Emmanuel Macron is considering reviving a controversial overhaul of France’s costly pension system that was abandoned last year because of the pandemic, as he seeks to burnish his reformist credentials ahead of next year’s presidential elections.
The French president met labour union and business leaders on Tuesday to discuss options, including a suggestion by finance minister Bruno Le Maire to raise the retirement age from 62.
Such a move could be easier to push through compared with last year’s complicated plan to streamline the country’s fragmented system, which puts workers into 42 different categories and means some retire much earlier than others.
But as they left the meeting at the Elysée Palace, business and union leaders told reporters Macron had not shown his hand. He is expected to unveil his plans when he addresses the nation ahead of Bastille Day on July 14.
For the president the reforms could be a way to move on from a poor performance by his La République en Marche party in recent regional elections and free up funds to spend on other priorities such as health and education.
However, any changes could trigger street protests at a difficult time, with the economic recovery from the pandemic still nascent and potentially facing a hit from the more infectious Delta variant.
“There was near-total unanimity at the meeting that trying to do this in autumn was a form of insanity,” said Laurent Berger, head of the CFDT, France’s largest labour union.
“It’s just irrelevant and inappropriate to try to do this right now given the lingering health crisis. There is a real social and democratic risk here,” he added.
Even within Macron’s camp, some, including Richard Ferrand, head of the National Assembly, have cautioned against rushing the reforms.
The CFDT had been open to negotiation on last year’s reform attempt and supports moves to make the system fairer, but the union is opposed to simply changing the retirement age.
The more militant CGT, along with other smaller unions, has threatened to take to the streets if Macron goes ahead.
Geoffroy Roux de Bézieux, who heads employers’ federation Medef, warned launching reforms now might imperil the economic recovery. But he supported raising the retirement age in the future, arguing that the move with the most impact would be to change it to 64 or 65.
“We have questions over the best timing, especially with the rise of the Delta variant and the risks for economic recovery in the coming months,” he said on Tuesday.
However, Patrick Artus, chief economist at Natixis, said that given France’s structural deficit of more than 6 per cent, there was “no other way out of the problem” other than reforming the pension system.
“We spent 14 per cent of GDP on public pensions in France, for the rest of the euro area it’s 9 per cent. That’s absolutely crazy,” he added. “Half of that is the generosity of the system and half is the retirement age.”
According to OECD data from 2018, the effective retirement age for French men was 60.8 years, compared with 64.7 for the UK, 64 for Germany, 63.3 for Italy and 62.1 for Spain.
France also needed to prove it was serious about cutting its debt load, said Artus. “We have to show something to the Germans and Europe that we can keep reforming and that we can reduce the structural deficit.”