striking French workers dispute that they want a right to ‘laziness’

If implemented, France’s new rules would progressively raise the retirement age, with the proposed new minimum of 64 years expected to be reached by 2030. But the months-long focus on working conditions of older employees may also result in improvements, advocates of the plans say.

Amid mounting concerns over practices of some French companies, which have a reputation for pushing their employees into unemployment just years before reaching the retirement age, the government has promised more scrutiny.

Unsatisfied with such promises, in recent weeks, all of France’s key trade unions called for joint strikes for the first time in Macron’s presidency. Strikes have disrupted railway traffic for over a week, and they have resulted in the suspension of flights in and out of the country.

In Paris, mountains of trash bags piled up in the streets in recent days after sanitary workers joined the strike action. But Wednesday, there were some signs that the protests appeared to be running out of steam. Authorities counted fewer than 40,000 protesters in Paris on Wednesday, compared to 80,000 over a week ago.

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Macron abandoned an earlier effort to change the retirement age during his first term, following widespread protests in 2019 and 2020 and amid the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic.

This time, the stakes are higher, however. If Macron fails to have his law passed on Thursday and subsequently opts for snap elections, “it is not guaranteed that the presidential majority will emerge strengthened,” said Anne-Charlène Bezzina, a constitutional law expert.

2023-03-16 11:55:37