The French Continue to Protest Over Retirement Age Changes
I assume I can keep running this headline for the rest of the year
(Except during August. That’s the vacation season, doncha know.)
I have a Google news alert on “retirement age” that emails me weekly, and every week this year it’s been full of headlines about French protests over raising the retirement age to the ancient limit of 64 years old. Zutalors!
(That will be the limit of my French language content)
As noted in my last post on the matter, the French are actually quite long-lived so it may be a bit confusing to Americans that the French are a bit ratty about having to live on private savings (-cough-) if they want to retire earlier than 64. So that’s why the AP felt the need to issue this explainer after months of protests in France:
PARIS (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of people have filled the streets of France in the 11th day of nationwide resistance to a government proposal to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. The furious public reaction to the plan has left French President Emmanuel Macron cornered and weakened.
France’s highest council on constitutional affairs is examining the bill to see if it’s constitutional. It will issue a ruling next week [today, April 14]— and Macron’s opponents hope the council will severely limit his proposal.
Fearing he might not get enough votes in parliament to pass the bill, Macron resorted to the “ nuclear option ” by using a special article of the French constitution allowing the government to force the bill through without a vote. That prompted outrage across France that further fueled discontent, diminished his popularity, and galvanized his critics’ image of him as a monarchical leader.
The pensions law needs a green light from the Constitutional Council on April 14. The Paris trash collectors’ union has called for fresh strikes April 13, with other unions pledging to keep resisting until the controversial law is canceled. Some predict the French public’s enthusiasm — and resources — for protests and strikes is dwindling.
France’s highest constitutional court is made up of judges called “the wise ones” and presided over by former Socialist Prime Minister Laurent Fabius. If it decides that part or all of the law is out of step with the constitution, or the scope of the law’s intentions, the council can strike it down. The “wise ones” will also rule on whether the law’s critics can move ahead with their attempts to force a nationwide referendum on the pension change.
While the council is meant to rule on purely constitutional grounds, experts say it tends to take public opinion into account.
Do You Hear the People Strike?
Well, yesterday was the big strike day to try to twist the arms of the constitutional court’s ruling today. Let’s see what went down:
A constitutional ruling expected on Friday may be the final legal obstacle for President Emmanuel Macron's push to increase the retirement age. But the plan hasn't become any more popular.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters marched across France on Thursday on the eve of a crucial ruling over President Emmanuel Macron's decision to raise the legal age of retirement to 64, from 62, a step that could pave the way for the measure's final implementation, even if it does little to dispel persistent popular opposition.
Mr. Macron's pension overhaul became law last month after he decided to push it through the lower house of Parliament without a vote, galvanizing a monthslong showdown with opposition parties and labor unions that on Thursday were staging their 12th day of nationwide protests and strikes since January.
The unrest that followed Mr. Macron's decision to bypass a full parliamentary vote has mutated into a less chaotic but still very tense standoff, marked by sporadic violence between the police and protesters, even as some of the latest demonstrations showed signs of losing steam.
According to the French authorities, protests on Thursday attracted about 380,000 people, though labor unions said that the number was one million to 1.5 million. Both the authorities and the unions had estimated that turnout at demonstrations last week was higher.
Many legal experts predict that the council will strike down some minor measures, such as one forcing companies to publish information about how many senior workers they employ, but not the entire law, something it has done fewer than 20 times since 1959.
The size of the protests and the number of strikers in key sectors like transportation and education have fallen recently, but opposition to the pension law remains strong, with surveys consistently indicating that about two-thirds of French people oppose it.
But unlike the Supreme Court in the United States, it [the Constitutional Council] is not the court of last appeal, and none of its nine members -- appointed for nine years -- are judges.
Instead, most are former politicians or high-ranking civil servants who do not always have legal expertise. Some critics say that leads to inevitable conflicts of interest, casting doubt on the council's impartiality.
The Constitutional Council is supposed to provide a ruling today about Macron’s maneuver in making the changes. As noted, some of the changes in the pension policy are relatively minor compared to the retirement age change.
As this is going on, Macron is going about the world, sharing such deep thoughts as France may be an ally of the U.S., but is not its vassal. Very true. Vassals usually provide some sort of service to their lords.
To be sure, we could just wait a few hours for whatever the Council has to say.
Okay, they set it up in the headline, but didn’t spell it out clearly in the article.
Here are possibilities:
fully accept the constitutionality
fully reject the constitutionality
reject parts of the reform (see this bit):
France’s Constitutional Court has long taken a dim view of “legislative riders” – provisions added to bills with a tenuous link or no real link at all to the core legislation – deeming them unconstitutional.
While the pension reform legislation is technically a budgetary measure – an update to France’s yearly social security financing bill – Macron’s government chose this way of introducing the bill because budgetary measures are not subject to a constitutional rule limiting the executive to using Article 49.3 no more than once in a parliamentary session.
Thus, at least in theory, any parts of the bill that are not “budgetary” could be struck down as legislative riders.
For example, the pension reform bill includes the creation of a "senior index", requiring companies with more than 300 on staff to report how many people over 55 they employ – a way of encouraging the employment of older workers, seen as part of making a higher retirement age work. The Constitutional Council might not view the establishment of this index as a financial measure and could dismiss it as a rider.
But since companies that do not publish these indices can be fined by the government – and those fines can be paid into the national social security budget – the argument that an indirect budgetary link exists could also be made.
This was the point made in the NYT coverage above. Nobody is much worked up over these provisions and would not much care, I think.
Final bit — this is not about Macron’s reform directly:
The Council will also rule on the possibility of holding a public referendum that could stop the pension reform in its tracks.
A never-before-used constitutional amendment from 2008 allows for a "Citizens’ Initiative Referendum" (référendum d'initiative partagée) to be held if a motion wins the support of one-fifth of MPs and the backing of one-tenth of voters. The left-wing NUPES alliance is trying to hold a national vote on passing a law capping the retirement age at 62.
That would be a tall order – even if the Council rules that a referendum can go ahead.
“It’s quite possible that the Council will allow for a referendum, but that wouldn’t necessarily stop Macron from putting his law in place,” Cautrès said.
“As for collecting nearly 5 million signatures in the nine months before the law is implemented – well, that’s not at all certain,” he added.
Well, if they could organize strikes, I would think the unions could get the required signatures. That’s not the issue.
I think the question is if they have enough support for such a cap at 62 years. Because I do wonder how widespread the support is… when it costs nothing.
It’s easy to want to retire at 62 years old.
It’s another to be willing to do all the things to pay for that.
Yes, the French are already highly taxed, as I pointed out in my March 24 post on the protests, but it seems that’s not enough to keep the very low retirement age going.
Denmark is also very highly taxed.
I plan on going over a variety of choices that have been made re: retirement policy: retirement ages, benefits promised, funding (pre-funding, pay-as-you-go, etc.), investment allocations — not just in terms of France, but also the U.S. and other countries — and calling the series Choices Have Consequences.
In many conversations, people do not want to face that fact - that there are trade-offs. There is no magic where somebody else is going to take the troubles away with respect to retirement.
I will deal with these delusions starting next week. These troubles are starting to pile up right now for very good reasons.
UPDATE: The Constitutional Court allows the switch to a higher retirement age. They rejected a referendum.
France’s Constitutional Council on Friday approved an unpopular plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64, in a victory for President Emmanuel Macron after three months of mass protests over the legislation that have damaged his leadership.
The council rejected some other measures in the pension bill, but the higher age was central to Macron’s plan and the target of protesters’ anger.
Macron can enact the bill within 15 days.
In a separate but related decision, the council rejected a request by left-wing lawmakers to allow for a possible referendum on enshrining 62 as the maximum official retirement age. The council will rule on a similar request next month.
I will have more to say about this next week.
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27 Mar 2023: CORRECTION: The French ARE actually long-lived
24 Mar 2023: Checking in on French Retirement Age Protests