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TOPSHOT – Railway workers hold a banner reading “until the withdrawal” during a demonstration a few days after the government pushed a pensions reform through parliament without a vote, using the article 49.3 of the constitution in Lyon on March 22, 2023. – French President defiantly vowed to push through a controversial pensions reform, saying he was prepared to accept unpopularity in the face of sometimes violent protests. The government narrowly survived a no-confidence motion but the uproar has descended into the biggest domestic crisis of the second term for the president. (Photo by JEFF PACHOUD / AFP) (Photo by JEFF PACHOUD/AFP via Getty Images)

France’s pension crisis

France’s pension crisis


French president Emmanuel Macron has faced a backlash in parliament and on the streets against plans to raise the country’s state retirement age. What does it mean for his reformist agenda?

[French MPs boo and sing La Marseillaise]

In recent weeks the atmosphere inside the French parliament has resembled a revolutionary cauldron as Emmanuel Macron’s government tried to push through reforms to state pensions that would raise the retirement age from 62 to 64.

And it hasn’t gone down well outside either.

[Noise of demonstrators clash with French police]

Millions have protested against the reforms, with some demonstrations turning violent. 

Strikes by workers have led to rubbish piling up in the streets and production being cut at nuclear power plants.

A number of French MPs who have supported President Emmanuel Macron’s bill have said they’ve even received death threats. But they’re adamant that the changes are vital in a modern democracy.

“It’s always been unpopular. Every pension reform in the history of the country has been unpopular. There is no naivety that this will be a difficult reform to push through and that’s what it has been. But we’re very confident that this is a good thing for the country and that’s what we’re attached to.”

Alexandre Holroyd MP

Polling suggests that two-thirds of the French public oppose it and some analysts have pointed to a lack of communication from the president and his government about the plans. They say that not enough has been done to bring the public onside with the reforms.

So why does he want to press ahead with changes to the state pension system in the face of such opposition?

Emmanuel Macron isn’t the first president – and certainly won’t be the last – to attempt to make sweeping changes to France’s state pension system. 

In the 1990s, Jacques Chirac faced protests against his pension plans and his successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, also faced a huge backlash against raising the retirement age. 

President Macron and his supporters argue that France’s ageing population makes the current pension scheme unaffordable and that it should attempt to align with other Western European nations.

“Macron says that raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 is necessary to keep the pension system from falling into a deficit.”

CBS News

Raising France’s state retirement age to 64 would still mean it’s lower than in the UK where it’s 66, in Germany and Italy where it’s 67, and in Spain where it’s 65.

But it was his decision to use a special power to sidestep a parliamentary vote on the matter that further enraged his opponents. 

And when his prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, announced the plans to push the bill through the National Assembly using an emergency decree, chaos broke out in the chamber.

[Jeering in the French parliament]

So, what impact will it have on Emmanuel Macron’s government in the future?

The decision to use a special power to force through the reforms without parliamentary approval led to two confidence votes in Emmanuel Macron’s government.

An MP behind one of them said removing the government was “the only way of stopping the social and political crisis” in the country.

And although both failed. The first was very close.

Had it been successful, President Macron would have come under immense political pressure to either call a snap election or name an entirely new government. 

His slender victory means he will now be able to forge ahead with his plan to make the French work for longer but his use of emergency decree highlights a bigger problem for the president.

His party is the largest in parliament, but doesn’t have a majority. So it relies on a coalition to get things through.

That has made it difficult for Emmanuel Macron to deliver on his reformist programme and why he’s had to rely on special powers, like the one used to raise the state retirement age.

But that comes with its own difficulties.

“We know that President Macron doesn’t shy away from taking political risks – but that may be one political risk too many.”

Agnes Poirier, French journalist, Sky News

The ferocious response to his pension reforms might make him wary of relying on emergency powers in the future, which means he could call new parliamentary elections to secure a majority.

But the French president must be wary. Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally is making hay and the far-left have also confounded expectations.

The French public has always coalesced around the unity candidate when faced with the prospect of an extremist entering high office. But it shouldn’t be taken for granted. 

This episode was written by Rhys James and mixed by Xavier Greenwood.