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Macron's reputation on line with pension reform push

Macron insists that pension system must be streamlined

By AFP - Jan 10,2023 - Last updated at Jan 10,2023

Force Ouvriere (FO) union's leader Fabrice Lerestif speaks in front of a banner reading 'no pension for the dead people' during a rally organised by FO against the government's pension reform plan in Rennes, western France, on Tuesday (AFP photo)

PARIS — The French government is set to announce its proposals for overhauling the pension system on Tuesday, in a potentially explosive reform fraught with danger for President Emmanuel Macron.

With his oft-repeated belief that the French "need to work more", Macron has doggedly insisted since his rise to power in 2017 that the pension system must be streamlined.

But having called off his first attempt in 2020 in the face of protests and the COVID-19 pandemic, the 45-year-old centrist put the issue at the heart of his successful campaign for a second term in April last year. 

As well as simplifying the system and removing privileges enjoyed by workers in some sectors of the economy, the reform will aim to raise the retirement age from its current level of 62 — most likely to 64.

"On the whole, the idea of the reform is not supported by the public, even though some can understand that if we live for longer then we might need to work for longer," Bruno Cautres, a political expert at Sciences Po university in Paris, told AFP. 

All of France's trade unions and most of the country's opposition political parties are preparing for battle, seeing the struggle as a way of protecting the country's social system and undermining Macron's position.

The former investment banker lost his parliamentary majority in legislative elections in June in a major setback.

He has made pension reform one of the main planks of his plans for domestic reform during his second term.

"If Emmanuel Macron wants to make it the mother of reforms... for us it will be the mother of battles," warned the head of the hard-left FO union, Frederic Souillot, over the weekend.

Street protests and strikes appear inevitable, with Macron's last attempt resulting in the longest public transport stoppage in Paris in three decades.


Yellow Vests II? 


Of greater concern to the government is the risk of spontaneous protests of the sort seen in 2018 when people wearing fluorescent yellow safety jackets began blocking roads, sparking what became known as the "Yellow Vest" revolt.

The often violent display of defiance struck fear into the heart of government, leading Macron to promise a gentler, less authoritarian style of governing.

"I don't see another 'Yellow Vest' crisis happening," Cautres told AFP, even though he said the national mood was one of "pessimism, fatalism and anger" and a sense that "we're permanently in crisis".

Some in government are banking on the country acquiescing to a change that is widely disliked but viewed as inevitable, particularly given that most of France's neighbours have hiked the retirement age to 65 or beyond.

"There's a form of fatalism," an aide to Macron told AFP recently on condition of anonymity. "We're going to go through with it and people know it."

The government has also watered down some of its proposals, with the retirement age likely to be 64 instead of the 65 proposed by Macron.

There will also be a proposed rise in the minimum pension to 1,200 euros ($1,280) a month and greater provision for people who have not worked continuously, such as parents who took career breaks to care for children.


'President of the rich' 


Critics see the changes as retrograde and unnecessary, even though official forecasts show the system in deep deficit in the coming decades because of the gradually ageing population.

"In 2023, will Emmanuel Macron be out of step with the era and shine as the president of the rich?" leftwing French economist and author Thomas Piketty asked in Le Monde newspaper on Sunday.

He said the reform might save the state up to 20 billion euros a year, but "the problem is that these 20 billion will weigh down entirely on the poorest" by extending their working lives.

As well as contending with strikes and protests, Macron's government will also need to cut a path through the stormy parliament where the ruling party and its allies are in a minority.

Support for the legislation from the rightwing Republicans party is expected to be necessary.

Without it, Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne would have to use a constitutional power known as article 49.3 which enables her to ram through legislation without a vote.

But such a move would almost certainly lead to a confidence vote, which, if all the opposition parties united, could bring down the government. 

Borne will unveil the outlines of the proposed law at 5:30 pm (1630 GMT) and will speak on French TV later in the evening. 

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