Since Emmanuel Macron forced through his plans to raise the pension age in France last week, public dismay over the change to a fiercely protected feature of French social policy has been bubbling. On Thursday night, at the end of the ninth day of nationwide protests since January, that anger reached boiling point.
The most visible symbol of the tensions came in video from Bordeaux, where the doors of the city hall were set alight after a day of intensifying action on the streets. The blaze was quickly put out by firefighters. But all across the country, the unpopularity of Macron’s plans was plainly visible. The authorities put the number of people on the streets at 1.1 million, while unions said it was about 3.5 million.
In a major embarrassment to the French president, a planned state visit by King Charles on Sunday was postponed on Friday as a result of the unrest.
The severity of the clashes between protesters and the police – and scale of the wider movement – suggest that the fight against the changes is far from over.
Macron’s role | How interview raised tensions
On Wednesday, Macron made a live TV appearance to defend his plan to raise the official retirement age in France from 62 to 64 – and if any of his opponents were hoping for a message of compromise, they were sorely disappointed. Macron ruled out any change to the deeply unpopular policy, and also rejected calls for a reshuffle of his government or the resignation of his prime minister, Élisabeth Borne. He said he had only one regret: “That I have not succeeded in convincing people of the necessity of this reform.”
That was one of the triggers for the scale and intensity of Thursday’s action – but the protesters’ anger is not limited to Macron’s management of the situation, or even the pension proposals. They say that the president’s move to force the reforms through without a vote has raised wider concerns about the state of French democracy.
Thursday’s protests | An optimistic mood – then vandalism and teargas
The protests since Macron pushed through his pensions policy have been on two tracks: on the one hand, an optimistic and sometimes festive spirit during union-organised daytime marches; and a darker mood during unofficial actions at night.
Thursday followed that pattern again, with largely peaceful marches during the day, including one in Paris with an attendance estimated to be 119,000 by police and 800,000 by unions. Later, the BBC reported that “as soon as police showed up, [it] all kicked off”. As well as the fire in Bordeaux, there were clashes in the capital, Kim Willsher reported, with casseurs (smashers) in masks wrecking bus shelters and newspaper kiosks, breaking windows and throwing stones at police, who used teargas to disperse them. In Rouen, a woman reportedly had part of her hand blown off by a teargas grenade.
The two sides predictably disagreed on who was to blame for the escalation. The French interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, called the casseurs “thugs” and blamed “mostly young” protesters on the “far left”. But Marylise Léon, the deputy secretary general of the CFDT union, called the trouble “a response to the falsehoods expressed by the president and his incomprehensible stubbornness”. She added: “The responsibility of this explosive situation lies not with the unions but with the government.”
Thursday’s protests were seen as particularly significant in part because they were the first measure of how effective Macron’s attempt to assert his authority had been. Even the government’s tally suggested that more people were on the street than at any point since he enacted the policy, and the total was the largest since a nationwide rally on 7 March. One quick index of the breadth of the anger can be seen in this Le Monde map of the demonstrations across the country.
The pensions plan | Why Macron says it is necessary – and why the public disagree
Macron’s policy of raising the pensions age is not his first attempt: he abandoned a broader effort to change France’s hugely complex pensions infrastructure during his first term after huge street protests and as the coronavirus pandemic hit. This time around, he has taken a simpler approach: instead of merging the country’s 42 separate pension schemes, he argues that asking people to work for two more years can make the system sustainable in the long term.
Macron, who cannot run for office again, insists that the changes – which were part of his second-term manifesto – are crucial and worth the sacrifice of his already-diminished popularity. Supporters point out that French men retire two years earlier than the EU average, and French women a year earlier. They reject tax increases as an alternative model, saying that France already has an unusually high tax burden, and say that demographic changes make some kind of change inevitable: while there were 2.1 workers for each retiree in 2000, the ratio was 1.7 in 2020 and is expected to reach 1.2 by 2070.
The French public is fiercely protective of a system “seen as the cornerstone of the country’s cherished model of social protection”, Angelique Chrisafis wrote in this explainer on the debate last week. They are proud of the fact that French pensioners are less likely to live in poverty than those in most other European countries.
While a deficit in the system is expected over the next 25 years, independent analysis by the pensions advisory council says the figures “do not support the claim that pensions spending is out of control”. That leads critics to argue that Macron’s approach is too combative and stark, and to claim that he is instead prioritising tax cuts for businesses even as he tries to get the national deficit below an EU target of 3%.
Versions of the debate in France are likely to be reproduced elsewhere over the coming years. The World Health Organization predicts that the world’s over-60 population will double by 2050. And the Group of 30 consultancy expects pension shortfalls to be the equivalent of 23% of global output by the same year, Bloomberg reports.
What happens next | Deep unpopularity of plan suggests no rapid resolution
Poll after poll suggests that the protesters are not out of step with French public opinion, with big majorities against Macron. Two-thirds of people support the protesters, while Macron’s approval rating is 28%. Macron’s decision to force his plan through parliament without a vote is opposed by 82% of voters, and 65% want protests to continue even if the proposals become law.
Nonetheless, amid calls for a public referendum and moves by opposition lawmakers to rescind the new law before it is implemented, Macron has shown no sign of backing down, though some believe he may remove Borne once the immediate crisis has abated. Protests are likewise expected to continue – which accounts for the postponement of Charles’s visit.
The president and his allies are likely to use the sporadic violence of Thursday’s demonstrations as a way to drive a wedge between the protest movement and the rest of the French public. But most observers believe opposition to the plans is too baked in for that tactic to succeed, and that even if he prevails on this policy, he is likely to be hamstrung for the rest of his presidency.
One likely beneficiary: the far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who has said she would overturn the changes as part of her “de-demonisation” strategy and is viewed as the public figure who best embodies opposition to the proposals.