The Irish Times view on the French strikes: Macron vs the street

For a president who won election claiming he could ‘transform’ France, Emmanuel Macron has a lot riding on his pension reform

A man holds a placard reading “Retirement at the age of 55, for workers in the building sector and for the others” as he takes part in a demonstration in Lyon on Tuesday to protest against French government’s plan to overhaul the country’s retirement system, as part of a national general strike. Photograph: Jean-Philippe Ksiazek/AFP via Getty Images

A man holds a placard reading “Retirement at the age of 55, for workers in the building sector and for the others” as he takes part in a demonstration in Lyon on Tuesday to protest against French government’s plan to overhaul the country’s retirement system, as part of a national general strike. Photograph: Jean-Philippe Ksiazek/AFP via Getty Images

 

When confronted with domestic stalemate and strife, French presidents have tended to take refuge in foreign affairs. It is certainly open to Emmanuel Macron to continue that tradition. His international stature – and, consequently, that of his country – has been enhanced by a confluence of factors, including Brexit, Angela Merkel’s slow departure from office and the inward turn of the US under Donald Trump. On issues ranging from the climate crisis to European defence, Macron has used his personal charisma and ambition to assume a position of global leadership.

Yet a man whose electoral success was built on the claim that France must not merely be “reformed” but “transformed” has a great deal riding on his latest domestic challenge – a standoff with trade unions over sweeping changes to the pensions system. Macron’s plan would replace a sprawling system of 42 regimes – including one that allows train drivers to retire by 52 – and result in public-sector pensions being calculated according to the same, less favourable, rules as private ones. A new points system would benefit those, including many women, who have had gaps in their working lives, while the highest earners would pay more towards the pensions of others. Although the retirement age would remain at 62, a new “equilibrium age” would give people an incentive to continue at work beyond that.

Macron’s government has aggravated the situation by over-emphasising the later retirement age and not sufficiently stressing the plan’s progressive elements

Unions are resisting. Transport strikes have brought chaos to French cities in recent weeks, and teachers have staged walk-outs every few days. It’s a tactic that has worked in the past. Under Jacques Chirac in 1995, then prime minister Alain Juppé famously gave in on a less ambitious pension reform after a few weeks of transport disruption. But the unions are also wary of overplaying their hand: they recall that in 2010, after another industrial relations dispute, then president Nicolas Sarkozy diluted his own pension reform plan but still managed to push through an increase in the retirement age from 60 to 62.

French President-elect Emmanuel Macron gestures as he speaks during a victory celebration outside the Louvre museum in Paris, France, Sunday, May 7, 2017. Speaking to thousands of supporters from the Louvre Museum’s courtyard, Macron said that France is facing an “immense task” to rebuild European unity, fix the economy and ensure security against extremist threats. (Photograph: Thibault Camus/AP)
"For Macron, now just over half-way through his term, this is a battle he cannot lose." File photograph: Thibault Camus/AP

Macron’s government has aggravated the situation by over-emphasising the later retirement age and not sufficiently stressing the plan’s progressive elements, such as a proposed minimum monthly pension for those who earn very little. Prime minister Édouard Philippe inexplicably referred to a “malus” – the opposite of a bonus – for people who stop working before 64.

For Macron, now just over half-way through his term, this is a battle he cannot lose. Opinion polls show that a majority of French people continue to support or sympathise with the strikers, which will encourage the unions. But they know they must tread carefully: attendance at mass rallies have halved since the protests began, while severe disruption over Christmas could provoke a backlash in a population where trade union membership is low by European standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.