Emmanuel Macron chose to make pension reform a strategic priority when he won last year’s presidential election. After passing the reform by executive decree and narrowly surviving a parliamentary vote of confidence, he is now in danger of achieving it at the cost of a democratic impasse and loss of political momentum for the rest of his second term in office. Raising the pension age from 62 to 64 is rejected by a wide majority of French voters who say it is socially unfair and under-prepared. Macron and his government have failed to convince them otherwise.
The case for reform in France’s pay-as-you-go pension system hinges on demographic change, fiscal capacity, competitive position and financial risk if reforms are not made. It is a powerful set of arguments, but they are difficult to win when living standards are falling and employment conditions for many are more precarious. The pension system is complex, has many vocational exceptions and most end up with less than full entitlements because they have not contributed enough, even though those who are retired believe they get a valuable deal overall.
Macron’s approach has been to reduce the scale of change and to offer compromises compared to his previous proposals made before the Covid crisis. He sought rapid decisions to set the tone and credibility of his second term. Lacking a parliamentary majority, he and his prime minister Élisabeth Borne concentrated most on securing support from centre right and other political allies and too little on public consultation and deliberation to explain the rationale for reform. This gave trade unions opposed to change an opportunity to take the initiative with public demonstrations and strikes in the last two months, gathering growing support from youth and workers.
The outcome is widely perceived as undemocratic and arrogant, confirming stereotypes of Macron’s political style. His relative silence on the pension changes so far is hardly compensated by hints of compromise in Wednesday’s television interview, which included promises of more profit-sharing for employees and ways to allow those with physical jobs to retire earlier. He is vulnerable to further popular street movements and strikes reminiscent of the gilets jaunes protests in 2019 unless he can defuse public anger. He is also vulnerable to political manoeuvres by opponents, including the longer term consolidation of the far right Marine Le Pen’s positioning as a presidential candidate in 2027.
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Her victory against a possible background of public disillusionment with French democracy would be a disastrous legacy for Macron – and for France. To prevent that happening and retrieve his credibility Macron needs to engage in much more public debate on pensions, and find other pathways for his reformist mandate.