FRance protests
Riot police run past a fire lit by demonstrators on Boulevard Massena during a protest against pension reformat at Porte de Choisy in Paris, France, on Saturday, March 18, 2023. Image Credit: Bloomberg

Bordeaux City Hall — L’Hotel de Ville as the French call their administrative buildings — has been seriously damaged in a fire. The elegant building, in one of the nation’s most elegant riverside cities, on the banks of the River Bordeaux, was supposed to be one setting for a visit of King Charles III next week. The visit has now been postponed.

There are wide-scale street protests. Paris alone has seen some 150 police officers injured as they faced tens of thousands of protesters.

Across cities and towns, there is palpable anger aimed at the national government and in particular at the President, Emmanuel Macron.

The reason? Right now, the French enjoy the earliest retirement age in the European Union. When workers turn 62, they can tap into their state pensions. In Belgium, that age is 65. Across much of the rest of the EU, it’s 66, and in some cases, 67.

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The protests have occurred because Macron has raised that age to 64 — still the lowest among the EU — but two years more that at present and an act that seems to strike at the very heart of the nation’s very generous social care and benefit system.

Besides, if you’ve worked for four decades and looked forward to clocking off for the last time at 62, the prospect now of being made toil for another 24 months would be less than welcome.

The protests have been gathering momentum over the past two weeks as the Macron government pressed on with the reforms. Hundreds have been arrests, millions of euros on property damage has been reported, and the street protests themselves have become something of a magnet for growing disgruntlement over the economy, rising prices, and a general fall in living stands caused by higher energy prices and inflation fuelled largely by the fallout of the conflict in Ukraine.

France is not alone in being at the receiving end of this economic shock, but the timing of the pension reforms seem to have hit home at a time when the French — and many Europeans — are wondering just what the future holds in a time of economic and social uncertainty.

Macron, an economist, campaigned for office back in 2017 on a pledge to reform the French economy and to bring its generous benefits system, including the national retirement age, more into line with its European counterparts.

Much of his first five-year term was taken up by the serious economic, public health and social challenges brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. Getting through that, as was the case globally, was the first priority. And reviving the French economy from the enforced macro and micro fiscal hiatus was then the focus.

Original plans for social reforms

Having seen off a challenge from the right and win re-election last year — his political party did lose its overall majority in the French parliament, the National Assembly — Macron could then refocus on his original plans for social reforms.

Trouble is, the time of the retirement age reforms have coincided with the economic fallout from Ukraine and those pent-up fears and very real money concerns faced by French workers.

Roads have been blocked and the piles of rubbish left uncollected by refuse workers striking at the pension reforms, have made for easy fire-starting material by protesters.

Trains and planes have been hit, medical and health facilities affected, and public and civil servants of every level have walked off the job in one form or another demanding that the end-of-work age remains at 62.

Macron has doubled down on the reforms, with the government invoking article 49.3 on the Constitution, allowing it to push the changes through the National Assembly without a vote.

Article 49.3 was introduced by Charles de Gaulle in 1958 to bring about greater political stability and expand government powers. It has been used more than 80 times since its inception, most notably by former socialist prime minister Michel Rocard 28 times between 1988 and 1991 under then president Francois Mitterrand.

Macron’s former prime minister Edouard Philippe tried to use it for pension reform in March 2020 but failed when the pandemic broke out.

The 2020 bid to change the pension system had already failed and resulted in the longest strikes in French history.

Proposed pension changes

The French president’s current PM, Elisabeth Borne, announced the proposed pension changes on 10 January. Just minutes before they were due to be voted on in the National Assembly last week, she announced they would be forced through with Article 49.3 instead, causing outrage.

Having lost that majority in the National Assembly last year, there had been no guarantee the measure would pass — hence the need for 49.3. It had, however, previously made it through the upper chamber, the Senate.

Forcing through the reforms have brought an immediate and widespread reaction.

As things stand now, French workers can receive a state pension from the age of 62, but it will be less if that person has not made the required number of contributions. Those contributions are made on the monthly salaries paid to workers during their working careers. Aged 67, they are entitled to the full state pension regardless of their contributions.

Macron’s changes will see the age that workers can receive a state pension increase to 64, and this is being done gradually by three months a year from September 2023 until September 2030.

The number of years someone will have to make contributions to get the full state pension will increase from 42 to 43 in 2027.