In the end, Emmanuel Macron seems prepared to compromise. After six weeks of strikes involving rail employees, teachers, nurses, ballet dancers, lawyers, concierges, pilots and drivers on the Paris Métro, the French government has announced a major concession to unions: the withdrawal of a proposal to raise the country’s full benefits retirement age from 62 to 64. Mr Macron described the concession as a “constructive compromise”, following the longest mass walkout by transport workers since 1968.
The strike is not over yet. But the French president, above all, does not want a galling defeat for the Élysée. Projecting an air of steely resolution, Mr Macron has made it his mission to challenge some of the cherished securities of France’s postwar economic settlement. His labour market reforms have made it easier to hire and fire workers. Benefits to the jobless have been cut, as unemployment has come down. More low-wage jobs have been created.
The reform of the complicated state pension system was to be the crowning achievement of Mr Macron’s five-year term – an indication of his determination to adapt France to the harsh verities of the 21st-century global economy. At times, he has seemed almost to take umbrage at some of his compatriots’ insistence that the French should continue to retire earlier than, for example, their neighbours in Germany (where the retirement age is going up to 67). The government is not budging on the crux of its reform – a plan to rationalise the country’s 42 existing pension regimes into a single, points-based system, which it says will be fairer and more transparent. But the prime minister, Édouard Philippe, has promised discussions on alternatives to raising the retirement age.
When workers take to the streets in Paris, the rest of Europe tends, with a touch of schadenfreude, to sit back and enjoy the show. Drawing on their revolutionary heritage, the French know how to protest with panache. But it would be wrong to treat the latest round of protests, and Mr Macron’s climbdown, as just another case of Gallic exceptionalism. The resistance campaign on the streets was also a symptom of deep and structural problems that go well beyond French borders.
Across Europe, as governments navigate a postindustrial economy in which automation will make good jobs even scarcer, they are struggling to fund acceptable futures for swathes of their populations. For those not connected to the wealthy enclaves of hi-tech and high-end services, insecurity is growing, horizons are narrowing and there is a sense of rising anomie. The problem of ageing populations, and how to pay for their pensions and care, is adding to the burden.
In this context, Brexit, though originally a project of the Eurosceptic right, became a vehicle through which to express popular discontent in Britain. In France, resentments have been channelled first through
In this context, Brexit, though originally a project of the Eurosceptic right, became a vehicle through which to express popular discontent in Britain. In France, resentments have been channelled first through the gilets jaunesmovement and now the massive pensions protests. Outside his own country, Mr Macron is generally viewed as a moderate, liberal figure. But for a large part of his presidency French cities and towns have been centres of regular, angry protest – a record that Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National will seek to exploit in 2022.
France, like the rest of Europe, faces economic challenges on multiple fronts: populations are growing older and the future of work is uncertain and precarious. In an age of insecurity, people are fighting to keep hold of what they have. Mr Macron will need to make a better offer on pensions.
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