French pension reforms are flagging democratic failures
It’s not a question of French laziness - it’s a question of democracy.
As hundreds of thousands continue to protest across France against the pension reforms, Macron stands firm. In a controversial move, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne made use of article 49.3 of the constitution to pass the pension reform without a vote in the Assemblée Nationale. Despite two and a half months of heavy protests leading up to the decision, the financial risks of MPs rejecting the law seemingly outweighed social pressure in Macron’s eyes. Left-wing politicians have criticised the government’s actions, calling it a sign of weakness and a democratic failure.
The pension reforms involve moving the retirement age from 62 to 64 by 2030, with the additional requirement of having worked for at least 43 years, instead of 41, to qualify. A long career system is already in place for those who have worked for five quarters before turning 20, allowing them to retire two years earlier. The government have argued that as the number of people who have retired increases alongside life expectancy, the current pension system in which workers’ taxes are paying for pensions is unsustainable, and thus changes are necessary.
According to polls, two-thirds of the French population oppose the reforms, with trade unions stating they will unfairly penalise those in low-income manual jobs who started work earlier than graduates. For those in jobs involving heavy labour in dehumanising conditions, it is adding on 24 months of gruelling work in their later years. There have been additional concerns that the reforms will make it even harder for women to access a full pension if they take maternity leave and work part-time during the early years of childcare.
The power of protest and the movement of workers appears to no longer hold the same weight in politics.
The debate has moved from focusing purely on pension reforms to the greater issue of democracy in France. Macron’s government is waiting for strikes to subside instead of listening to the movement, further reinforcing the idea that he and his government of plutocrats are fundamentally disconnected from the public. Since being elected, Macron has been reluctant to listen to the opposition and has often disregarded them. Despite only 20.7% of those registered voting for him in the first round, Macron has undermined the strikes in parliament in stating that “the crowd, whatever form it takes, has no legitimacy in the face of the people who express themselves through their elected representatives”. It seems the President has changed his tune since being elected, when he recognised that a significant proportion of his votes in the second round were not in support of his ideas and policies, but a move to block Marine Le Pen on the extreme right. The power of protest and the movement of workers appears to no longer hold the same weight in politics. A strike is no longer a means through which democracy can be upheld but a nuisance to be ignored and diminished.
The shift of power from the people to a disconnected elite is a trend which has been mirrored in the UK following the implementation of the police, crime, sentencing, and courts (PCSC) bill in April last year. Macron’s sentiments towards strikes have been echoed by the likes of Priti Patel, who urged MPs to support the fundamentally autocratic bill by stating that “we do not make policy through mob rule in this country”. The disruptions caused by workers’ strikes and campaigns on the climate crisis are of greater concern to the British government than the issues being campaigned for. Fearmongering about the inherent violence of crowds has served to legitimise their repression both through increased policing and the introduction of authoritarian policies. Unsurprisingly, the greatest source of violence in crowds stems from a brutal police force rather than non-violent demonstrations.
The disruptions caused by workers’ strikes and campaigns on the climate crisis are of greater concern to the British government than the issues being campaigned for.
Historically, the importance of protests in social liberation cannot be denied, and they have remained the backbone of democracy. Their suppression and dismissal is not something to take lightly, with potentially significant consequences on the trust people have in their governments. As tensions rise in response to our global energy, cost of living, and climate crises, having faith in the people and systems that lead us will become increasingly important.