Government’s handling of pension strikes threatens France’s EU credibility

Contrary to appearances, the government has already given up in its attempt to reform the pension system. During various rounds of negotiations held in December, the government had already agreed to extend or maintain specific special schemes. EPA-EFE/CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON

The French government continues to defend its pension reform proposal initially recommended by the European executive. Although it has since been watered down, its divisiveness has led to the paralysis of the transport system for almost a month. EURACTIV France reports.

It would seem that President Emmanuel Macron is taking a gamble with his proposal to reform – or at least pretend to reform – the pension system, notably to give guarantees to his European partners. But the head of state appears to be at an impasse.

Pension reform is an important point in the European Commission’s recurring recommendations for France. Last summer, the Ecofin Council, which brings together EU ministers, highlighted the issue, stressing that reform could help alleviate public debt.

One month after the start of a strike that is paralysing transport and some public services in France, Macron reaffirmed his intention to carry out the pension reform when he presented his wishes to the nation on 31 December. Trade unions saw this as hardening the already tense tug of war.

Strong mobilisation against pension reform puts French government to the test

In protest at the government’s pension reform proposal, French workers staged a massive strike on Thursday (5 December), which paralysed the country. With teachers and transport sector workers expected to strike again today, this will be Macron’s ultimate test. EURACTIV France reports.

A reform already relaxed

Contrary to appearances, the government has already given up on its attempt to really reform the pension system. During various rounds of negotiations held in December, the government had already agreed to extend or maintain specific special schemes.

For example, police officers have been given a substantial delay before the general scheme is applied, and retain the possibility of retiring earlier. They can now claim the same benefits as gendarmes, who are treated in the same way as the military, and as such, have an even more favourable regime.

For staff at SNCF and RATP (national railway and Paris public transport operators), who are the most mobilised, the government has proposed postponing by ten years the date of application of the reform, which would only apply to employees born after 1985, as opposed to 1975 for ordinary people.

Regarding the air transport sector, flight crews have also obtained significant concessions, as have dancers at the Paris Opera, who currently have the option of retiring at the age of 42.

The plan for a general and fair pension scheme is already taking off, which seems to be reinforcing the unions.

On 1 January, the head of the national trade union centre (CGT), Philippe Martinez, called for a general strike to bolster the movement. However, this call is likely to go unheeded.

Betting on the strikers’ financial breathlessness

Strikes have been going on since 5 December, with a small majority of the French (51%) still supporting them by the end of December, but the government appears to be betting on the strikes running out of steam.

Indeed, most strikers received a 13th month or a year-end bonus in December. But a whole month of January without pay may be unmanageable for many of them. This could explain why the rate of strikers has fallen from 55% to 8% at SNCF since it began. And the pools organised by the unions are very modest compared to the needs.

Is there a risk of undermining credibility?

The French government could end up wearing down the strikers, but without convincing everyone and without the demands being really heard.

Politically, this could harm Macron and his party, particularly with two years left before he can run for re-election. And while Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National has stayed quiet since the strikes started, they could still use these events in their favour, which is unlikely to please France’s European neighbours.

Macron questioning NATO in Economist interview raises eyebrows about his methods

Emmanuel Macron presented his geopolitical vision in an interview with The Economist on Thursday (7 November), and it once again attracted a wide range of criticism. By speaking of a “NATO brain death”, this recent diplomatic blunder is putting the French president’s partnerships at risk.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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