Blocked schools, empty tracks and hundreds of thousands on the streets: the fight for pension reform has been keeping France in suspense for weeks. At the weekend, too, the unions put pressure on with protests and strikes. After a heated debate on Sunday night, the Senate approved the project in its first reading. One person remains remarkably calm in all of this: President Emmanuel Macron.
The central point of the dispute is the core of the reform: France's central government wants to gradually raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 in order to plug the looming hole in the pension fund. Currently, retirement begins later than 62 on average. Those who have not paid in long enough for a full pension work longer. At the age of 67 there is a pension without any deductions, regardless of how long you have been paying in - the government wants to keep this, even if the number of years of paying in for a full pension is to increase more quickly.
The unions call the project brutal and unfair. On Tuesday - the high point of the protests so far - they said they mobilized 3.5 million people. The Interior Ministry spoke of more than a million. According to the ministry, hundreds of thousands were again on the streets in various cities on Saturday, the CGT union spoke of a million people.
Majority of the French reject the reform
In fact, the majority of French people reject the reform - also in order to get more out of life in old age. At the same time, most are convinced: the reform will come. Nevertheless, they take to the streets - probably because social movements in France have always been successful.
There are also first successes in the pension dispute. In view of the mass protests, not everyone within Macron's Renaissance party is united behind the project. Group leader Aurore Bergé recently threatened to be expelled from the group if MPs abstained or even dared to vote against the reform.
Even before the government presented its reform plan, Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne met with representatives of the trade unions and the opposition. There was no compromise. The government, which does not have an absolute majority in the National Assembly, sees the conservative Républicains as its only partner at its side.
An uncomfortable situation - because the bourgeois right tries from their position of power to give the pension reform its own coat of paint. For example, they pushed through the Senate a regulation on the employment of older people, which the government preferred not to see implemented. In addition, it is still unclear whether enough Républicains will vote for the reform in the National Assembly.
The unions want to talk directly to Macron
Macron is keeping a low profile - although he himself announced the higher entry age during the election campaign. He lets Borne and Labor Minister Olivier Dussopt fight the battles. But the unions want to hold Monsieur le Président personally accountable and talk to him directly. His silence is a "serious democratic problem". Macron sits out such criticism, responds by letter, but does not invite to an interview. Possibly because he doesn't want to add fuel to the fire. Maybe also to avoid getting singed.
The government hopes the dispute will end soon. On Wednesday, a commission is to seek a compromise between the two chambers of parliament, the Senate and the National Assembly. Parliament has until March 26 to decide on the project. The government promises that as soon as the reform is approved, the streets will be largely calm again. The more moderate unions would then be allowed to stop protesting out of respect for the legislative process. More radical groups could go ahead with strikes at railroads or refineries.
For Macron and his government, there is more to the reform than just saving the pension fund. For them, it's a political argument that they have to win in order not to lose face. The reform could also simply be ordered if it failed in Parliament. But Macron's authority was faltering. That would be a debacle, as there are still four years in office ahead of him.