Strikes and weekly demonstrations have been going on since the beginning of December against the pension reform. Yet almost everything is stacked against the strikers. The government has a large majority in Parliament and will pass the pension reform law regardless. Opposition political parties that could have given support are weak and split. The unions themselves are weak and split. The strikes are felt by all because of the impact on public transport and to a lesser extent on schools, but few people are actually involved, and almost no one from the private sector, unlike in 1995. And Macron has a successful record of sitting out strikes with his reforms more or less intact when the movement dies down.
The government has the press, radio and television at its service. All stress the violence and ‘radicalisation’ of strikers and demonstrators. State radio presents Macron’s record positively, announcing that from February, 80% of households will no longer pay the main local tax and all households will see their income tax reduced; not only that, but, says France Inter, unemployment has dropped, thanks to the lowering of social security contributions on the one hand, and the bonus given to people on the minimum wage since the Gilets Jaunes, on the other.
Despite all these advantages, the government has not managed to make the population accept willingly the pension reform. 60% still want it cancelled altogether after two months of protests and concessions. It has presented it badly, not as something necessary because of demographic reasons, but as necessary for justice and the end of special cases, ‘one euro contributed would mean the same entitlement for everyone. And the leaving age would be the same for everyone, ie 62 legally, (but 64 if you want your full entitlement)’. It was soon clear that since not everyone will contribute the same number of euros, the pensions will not be the same. Not only that, but since the low paid live on average 10 years less than the well paid, the low paid contributions would go to pay the pensions of the better paid.
The question of wear and tear at work negates the possibility of a single leaving age. Sewage workers die 17 years before the average, it is obviously not just that they should retire at 64 like an office worker. The different schemes which the pension reform was supposed to remove exist for a reason and are here to stay.
The government therefore made a series of concessions on the leaving age, for example policemen could retire at 52; then they confused and annoyed the gendarmes by not including them in this regime! 58 railway jobs officially considered hard will give rise to the possibility of working part time (paid full time) at the end of a working life.
Airline pilots can still retire at 60. (The announcement of this clause led airline crews to cancel industrial action). Ballet dancers can still retire at 42, if employed before 2022. The ‘no more exceptions’ rationale of the reform has been blown to pieces. The State Council (that decides on the constitutionality of government measures) has declared the reform unacceptable in its present (amended) form.
The government made other exceptions, e.g. Bonuses will count towards calculations of the average income over 25 years. This is to compensate civil servants’ drop in pensions with the new reform. Except that not all civil servants get bonuses.
Another objection, felt particularly by certain professions, for example la Caisse de retraite du personnel navigant (CRPN) the retirement fund of flying airline personnel, is the move from unions or employee groups being in charge of pension funds to the state being in charge instead. Since some pension funds are in surplus, they are justifiably unhappy that the ministry of Finance will take over the money.
Also concerning the better paid professions, the amount they can contribute to the public pension scheme will be capped; if they want to contribute more, they will have to use private pension funds, such as Black Rock. Here Macron giving the Légion d’Honneur to the CEO of Black Rock France after launching the reform did not go down well.
This capping means a decrease in employer spending (they no longer need to contribute a percentage of wages on the part of wages over 120,000 euros a year) and a loss of revenue for the state (the employee does not pay contributions after the first 120,000 euros, or rather they do, but at the rate of 2,8% rather than 28%). Between 200,000 and 300,000 people fall in this category.
Since at least Sarkozy, who said labour should be as good a source of income as capital, people have been aware that the part of labour in GDP has fallen compared to dividends. The pension reform is seen as a further reduction of income, which it clearly is, and part of an on-going unfair trend.
Finally, the rule that people born before 1975 would not be concerned by the reform but only their children was not impressive and did not impress.
As far as women are concerned, the reform will worsen their situation; at present divorced women were entitled to a reversion pension if their ex-husband died, this is no longer the case. Today women receive a bonus in terms of years contributions for each child. The reform will give a 5% bonus to either parent instead. If the husband takes it because he is paid more at the time the decision is made, the mother will receive nothing in case of divorce. Today one in five retired women is divorced; in generations post 1975 the number will be much higher, as will the number of single mothers never married. What happens to them is not clear.
Nevertheless, and despite various actions by various professions (lawyers throwing their copies of the Code Civil at the feet of the minister of Justice, actors closing down theatres minutes before the start of a performance, employees at the Louvre closing the museum in the faces of queueing tourists, electricity supply employees shutting down parts of the grid without warning), it seems that Macron’s persistence will wear the strikers out. Will all this have lasting effects, or will people just get used to the new state of affairs? Will all this have an effect on the local elections in March?
Local elections are popular, with over 63% participation in 2014; they are also seen as a judgment on the sitting government. They are therefore a worry for Macron, since his party, or movement, La République en Marche (LRM) did not exist at the last local elections, and has almost no local implantation in the 35,000 towns and villages that have a mayor and a municipal council. He is more popular in the few large urban centres, and less so in the thousands of small towns. The statistics therefore won’t look good for him when the results town by town are announced.
His strategy for not appearing to fail is threefold.
First tactic, don’t present LRM candidates. Only 54% of candidates put forward by the majority for local elections belong to his movement; the rest belong to other parties. Outgoing mayors are often popular and solidly implanted, therefore the government has decided to support them rather than risk defeat by presenting their own.
Next, create a new political nuance ‘divers centre’, an umbrella including LREM, and make it a rule that a candidate supported by LREM is counted in official statistics as ‘divers centre’, regardless of his actual affiliation.
Thirdly, the political affiliation of lists in towns of less than 9,000 inhabitants will not be recorded in the official statistics when results are presented to the public nationally. That removes 93% of the total number of towns and villages, and 49% of the population from the official results. (Previously towns below 3,500 inhabitants were not recorded).
All this was done by a circular from the minister of the Interior in early December, still being discussed end of January.
The divers centre label will be attributed to Macron’s party if the list was presented by his party, but also if it was supported by his party. (LRM support is split 2/3 for right lists and 1/3 for left.) There is opposition to this manoeuvre from both right and left. In Toulouse and Nice for example the outgoing mayor is supported by both LR (Sarkozy’s party, Les Républicains) and LRM, but LRM wants to have him classed as ‘divers centre’, ie LRM. Naturally LR are not happy, even if the candidates welcome the extra support.
This category ‘divers centre’ is not a label but a ‘nuance’ [in French in the original]. The préfet (head of the département) attributes the nuance to the list proposed, which allows him to attribute the nuance ‘divers centre’ as he likes. Candidates on the list can protest and have it changed. If a list is supported by Macron’s party, it will be counted as ‘divers centre’, even if the head of the list declared himself as representing another party. When results are announced officially, it is the nuance that will be made public, not the actual affiliation.
Macron has a further difficulty, which he can perhaps exploit to his advantage. He has allowed two members of his own party to stand for the same city, giving himself the let out clause that they did not win that municipality because they were split (rather than unpopular); this happened in Paris as explained in the last Froggy, but also Biarritz, Lyon, Villeurbanne, Annecy, Metz and Besançon. His supporters say that Macron allowed this situation to develop because he comes from the world of business, where internal competition is supposed to let the best man win, rather than a political leader, who places his favourites in good places, and lets it be known that his decision is final. Add to that the new party/movement does not have strong and effective personalities that would be obvious choices; most of his MPs are novices: 95% of those elected to Parliament in 2017 had never been MPs before. Political personalities come from local politics, and this is still true today.
The lack of a clear political alternative to Macron explains his success. He has support among the dynamic and successful, who have jobs that take them abroad, often working in the medium of English. On the international, or Anglo-Saxon circuit, Macron’s reforms are popular, they align with conditions in Sweden and the UK for example. Foreign colleagues object to the French social model and indulge in ‘French bashing’; this has diminished with the advent of Macron.
Partisans of the French social model are divided. One massive division is between Muslim and non-Muslim. The old red belt round cities has become immigrant ghettoes. The obsession of the left with so-called secularism and identity politics are almost designed to keep people with similar class interests apart. The attention of the young is further diverted because of climate fears. Macron does not have answers to multiculturalism or the environment, but these questions do not impede his progress. Despite his clumsiness and lack of rapport with the masses, despite the sacrifices made by the Gilets jaunes, and the dedication of the strikers, Macron still holds the upper hand.
After this article was written, the State Council (body that looks at the constitutionality of government directives) has overruled the disposition regarding the 9000 inhabitants and the attribution of ‘Various Centre’ to lists supported by LREM.