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French Retirement Reform Sets Even the Young on Fire

Staff writers Chloe Ferreux and Maxence Armant discuss the youth response to proposed pensions reform in France. Not yet in the job market, these young people are protesting a change which won’t directly impact them for 50 years.

On 31 January, in the streets of Paris, 21-year-old Master’s student Ambre Bruneteau participates in the protest against the pension reform, marching through the demonstration with a determined step. She won’t retire for 50 years but the debate is already monopolising her thoughts. Just like her, many young French people are taking to the streets alongside their elders to oppose Emmanuel Macron’s new reform – their presence may be enough to lead France into another turbulent era.

At least, that’s what the young Frenchwoman wants. She is also protesting for her mother: “I don’t see her adding up the qualifying years until she’s 64 years old”, confides the brunette. Currently set at 62 years old, French President Emmanuel Macron wants to raise the legal retirement age to 64 years old by 2030 and increase the qualifying years of contribution for a full pension to 43 years by 2027

Adopting a system of private pension funds or personal pension accounts, such as in the UK, would have been even more disastrous. However, Macron’s reform is still very ambitious for a nation whose public pension scheme, based on a distributive ‘pay as you go’ system where current workers finance retirees, represents an untouchable social symbol, akin to the NHS in Britain. “The retirement scheme works on the collective. We cannot hesitate to manifest for the others”, agrees Basile Richard, a 19-year-old Political Science and Literature student from the centre of France.

Back in Paris, after four hours of walking, the protest finally arrives at Place de la Nation in the North-East of Paris. In a last burst of demonstration, a teenager of around 17 years old climbs upon a statue of Marianne, the French symbol of Liberty and Republic, while brandishing a sign reading “metro, job, coffin” in garish colours.

A controversial plan 

For the executive branch, it doesn’t matter that the anger of the French rumbles on. Increasing the retirement age will remain Emmanuel Macron’s centrepiece policy. France already spends 14% of its GDP on public pensions, twice the average of OECD countries. The demographic shift of constantly increasing numbers of retirees, in absolute and relative terms, and is likely to put the pensions financed by the French working population under severe pressure in the near future.

“Raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 years is the only alternative to preserve our system of social justice”, suggests Alexandre Holroyd, deputy of the presidential majority (Renaissance) in the French National Assembly. However, Pierre-Louis Bras, the head of the independent Pensions Advisory Council (COR), has declared that the expenses of the current system of pensions are stable and might even rebound in most future economic scenarios.

Therefore, the opposition has depicted the decision to raise the retirement age (instead of raising taxes to fill up the potential deficit) as an ideologically neoliberal plan. Basile Richard responds angrily to Macron’s priorities and plan, arguing that “it is unfair that while over 400 billion euros are being allocated to the army, we are asked to work for two more years to overcome a potential deficit of 12 billion euros” (although it should be noted that the €400 billion is to be spread over six years, while the projected €10bn deficit is per year).

Whether it is the leftist NUPES coalition or Le Pen’s right-wing National Rally, every opposition party disapproves of the government’s approach. Other demonstrators, such as Ambre Bruneteau, advocate for Oxfam’s proposal of “increasing French billionaires’ taxes by 2% to allow the potential pension deficit to be resorbed”. Even on the benches of the traditional right-wing party Les Républicains, which has historically favoured a change in the system, the question of age is controversial. “The current pension system needs to be reformed, but raising the retirement age to 64 years old will tend to make young people and those with difficult jobs even more precarious”, agrees Guilhem Carayon, leader of Les Jeunes Républicains (The Young Republicans).

The ends justify the means

Another criticism addressed towards the government is over the means it might use to pass the reform. Since the last legislative elections, the government only benefits from a relative (not absolute) majority in the National Assembly and has therefore used constitutional strategies to pass its bills. The controversial Article 49.3 of the French Constitution allows the Prime Minister to pass any bill without Parliament’s approval, but risks an immediate vote of no confidence.

Élisabeth Borne, the current Prime Minister, has already used it ten times while having been in office for only eight months. On 23 January, the Council of Ministers declared that the pensions plan would be presented as a social security reform, a type of law that allows the use of Article 47.1 and gives the ability to the government to pass the bill by executive order. In response to allegations of anti-democratic practices made towards the government, MP Alexandre Holroyd (Renaissance) explains that “it is unfair to criticise the government for using article 49.3 or 47.1. Their use is granted by the Constitution and Michel Rocard [Prime Minister in the 1980s], who was left-wing, used article 49.3 twenty-eight times”.

The women’s rights issue

The status of women is yet another collateral effect of Emmanuel Macron’s reforms that is pushing young French people into the streets. When student Ambre Bruneteau hears the promises of “social justice” from deputy Alexandre Holroyd, she chuckles. According to her, the new reform will only “increase inequalities, especially for women”.

And for good reason: the raising of qualifying years for a full pension to forty-three by 2027 will widen the gap between retirees who have had a full career and the others. Yet women represent the majority of those who have had their careers interrupted by breaks and have had part-time jobs. The 19-year-old student Basile Richard is convinced that this “injustice” is reason enough for young people to protest.

Youth unrest

The younger generation’s fight over the reform can also be explained by fear of its consequences on the labour market. Protestors such as Ambre have insisted on the fact that raising the retirement age to 64 will decrease young people’s employment: “with older people working longer, it will reduce the number of opportunities for younger people to enter the labour force.” Other protestors such as Nadia Ayad insist on the importance of “protesting for everyone’s pension, no matter the generation”.

In response to these concerns over youth employment, Alexandre Holroyd states that “raising the retirement age is the only option to increase job opportunities for the youngest. Raising taxes would negatively impact employment offers and workers’ disposable income.”

Whether the reform will pass is still yet to be seen. In 1995, facing immense popular contestation, Prime Minister Alain Juppé had to abandon his pension plan. Turnout in the January and February protests, especially among the younger generation, has given hope to the opposition that Macron may yet relent on his programme of reform.

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