The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

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

Protesters stand by burning barriers in the Place de la Concorde in Paris on Thursday. (Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images)
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French President Emmanuel Macron announced Thursday that he is pushing through a controversial reform of the country’s generous retirement system, a plan that two-thirds of the French public opposes and that in recent weeks has inspired crippling transit strikes and massive protests. Piles of putrid garbage have mounted on Paris’s streets. Following news of Mr. Macron’s move, thousands of protesters gathered in the Place de la Concorde.

It would be easy — but also a mistake — to dismiss this as yet another episode in France’s idiosyncratic politics. Mr. Macron’s struggle reflects that of politicians in the United States, Japan and elsewhere, who face the challenge of providing a decent retirement for increasing numbers of aging citizens without draining resources rising generations need to lead decent lives. Despite this long-term imperative, forcing needed reforms to old-age benefit programs in democratic societies has so often proved impossible, and not just in France: A rare moment of bipartisan applause in President Biden’s recent State of the Union address came when he pledged to protect Social Security and Medicare, despite the glaring need to prevent them from busting the federal budget in coming decades.

Mr. Macron squared the circle by essentially issuing a decree: He decided to force his proposal through the French Parliament without a vote, under a special provision of the French constitution.

Mr. Macron is right on the substance of his reform. The United Nations has projected that by 2050, the number of people aged 65 or older will double worldwide, from approximately 700 million to about 1.5 billion. And France is no exception: As the baby boomer generation ages, its population gains three people over 65 every five minutes, according to France’s National Institute for Demographic Studies. At the same time, the country’s average life expectancy has increased in recent years, reaching about 85 years for women and 79 years for men in 2020, some of the highest figures in the world. The United States and other industrialized countries also face daunting demographic challenges.

Already, France spends nearly 15 percent of its gross domestic product on pensions. Mr. Macron’s adjustment will be small, raising the retirement age from 62 to 64, which would still keep France well in line with most of its European neighbors. In Germany, for instance, the retirement age is 65, and lawmakers there are preparing to raise it to 67.

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On March 8, Le Monde wrote in an editorial: “Having failed to convince the public of the merits of the reform, and having failed to find a single ally among the unions at the end of a three-month consultation process, the government is now forced to appeal to the right."
“The hope is to achieve Emmanuel Macron’s campaign commitment of making the French work longer The president is doing so with his back to the wall, with the pressure of the protest movement working against him.”
The paper Libération, meanwhile, argued that the reform “pushes France and its workers” into “instability."
“The use of [the special constitutional provision], to avoid a vote that he risked losing, once again demonstrates the President’s arrogance towards democracy.


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It is unfortunate Mr. Macron had to resort to imposing his reform without a parliamentary vote. Substantial changes to popular social programs are better achieved by vote of elected legislatures. In the long term, this helps ensure that needed reforms remain durable as power shifts to new leaders. It is also the only option in countries such as the United States, where the president lacks the powers that Mr. Macron is using.

In France, as in the United States, the politics around old-age benefits needs to change, because the demographic trends won’t. All leaders who recognize the challenge should recommit to guiding the public toward facing it — or else be cursed by future generations when the bill comes due.

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