PARIS — France is protesting against Emmanuel Macron’s plans to raise the retirement age. After months of strikes and protests, tension reached its peak on Thursday, with some violent outbursts in Paris that brought back memories from the months-long Yellow Jacket movement.
Protests are impacting the country’s daily life and even France’s international agenda, with the Elysée postponing a long-awaited visit by King Charles III to Paris. Trade unions have called for another big day of strikes next Tuesday, the 10th since the beginning of demonstrations, but other smaller, spontaneous protests are erupting in parallel, another reminder of the Yellow Jacket marches.
Strikes and protests against the pensions overhaul started at the beginning of the year and escalated this week, after the government forced the text through parliament amid fears that it would not have enough votes. Protesters POLITICO spoke with are furious with Macron for the reform — which would raise the retirement age from 62 to 64, and extend contributions to get a full pension — but also for bypassing a parliamentary vote.
Not really. There are several differences between ongoing protests and the spontaneous movement that blocked the whole country during Macron’s first mandate. Before turning into a massive anti-Macron movement, the Yellow Jackets started as a protest against a fuel tax mostly led by lower-middle class people from rural areas who use their cars to go to work. Violent actions and vandalism have been a key feature of Yellow Jacket protests everywhere in France.
The French president so far has given no signs that he could change his mind. In his Wednesday TV interview, he defended the reform and argued that unions didn’t come up with alternative proposals to reform the pensions system — something they immediately countered.
At a European Council press conference in Brussels on Friday, Macron condemned violence and said he was ready to discuss with unions other issues such as work conditions and salaries.
Macron was quick to point out that the retirement age in France is among the lowest in Europe — a comparison that could make international observers wonder why the French are so reluctant to adapt their pension system to rising life expectancy. Opponents have argued there are many ways to reform the system and make it financially balanced, and that raising the retirement age is particularly unfair to the poor and people who have started work early, mostly in blue-collar, physically demanding jobs.
“We are a country where the debate is demanding, where the demand for social rights is high, this has also made our history, our social model,” France’s Transport Minister and Macron’s top ally Clément Beaune told POLITICO in an interview last week, adding that this is “also something to be proud of.”
Pension systems are hard to compare and France is closer to its neighbors when comparing the effective retirement age. Most importantly, French discontent goes widely beyond the merits of the reform. At last year’s parliamentary election, Macron lost an outright majority in the French National Assembly and the decision to skip a parliamentary vote on the reform further exposed the president’s weakness. That constitutional maneuver added a new layer to existing angriness, protesters say.