Long stories short
- The US, Canada, India, Japan and South Korea staged joint anti-submarine drills as Japan and South Korea held their first leaders’ summit in 12 years (more below).
- Britain’s government and health unions provisionally agreed a pay deal including a 5 per cent wage increase that could end NHS strike action.
- A Japanese fertiliser company grew the world’s heaviest radish, weighing in at 46 kg.
France is furious with President Macron and his plan to raise the national retirement age by two years to 64. He forced it through the National Assembly yesterday by decree, having failed to line up enough guaranteed votes. His government may fall because of it. Protesters filled the Place de la Concorde to condemn it and leftists sang the Marseillaise in parliament to drown out the case for it.
So what? Retirement may be the hill that Macronism dies on. Either that, or its namesake will sacrifice his prime minister, soldier on as president and be vindicated by posterity.
Why? Like Britain’s NHS, France’s retirement system was set up after World War Two to improve the lives of working people. Those lives have since extended by an average of 28 years. So while expectations of a long and happy retirement have become a third rail of French politics and a pillar of the French identity, France cannot afford it.
The numbers. When the system was introduced, only a third of French workers reached retirement age and those that did received 20 per cent of their final salary. Times have changed:
75 per cent – ratio of average French retiree’s income to previous earnings in 2023
75 per cent – proportion of French voters who oppose Macron’s retirement reforms
€903 billion – upper end of a range of estimates of the deficit France’s state pensions system will face in 2050 if not reformed. €903 billion is equivalent to 37 per cent of France’s current GDP.
4 – extra years of retirement enjoyed on average by the French compared with retirees in other rich European countries
3 – years earlier than the next earliest country (Belgium) that the French currently retire
66, 67, 67 and 7 months – retirement ages in the UK, Italy and Germany respectively
The politics. The die was cast in June last year when Macron’s rebranded Renaissance party failed to win a parliamentary majority. It has since relied on the centre-right Les Républicains (LR) for ad hoc majorities, but with ten minutes to go yesterday, after two months of protests in Paris and elsewhere, Macron blinked.
His prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, could not be sure enough LR deputies would back her, so he invoked article 49.3 of the French constitution, which allows non-financial bills to be forced through without a vote once every parliamentary term.
Party leaders from the left and right predictably announced the end of Macron’s presidency. Not so. He has four more years in office if not in power. That said…
- A vote of censure is likely on Monday and Borne will probably go even if the government survives it.
- Raising the retirement age was meant to be the central accomplishment of Macron’s second term and he’ll be a lame duck if he allows it to be reversed.
- The rest of his domestic agenda, including a bill to lower France’s stubbornly high unemployment rate, already looks like a dead rubber.
Gilets jaunes 2.0? Absolutely. They may acquire another name and wear a different uniform but those who detest everything the Macron technocracy stands for, from left and right, are expected in the streets and on the picket lines for months to come.
Planet Macron. When he won the Élysée in 2017 he set out to restore French pride in the presidency with an unsmiling “Jupiterian” style that people liked at first, especially when it involved a long, unyielding white-knuckle handshake with President Trump. But it’s been a bit like that with the French people ever since, and they are tiring of it.
CAPITAL ECONOMY, BUSINESS AND FINANCE
Whatever it breaks?
Maybe not. The European Central Bank announced a half-point rate rise yesterday as part of its continuing efforts to tame inflation in the eurozone. But it gave a nod to global jitters in the banking sector by dropping its recently acquired habit of pledging to go on raising rates “significantly at a steady pace”. Banks with high exposure to bonds are vulnerable to rate rises because they drive down bond values on secondary markets, contributing to the pressure seen over the past ten days to sell at a loss when depositors withdraw en masse. The sector is limping to the end of a week in which only interventions on a scale not seen since 2008 have prevented the spread of the contagion of the run on Silicon Valley Bank. Credit Suisse is still in business thanks to the Swiss central bank. California’s First Republic Bank is being bailed out to the tune of $30 billion by bigger rivals. The weekend can’t come soon enough.
TECHNOLOGY AI, SCIENCE AND NEW THING
Drilling through slush
On Monday, Joe Biden granted ConocoPhillips permission to launch an $8 billion new oil drilling project – known as Willow – in the US National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska. The project could produce 180,000 barrels of oil every day at its peak; burning that oil would release an estimated 9.2 million tons of carbon dioxide every year (environmentalists describe it as a “carbon bomb”). But the Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the planet, which means the Willow project itself will be vulnerable to climate change. The company’s plan for the 30-year project reportedly includes installing a network of chilling tubes to keep the permafrost frozen and the equipment stable as the region warms. It’s “the perfect metaphor for our time,” says The New Yorker.
The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT
As bars and clubs closed during the Covid-19 pandemic, one not-so-awful by-product was the hampering of the global cocaine trade. It appears this was a temporary blip. The latest Global Cocaine Report from the UN shows a surge in cocaine production. Coca bush cultivation soared by 35 per cent from 2020-21. In part, this growth was driven by local actors and criminal gangs across Mexico and Europe taking over Colombian territory previously held by members of the now-demobilised Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). West and central Africa have become key transit points for cocaine trafficking – and significant markets for the drug in their own right. There’s another notable difference post-pandemic: the use of couriers and shopping companies to fill the gaps caused by fewer international flights; and there’s a special mention for an increase of seizures in the UK’s postal system.
Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics
Last night, Japan’s Fumio Kishida and South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol sat down at a restaurant in Tokyo’s Ginza district to enjoy a beer and one of Yoon’s favourite Japanese dishes, omurice (an omelette wrapped around fried rice) – a casual snack after a remarkable day. It was the first time a South Korean leader had had a one-on-one visit with a Japanese prime minister since 2011, because of long-running disputes including over calls for Japanese companies to compensate Korean victims of forced labour during World War Two. Last week, Yoon announced that a South Korean government-run fund would compensate victims instead – an unpopular move domestically. But South Korea and Japan face the shared threats of North Korea’s nuclear programme (the country launched an intercontinental ballistic missile hours before the meeting) and China’s growing military ambition, which makes it worth trying to mend ties.
CULTURE soCIETY, IDENTITY AND BELONGING
Six people have been arrested and three more detained after Poland broke up a suspected pro-Russian spy network. The group reportedly installed dozens of hidden cameras on important logistical routes and railway junctions close to the airport in Jasionka near Rzeszów, from where Western weapons and ammunition are sent to Ukraine. The detained suspects were “foreigners from behind the Eastern border,” paid by Russia to collect information on the number of transports and the type of equipment, which might be used for “sabotage, diversion, destruction,” according to a Polish security expert. Meanwhile, 20 Russian warships in the Black Sea are hunting for the wreckage of the American MQ-9 Reaper drone downed by a Russian fighter jet, Ukrainian military says. The US has remotely deleted all the images it took during its mission.
Additional reporting by Jess Winch, Nina Kuryata and Phoebe Davis.
Photographs Getty Images
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