Skip to content

Protesters set fires in Paris as clashes take place with riot police during a demonstration on 16 March 2023 against the French government's plan to raise the legal retirement age. (Photo by Firas Abdullah/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

French Citizens Organize Mass Protests Over Macron's Pension Changes

Massive protests across France were re-ignited yesterday in response to French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to forcibly raise the nation’s retirement age from 62 to 64. With the use of his executive powers, Macron avoided a vote in a parliament where his party would be in the minority on a widely unpopular proposal.

French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne announced that Macron will bypass the parliament and use special constitutional powers to enact the proposal. The decision came as part of Macron’s effort to keep the pension program’s finances from falling in arrears in the near future. Macron was elected to a second five-year presidential term in April 2022.

The original retirement age proposal, which was submitted in January 2023, was made in an effort to balance the program’s accounts without a tax increase or a decrease to the pensions, CNN reported.

Macron used the executive power during a meeting with his Cabinet, less than an hour before the proposal was scheduled to be voted on in the parliament’s lower house, the National Assembly. Although the bill was adopted by the Senate on Thursday, there was a lack of confidence that it would have enough support from the National Assembly, according to the Associated Press (AP).

“Despite costly sweeteners, the government concluded it had failed to garner enough votes from conservative lawmakers in the lower house to ensure passage for its plan,” Reuters reported. “[Macron] was too concerned about the broader financial implications to risk jeopardizing a reform meant to reassure investors and ratings agencies about French debt sustainability, a government source said.”

French citizens are eligible to receive a full state pension when they retire at 62 if they have made certain social security contributions. Macron insisted that increasing the minimum retirement age to 64 is necessary given the nation’s demographic shifts, such as an increase in life expectancy, which translates to more elderly people who are not working, and decreased fertility rates.

“The change would also bring France into line with its European neighbors, most of which have raised the retirement age to 65 or above,” according to France 24.

Supporters of the proposal insist that along with the age increase, preventing a deficit would also require eliminating privileges for some public sector workers and increasing the criteria for receiving a full pension, France 24 reported.

“The impact of new (National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies) demographic projections on financial projections 2022 of the pension system therefore appears limited compared to 2021, since the effects of lower fertility and less rapid decline in mortality have already been integrated into the previous financial year, but the small differences that remain are rather unfavorable for the retirement projections,” according to an annual report, published September 2022, from the Conseil d’orientation des retraites (COR).

Regardless of the numbers, the proposal has been largely unpopular among French citizens.

“Two-thirds of the French public have opposed the plans, and within minutes of Borne announcing the law’s adoption, demonstrators assembled near Parliament for their ninth day of mobilization, with some of them clashing with authorities,” The Washington Post reported.

Heads of labor unions called for strikes and civil disruption in response to the announcement, according to CNN.

Although the proposal makes considerations for certain workers in demanding professions, “opponents argue that the measure will disproportionately affect blue-collar workers, who are more likely to begin working at a younger age than their white-collar counterparts,” according to The Post.

Several thousand protesters began demonstrating in Paris and other cities in France by Thursday evening, opposing the threat to “an entitlement that lies at the heart of France’s social model,” The Wall Street Journal reported.

Protesters blocked roads and striking workers brought production at energy refineries to a halt, resulting in fewer fuel deliveries than normal, according to The Guardian.

At least 310 protesters were arrested on 17 March, with most arrests occurring in Paris, according to the country’s interior minister, Gérald Darmanin. Police used teargas and water cannons to disperse the protesters who set fire to cars and other items in Paris.

“In Place de la Concorde in Paris on Thursday, people set fire to building equipment in the square and there were similar demonstrations in Rennes, Nantes, Lyon, and Marseille,” Euronews reported. “…French unions have announced another day of national strikes on 23 March.” The Place de la Concorde faces the National Assembly building.

“Massive protests have been held regularly throughout France since mid-January, with millions turning out to voice their opposition to the government’s plan,” CNN said. These ongoing strikes have impacted transportation and services throughout French cities, including trash pickup in Paris, where over the weekend an estimated 4,400 tons of trash were still on the streets.  

Union leaders encouraged workers, students, and anyone who opposed the proposal to “leave schools, factories, refineries, and other workplaces,” the AP reported. Previous strikes impacted the Paris Metro, rail transportation, regional services, fuel deliveries, air travel, and schools.

Macron’s decision has resulted in discussions among opposition party members about filing a no-confidence motion, which if successful would force the government to resign, including Borne.

“In such a case, Macron actually has said that he would dissolve the Parliament and called for new legislative elections,” said Noemie Bisserbe, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, in an interview with NPR.

The motion would have to be approved by a majority of the Assembly. Macron’s position as president would not be affected directly; however, his authority and influence would be damaged, and he would need to name a new Cabinet. President Nicolas Sarkozy raised the retirement age in 2010 from 60 to 62, and he lost a re-election bid in 2012.

If the no-confidence motion—which is expected to be filed today, 17 March, and voted on next week—fails, then the pension bill would effectively be adopted.