It’s shaping up to be one of France’s biggest strikes in recent memory. Responding to calls from unions to protest against the government’s proposed retirement reforms, an impressive swath of the workforce plans to walk off the job tomorrow – everyone from railway workers and truckers to judges, nurses, teachers and students.
While it has yet to introduce legislation, Emmanuel Macron’s government has floated a proposal that would mark the deepest overhaul of France’s pension system since its creation in the aftermath of the second world war. This would effectively hike the earliest age at which one can collect so-called full retirement benefits from 62 to 64, overhaul the formula for calculating benefits and merge the country’s 42 existing pension schemes into a single regime – all in all, resulting in likely benefit cuts for millions. Authorities have defended their ambitions with the language of French republicanism, vowing to forge a “universal system” in which everyone is treated equally. But what they neglect to mention is that the new standard would be worse than today’s.
Yes, Macron’s reforms would probably save money – under the current system, authorities face a total pension deficit slated to reach between €8bn and €17bn by 2025. But they would also take a bludgeon to one of the best retirement systems in the world. In France, just 7% of older people are at risk of poverty. This is the lowest rate in the European Union, much less than the 19% in the UK and Germany. It’s also likely to be part of the reason why France has slightly greater life expectancy than either country. A system like this ought to be cherished and expanded, not cut.
Predictably, the French government has sought to paint opposition to retirement reform as “corporatist” – an unhelpful backlash from pockets of workers aiming to preserve their own advantages, along with the usual bunch of hardline trade unionists. And indeed, the call to strike initially came from militant railway workers with relatively good benefits. But it has since spread elsewhere: to state schoolteachers, hospital staffers, postal workers and employees of the state electricity provider. Student unions and groups of gilets jaunes (yellow vests) looking to re-energise their year-long protest movement have also joined the cause. Those planning to protest appear increasingly like a cross-section of French society, brought together by a shared goal. A poll published on Wednesday found that nearly six in 10 people support the strike.
Sympathy for the strike has been fuelled by frustrations over Macron’s broader economic record. Retirement reform is only his latest effort to chip away at the welfare state. Since taking office in 2017, the president has also slashed unemployment benefits and made it easier for companies to fire workers, while keeping a tight lid on the cost of public services.
At the same time, he has replaced the country’s wealth tax – which once applied to all those with €1.3m in assets – with a tax on property holdings valued above that level. As the gilets jaunes expressed in such dramatic fashion, ordinary French people are increasingly forced to make sacrifices while the super-rich get government handouts.
If there is a unifying thread behind Macronism – a vision that links these various reforms – it is the notion that France must be made more attractive for business. This has always been an obsession of the nation’s top employers’ lobby, the Movement of the Enterprises of France. But it’s only grown since the 1980s, when France’s neighbours began pursuing pro-business reforms at a much brisker pace. Regretful that they never had a Reagan or Thatcher of their own, much of France’s commercial elite now share a sense that their country is economically backwards: that there’s too much red tape, too many pro-worker rules, that state spending unfairly crowds out the private sector. The pension system is emblematic of these frustrations: where retirees see a source of hard-won benefits, bosses and reformers see a costly dinosaur fed by payroll taxes.
It’s hard to have much sympathy for those who are whining. After all, France still has the world’s sixth largest economy, and the rich have no problem making money here. There are more than 40 billionaires; last year, France’s companies paid out more dividends to shareholders than anywhere else in continental Europe.
But more importantly, France can boast one of the most successful welfare states in the world. That’s a major reason why the country has a lower poverty rate than its often-idealised American, British and German counterparts. The safety net also helped soften the blow of the last economic crisis, a lesson that authorities would do well to remember as the global economy slows down.
Protesters in France will probably be derided as unrealistic, as stubborn defenders of an old-fashioned model in need of change. What’s actually far more outdated in 2019 is Macron’s insistence on chipping away at an effective and popular social welfare programme. One need only look at the state of the countries that French business elites look up to with such fondness. On paper, the UK and US might be more economically competitive than France, but at what cost? Can anyone truly say that neoliberal reforms have made them better countries to live in?
In this case, like so many others, the people on the streets in France will carry far more wisdom than the national assembly or the Elysée palace. The country’s welfare state is a world-class achievement that ought to be protected, not hollowed out for savings.
• Cole Stangler is a journalist based in Paris