The Irish Times view on French pension reforms: Macron’s big decision

Electoral calculations weigh heavily as the French president ponders raising the retirement age

French President Emmanuel Macron, pictured with his wife Brigitte Macron, is considering reviving the controversial overhaul, and perhaps attempting to raise the retirement age. Photograph:  Ludovic Marin / AFP via Getty Images

French President Emmanuel Macron, pictured with his wife Brigitte Macron, is considering reviving the controversial overhaul, and perhaps attempting to raise the retirement age. Photograph: Ludovic Marin / AFP via Getty Images

 

There are certain staples in the term of any French president: the sacking of the prime minister when things are going badly, for example, or the obligatory financial scandal involving a minister. Another perennial is pension reform.

François Mitterrand cut the retirement age to 60 from 65 after he swept into power at the head of a Socialist-Communist alliance in 1981. Jacques Chirac twice attempted to undo parts of that overhaul and twice gave up in the face of street protests. In 2010, after eight weeks of strikes and blockades, Nicolas Sarkozy succeeded in raising the retirement age to 62, but the political capital he lost contributed to his rejection at the polls two years later. The man who defeated him, François Hollande, promised to partially reverse the Sarkozy-era changes but settled for a modest change that left the retirement age untouched.

Now it’s the turn of Emmanuel Macron. The current head of state appeared to have scored an important political victory on pensions when, after a winter of transport strikes in 2019-20, the National Assembly passed his law streamlining the famously complex system. The Covid-19 lockdown scuppered that plan, but now Macron is considering reviving the overhaul, and perhaps attempting to raise the retirement age further.

With a presidential election next year, electoral calculations weigh heavily on the decision. Any new initiative could trigger street protests at a sensitive time and give ammunition to the left and to Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National, which favours cutting the pension age. Against that, a new push could burnish Macron’s reformist credentials and help fend off the challenge from the centre-right, which did well in recent regional elections. And reducing the huge costs of the public pensions system – which amount to 14 per cent of GDP in France, compared to 9 per cent in the rest of the euro zone – would free up money for other priority areas such as health and education.

What Macron does next should hint at how he plans to position himself for re-election.

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