The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Macron’s retirement reforms undermine the French republic

Demonstrators in Paris protest the French government's plans to revamp the pension system on Feb. 16. (Benjamin Girette/Bloomberg News)
4 min

PARIS — Like tens of thousands of others, I was proud to be on the Place de la République recently to defend the legacy of the French welfare state. This is the Parisian square where so many protests have begun and whose name is a symbolic reminder of the storied ideals of the French republic: liberté, égalité, fraternité.

Across the country, millions have gathered in periodic protests to defend one of the crown jewels of the French welfare model: the pension system. President Emmanuel Macron is determined to reform the pension system and to increase the retirement age from 62 to 64 (he first intended to push it to 65). A staggering 67 percent of the population is against the reform. And for the first time in years, many of the most powerful unions are standing together against the government. The protests show no signs of stopping, either: On March 7, an epic national transport strike is planned, a major disruption that will surely get the government’s attention.

According to Macron, the calculus is simple: The French system cannot sustain itself financially, and because life expectancy is increasing, people have to work longer. But many strongly deny that assertion. Economist Michael Zemmour has pointed out that the government previously chose to lower companies’ production taxes, which has generated a loss of 15 billion euros each year since 2020. Because that loss had to be covered, the draft of the law for the new reform states explicitly that it aims to compensate for that previous tax cut.

Under the new proposal, older citizens about to retire would contribute a disproportionate amount to public savings. Big companies, however, have far more resources at their disposal than individual citizens, and raising corporate taxes would be a fairer way of increasing government revenue. This is why many accuse Macron — who always wanted France to be a “start-up nation” — of caring for the rich and their interests while imposing the economic burdens on the most fragile populations.

It’s certainly true that we live longer these days: In 2020, life expectancy in France at birth was approximately 85.3 years for women and 79.2 for men, according to France’s National Institute of Demographic Studies. These are some of the highest figures in the world.

But the mortality numbers vary among social classes. Nurses live seven years less than other women: 20 percent of them and 30 percent of nursing assistants retire with disabilities. Blue-collar workers live six years less than executives, so that one-quarter of the poorest men die by age 62, while 94 percent of the rich are still alive at 64. Only 40 percent of the poorest survive to 80, whereas 75 percent of the wealthiest do. So it’s easy to see who needs retirement income the most.

Editorial Board

counterpointDespite protests, Macron-style reforms are needed — and not only in France

If it is adopted, Macron’s reform would disproportionately hurt more vulnerable populations: low-income workers, women and citizens from the French overseas territories, who are overwhelmingly people of color. This is what has outraged the French public.

Participating in some of the protests and strikes in recent weeks, I could not have been prouder of my fellow citizens, determined to protect our common good. Such a mass of people taking days off to defend our social model, which once was praised throughout the world, shows we are ready to stand up for French values.

The fact that we live longer does not mean that we should spend our lives working for companies. Why should we subordinate our lives to the needs of capitalism?

The reform is important to Macron. Since he was elected in 2017, the covid-19 pandemic and the war against Ukraine have left him little room to maneuver. Yet he still wants to build his image as the reformer he was elected to be.

But it would be a disgrace for his name to be associated with the dismantling of the social progress that has considerably improved life for former generations.

Macron should instead help the French republic remember what it stands for and live up to its promises.