Macron rides into union battle with plan to raise French pension age

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne sets out contentious plans to National Assembly

French President Emmanuel Macron has long campaigned for an increase in the pension age. Reuters
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France's President Emmanuel Macron will ride into a fierce political battle on Tuesday as his government asks the French to work longer into old age.

Raising the pension age from 62 to 64 is a flagship goal of Mr Macron's second term. But he faces bitter resistance from trade unions and MPs on the left and right.

“Emmanuel Macron is leading a real war against the French people,” far-right leader Jordan Bardella said.

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne on Tuesday outlined plans to raise the legal retirement age to 64 by 2030.

“I’m aware that changing our pension system raises questions and fears,” she told a news conference in Paris.

“Today, we are presenting a plan of balance for our retirement system, a plan of fairness, a plan that brings social progress.”

Ms Borne also accelerated other planned pension system changes that will extend the careers of many workers if they want to retire with a full pension, framing the move as vital to prevent the system from collapsing under the weight of deficits.

“Leaving these deficits to grow would be irresponsible … It would lead inevitably to a massive increase in taxes, a reduction in pensions and would pose a threat to our pensions system,” she said.

The President has long argued that the French need to work more to fund the welfare state, as people live longer.

His first attempt at pension reform was derailed by the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, and his second was pushed back from last year to buy time for discussions.

Mr Macron has offered concessions such as guaranteeing a minimum pension for new recipients.

Paul Midy, an ally of Mr Macron in parliament, said there would be sweeteners for people with especially long working lives.

First lady Brigitte Macron weighed into the debate on Monday by telling young people the reform was necessary “so that you will have a pension”.

But unions have promised to mobilise if the reforms go ahead, adding to a regular drumbeat of strikes in transport, health and education.

French unions have promised to mobilise against Mr Macron's pension reforms. AP

Some opponents have said the reform is unnecessary because the pension budget was a projected €3.2 billion ($3.43 billion) in surplus last year, although experts predict a deficit in years to come.

“The raising of the legal pension age is a brutal and profoundly unjust measure,” said Marylise Leon, the deputy secretary general of France's largest trade union, the CFDT.

The far-right National Rally campaigned against increasing the pension age at last year's presidential election, at which its candidate Marine Le Pen was beaten by Mr Macron.

His authority was weakened at subsequent parliamentary elections, where his centrist bloc failed to win an absolute majority.

Mr Macron could get the changes through the National Assembly if the centre-right Republicans, who have long called for reform, side with the government.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the most recent centre-right president, raised the pension age from 60 to 62 more than a decade ago.

Republican leader Eric Ciotti has said he will back the increase if certain conditions are met, such as phasing it in over 10 years with an initial rise to 63 in 2027.

But he said Mr Macron had “chosen to carry out this reform at a time of extreme tension”.

If Mr Macron cannot get a majority, there are powers in the constitution that allow the government to overrule MPs in certain cases — although this would be sure to aggravate opponents.

Any such move would be a “denial of democracy”, said left-wing MP Alexis Corbiere.

Speaking to The National last month, French politics expert Paul Smith said the reform battle was likely to be a “long, difficult process”.

“The various opposition parties, whether it's the left, the traditional right or the far right, will try to make as much political capital as they can out of Macron's discomfort,” he said.

Updated: January 10, 2023, 5:26 PM