France is roiled by massive protests against the pension reforms introduced by President Emmanuel Macron. The reforms propose gradually raising the retirement age from the current 62 years by three months a year until it reaches 64 years by 2030, increasing the number of years that contributions would need to be made from 41 to 43 by 2027 to qualify for full state pension, and an increase in the minimum state pension by 100 euros.
The case for pension reform is unexceptionable. France has one of the lowest retirement wages, spends more on pensions, has one of the most generous pension schemes (a net pension replacement rate of 74%, a measure of how pensions replace prior earnings), declining dependency ratios etc. Accordingly, Macron had even promised the same in his April 2022 re-election campaign, and the issue was an important part of his campaign even in 2017.
But the reform itself and, especially the manner in which it has been pushed through has raised deep discontent. After failing to mobilise a National Assembly majority among allies, including the pro-reform Republicans, President Macron decided to invoke the Article 49.3 of the Constitution which allows governments to bypass the National Assembly and force bills without a vote, but at the risk of a no-confidence motion (which historically French governments which invoked the Article 49.3 have rarely lost). The Article was invoked to pass the reform Bill and the no-confidence vote failed.
The Economist has a nice summary of the reform and the context,
France’s new pension rules are at once bold, overdue and less radical than once planned. Bold, because the decision to go ahead at all comes in the middle of a cost-of-living squeeze, as part of the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine... The reform is bold politically too. Few outside Mr Macron’s party and his support base want it, though the employers’ federation applauded. Fully 68% of the French and 77% of 35- to 49-year-olds are against a rise in the pension age to 64. All the country’s trade unions are against any increase in the retirement age... Most opposition parties also oppose the reform... In any event, the reform is overdue. Mr Macron has been promising it since he was first elected, in 2017. Endless consultations, mixed messaging and a failure to build a consensus around a previous version, in 2019, led to the longest period of strikes in France since the uprising of 1968. This first attempt by Mr Macron was finally shelved when covid-19 struck in 2020. Yet France cannot afford to keep things as they are. At 60, the average age at which French men actually retire (for women it is 61) is the third-lowest in the OECD... Thanks to a high life expectancy, a retired man then spends an average of 23.5 years in his armchair (and a French woman 27 years), the second-longest. The share of 55- to 64-year-olds still at their desks is just 57%, compared with 74% in Germany and 65% in Britain... France spends 14% of GDP on public pensions, nearly double the OECD average.
This is a good example of the political economy challenges associated with reforms on issues where the need for change is obvious, public costs of reform very high, and the resolve negligible.
The passage of the reform has escalated the public protests that have been on since January, with street demonstrations, localised violence, garbage piles in Paris and other cities, metro railways disruptions and so on. As sanitation workers have gone on strike, Parisian streets are overflowing with large piles of garbage. In that context, Bloomberg has an article on the history of garbage strikes,
Sanitation strikes are indeed remarkable in their power to bring social discord to the eyes and ears (and noses) of the wider world, and they can bring on lasting political changes... British Conservative politicians attacking Labour Party opponents still invoke the “Winter of Discontent” — a series of strikes in 1978 and 1979 that saw urban rubbish piles reach to the height of the buildings around them in London and other UK cities, not just helping to usher Margaret Thatcher to electoral victory but serving as a powerful visual representation of disorder in British culture thereafter. Such labor actions became fixtures of urban life in Europe and North America in the 20th century. They emerged, somewhat later than disputes in other areas of industrial society, as cities took over waste collection from private entrepreneurs... With a greater understanding of the importance of hygiene and a sharp increase in refuse from manufactured consumer goods, waste collection came to be acknowledged as a cornerstone of public health... New York City’s epic sanitation strike of 1911, for example, came about because workers were being forced to work not just for low pay, but during the dead of night in winter, usually alone. As France’s current example shows, uncollected trash can be a reliable signpost that a city or country is entering wider social flux. Garbage was piled high in Paris during political ferment in 1957 and 1968. Several of the most famous sanitation worker strikes in US history — in New York City, Memphis and St. Petersburg, Florida — also erupted in 1968, as America was rocked by protests against the Vietnam War, civil rights activism leading up to the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, and urban unrest following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the context of the manner in which the French government has gone ahead with approving the pension reform without a National Assembly vote, Simon Kuper writes about the changing perceptions about the State among the French electorate,
French anger transcends pensions and Macron’s high-handedness. There’s a generalised, long-term rage against the state and its embodiment, the president. After 20 years living here, I’ve become used to the French presumption that whoever they elected president is a moronic villain, and that the state, instead of being their collective emanation, is their oppressor. But Macron’s unpopular ramming through of a higher retirement age without a vote increases the risk that the French will follow Americans, Britons and Italians and vote populist: President Marine Le Pen in 2027. The far-right’s vote in presidential run-offs has gradually risen this century, to 41 per cent last year. France can’t go on like this. It’s time to end the Fifth Republic, with its all-powerful presidency — the closest thing in the developed world to an elected dictator — and inaugurate a less autocratic Sixth Republic. Macron might just be the person to do it.
This is a brilliant summary of the Fifth Republic
The Fifth Republic was declared in 1958, amid the chaos of the Algerian war and fears of a military coup. The constitution was written for and partly by Charles de Gaulle, the 6ft 5in tall war hero, the “man of providence” whose very name made him the embodiment of ancient France. He consented to return as leader if France muzzled political parties and parliamentarians. (He even disliked his own party, the RPF, the Rassemblement du peuple français.) So the constitution created a strong executive, albeit not centred on the president. Clause 49.3 allowed the executive to over-rule parliament, and pass laws without a vote... The pensions manoeuvre was the 11th time that Élisabeth Borne, Macron’s prime minister, had invoked 49.3 in 10 months in power. In the 1958 constitution, the president was still a relatively modest figure, elected by about 80,000 officials. But in 1962, de Gaulle enhanced the president’s status: he would be elected by universal suffrage. As de Gaulle later explained: “The indivisible authority of the state is entrusted entirely to the president.”
The Fifth Republic’s governing philosophy became a sort of French-Confucian rule by the cleverest boys in the class, plucked from all ranks of the population. Prime Minister Pierre Mendès France’s father sold affordable ladieswear, President Georges Pompidou’s was a small-town schoolteacher, and President François Mitterrand’s the stationmaster of Angoulême. Typically at G7 summits, the leader with the highest IQ and broadest hinterland beyond politics is the French president. The republic’s technocrats gradually extended their writ to the most isolated villages. Almost everything that moved in western Europe’s largest country was administered from a few square kilometres in Paris. The various waves of “decentralisation” since 1982 never got far. The guiding belief of Parisian technocrats, says the liberal writer Gaspard Koenig, is “étatisme”, statism. He notes that they are typically described as “servants of the state”, rather than of the people. The deal became that the French would hand over a big chunk of their income to the state, and navigate an often nightmarish bureaucracy, in exchange for free education, healthcare, pensions and often even subsidised holidays.
As Kuper writes, the Fifth Republic experienced its “Trente Glorieuses” — 30 glorious years of economic growth, from 1945 until 1975. Apart from economic successes, the unitary and strong French Presidency enhanced the country's global standing. The oil shock of 1973, the long economic stagnation since eighties, and the procession of weak Presidents and scandals surrounding them since the millennium have hastened the debate on the relevance of the Fifth Republic.
The disenchantment with the president showed in approval ratings. Mitterrand (president from 1981 to 1995) and Chirac (1995-2007) generally had ratings between 40 and 60 per cent, according to pollsters Kantar Sofres. But the last three presidents, Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande and Macron, have usually ranged between 20 and 40 per cent. Hollande’s rating in one poll hit 4 per cent (not a typo). These figures from the post-heroic age were too small for de Gaulle’s job. Few voters now even expect that the next president will be the national saviour. Although Marine Le Pen may become president, she too has lost her magic after years of scandals.
As Kuper writes, French Presidential elections have gone in 60 years from being a contest to choose the "man of providence" (De Gaulle) to the latest being to choose "not the devil" (Le Pen).
This is an excellent description of the French ruling elites,
But the technocrats look tarnished too, especially since they have congealed into a self-perpetuating caste. Today’s ruling class consists disproportionately of white sons of the book-owning high bourgeoisie, who travelled together from Parisian Left Bank nursery school to Left Bank école préparatoire, where they crammed for exams for the grandes écoles, before acquiring their own Left Bank apartment. If they didn’t come from Paris, they generally moved there as teenagers, like Hollande, a rich doctor’s son from Normandy, or Macron, a neurologist’s son from Picardy... French technocrats spend their working lives in a few arrondissements inside the Périphérique, the ring road that encircles the Parisian court like a moat. They treat the rest of France almost like a colony, inhabited by smelly peasants who failed to absorb the Parisian culture they had been taught at school, and who vote far right or far left.
The fundamental facts of life outside Paris escape many decision makers. Jean-Pierre Jouyet, an École Nationale d’ Administration (ENA) classmate and right-hand man of Hollande, realised that large swaths of the countryside had no broadband internet only because he suffered the experience in his second home (his parents’ old house) in Normandy... When Macron decided to add a few cents to the fuel tax in 2018, he had no idea it would spark a months-long nationwide uprising by the gilets jaunes, the “yellow vests”, because he and the technocrats around him hadn’t grasped how much people beyond the Périphérique relied on their cars. When things go wrong, the French blame the technocrats — and above all the president, who decides without consulting them. Ordinary people’s lives feel determined, down to the day they can retire, by a Parisian pretend meritocracy from which they were excluded at birth. Three-quarters of people who identify as belonging to “popular classes” say they feel the object of social contempt and lack of recognition, reports Luc Rouban, an expert on politics at Sciences Po, an elite Paris university. This is particularly galling, given the country’s promise, proclaimed from the facades of every post office and primary school: “Liberté, égalité, fraternité”. France isn’t the UK or US, where the power of social class or money is frank.
And this is a great summary of Kuper's reading of the de facto political system in France,
The state’s autocratic nature helps explain why the French are so angry despite living relatively well. You could describe the republic’s workings without mentioning the almost irrelevant parliament. France today has three branches of government: the presidency, the judiciary and the street. If the president decides to do something, only the street can stop him — by stopping the country through protests and strikes. Street and president rarely seek compromise. One wins, one loses.
Historically, the trade unions control the street. But as they too lose relevance — Macron barely consulted them over pensions — the street has become increasingly violent and undirected, from the leaderless gilets jaunes to today’s burning dustbins.
Kuper points to liberal writer Gaspard Koenig, who urges revising the Constitution by scrapping de Gaulle's innovation of an elected president (which would boost Parliament's status) and devolving powers to the the country's 35,000 communes or local authorities (which would take power away from the central elites).