France’s retirement age is lower than some other European countries. But the country’s complex social structure and unique governance system make changes difficult to implement.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed pension reforms, known as the ‘système de reiterate’ in French, have encountered stiff opposition, with massive crowds of protesters taking to the streets in a phenomenal show of defiance against the government.

The French pension system allows for earlier retirement compared to some other European countries, with the current retirement age set at 62 years. However, demographic shifts and increasing life expectancies have prompted the French government to undertake several pension system reforms in recent years to ensure its financial sustainability.

This is not just a problem in France. Eurostat, the provider of European statistics, reports that the proportion of people aged 65 and over in the EU exceeded 21 percent in 2022, and the median age of the EU population increased to 44.4 years. 

The declining birth rates and ageing population in Europe have placed significant pressure on pension systems, resulting in a gradual increase in retirement age. This demographic shift is already apparent in several EU member states, with fewer working-age individuals and more retired individuals. 

This trend is expected to continue, resulting in a considerable increase in the proportion of older individuals in the population. Consequently, those of working age may face increased responsibility for supporting social expenditures necessary for services required by the elderly population. 

To address these demographic changes, individuals are expected to work longer before becoming eligible for pension benefits.

Macron’s proposal

Macron first proposed the pension law reform in 2019, during his first term. The idea was subsequently delayed due to the pandemic. However, the proposal resurfaced in his 2022 re-election manifesto. 

The reform aims to increase the minimum general retirement age from 62 to 64 and remove certain privileges for public sector workers. 

It is important to note that the minimum retirement age only applies to individuals who have worked for a certain number of years to be eligible for pension benefits.

Macron has argued that the potential financial risks of not implementing the proposed pension reform in France are too significant to ignore. The reform is deemed crucial to avoid the risk of bankruptcy, and as such, Macron has defended his controversial decision. 

However, the French government’s inadequate communication strategies in public relations, specifically regarding the proposed pension reform, have hindered its ability to gain public support. 

The government’s insufficient explanation of the proposed changes, including their potential benefits and drawbacks, has resulted in scepticism and opposition from the public. This lack of clarity has led to polls indicating that two-thirds of French citizens oppose the pension changes and support the ongoing protests.

Opposition and protests

Macron’s push for pension reforms has been met with vigorous criticism and protests from leftist opponents and worker unions. Major trade unions called for strikes and protests, leading to some of the largest demonstrations in decades. The strike affected a wide range of workers, including those in transportation, energy, docks, teaching, the public sector, museums, and students. The ongoing strike also caused over 7,000 tonnes of garbage to accumulate in Paris.

After failing to secure an absolute majority in the 2022 parliamentary election, Macron’s centrist party sought support from Les Républicains party. However, after weeks of negotiations, the support did not materialise. 

In an attempt to pass the pension proposals, Macron invoked an extraordinary power in the Constitution (article 49.3) to avoid a parliamentary vote. 

This decision led to chaos, with left-wing MPs singing La Marseillaise to prevent the Prime Minister from speaking. Additionally, several members of Macron’s party and its supporters expressed dissatisfaction with the government’s action of passing the bill in the Assemblée Nationale without a vote.

French society and its challenges

France is renowned for its high tax-to-GDP ratio, which places it among the leading OECD nations. However, the Covid pandemic has brought to light specific weaknesses in the French healthcare system, particularly its capacity, and responsiveness in recent years. 

Additionally, rising energy prices have resulted in higher inflation, leading to significant challenges for low-income individuals.

French society faces a challenge in balancing their capitalist and social state approaches. This results in a bureaucratic system and lower salaries than in other Western liberal capitalist economies. 

Despite a robust social welfare system, the French government enforces higher taxes and bureaucratic regulations, which cause individuals to spend considerable time dealing with paperwork and waiting for services from government institutions, banks, and other private companies, leading to a slower quality of life.

French culture emphasises community and solidarity over individual rights and customer satisfaction when compared to other Western liberal capitalist economies. 

Consequently, there is a higher probability of lower levels of customer service and satisfaction. These situations can cause significant inconvenience to individuals, such as prolonged waits for medical attention, transportation interruptions, unreliable postal services, extensive bureaucratic procedures, unfulfilled services despite payment, long queues in markets, and extended delays in receiving services for insured homes. 

Such experiences can impact an individual’s quality of life and lead to dissatisfaction with public and private services. Though a section of French citizens might lack knowledge regarding personal rights, they remain deeply committed to social rights and freedoms derived from the republican values of “egalite and fraternite”. 

These values reflect the country’s dedication to equality and brotherhood. As a result, any proposed reforms in France will likely face protests and strikes.

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Source: TRT World