Emmanuel Macron’s attempt to raise France’s retirement age has sparked nationwide protests and more than 300 arrests.
Roads are blocked in Paris, Rennes and other major cities, as rubbish piles up on the streets as different sectors speak out about pension reforms.
It comes after the government invoked Article 49.3, which allowed it to push the amendments through the National Assembly without a vote.
Here Sky News explains why the reforms have sparked protests and looks at how France’s situation compares to other European countries, including the UK.
What is the retirement age in France – and how is it changing?
Currently, the state pension age in France is 62 – much lower than in many of its European neighbours. In the UK it is 66, in Germany and Italy 67 and in Spain 65.
French workers can receive a state pension from the age of 62, but it will be less if that person has not paid the required number of contributions.
At age 67, they are entitled to the full state pension, regardless of their contributions.
Due to Mr Macron’s changes, the age at which employees can receive a state pension will increase to 64 years.
This will be done in steps of three months per year from September 2023 to September 2030.
The number of years that someone has to pay premiums to receive the full AOW will increase from 42 to 43 in 2027.
What is Article 49.3 and why did Macron use it?
Article 49.3 is part of the French constitution that allows a government to pass a law without a vote by MPs in the National Assembly.
It was introduced by Charles de Gaulle in 1958 to bring greater political stability and expand government powers.
It has been used more than 80 times since its inception, most notably by Socialist Prime Minister Michel Rocard 28 times between 1988 and 1991 under then President François Mitterrand.
Former Macron Prime Minister Edouard Philippe tried to use it for pension reforms in March 2020, but failed when the pandemic broke out.
The French president’s current prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, announced the proposed pension changes on January 10.
Just minutes before it was due to be voted on in the National Assembly this month, she announced that they would instead be forced to pass Article 49.3, sparking outrage.
This is because she and Mr Macron’s En Marche party lost their absolute majority in last year’s election and had no guarantee they would pass, despite passing it in the Senate.
His attempt to change the pension system in 2020 had already failed and resulted in the longest strikes in French history.
What is Macron’s argument?
France’s generous welfare state has long weighed heavily on its economy and labor force.
In the third quarter of 2022, government debt stood at 113.4% of GDP – more than the UK (100.2%), Germany (66.6%) and comparable to struggling economies such as Spain (115.6%) and Portugal (120.1%).
It also means that the workforce is shrinking. There are only 1.7 employees for every pensioner in France, compared to 2.1 in 2000.
“This is Macron’s main policy,” David S Bell, emeritus professor of French government and politics at the University of Leeds, told Sky News.
“He wants to push it through before he retires at the end of this term.
“But the problem is not an immediate crisis – it is a future burden based on economic projections.
“It’s the opposite of the way politics works, which is to focus on the immediate, headlines.
“His argument is that unless these reforms are implemented and France’s working life is extended, the country cannot afford it.”
‘Heated and passionate’ issue
France has had a lower-than-average retirement age since Mitterrand’s presidency in the 1980s, when it was reduced to 60 years.
Since then, along with favorable unemployment benefits and the 35-hour week, it has become a vigorously defended “right” in the eyes of the public.
Professor Bell says: “The expectations of the French state are different from those in the UK.
“The state is expected to have certain functions and duties and pulling the rug out from under it has seen people asking, ‘Well, why do that?'”
There are also some doubts about the reliability of economic forecasts, he adds.
For years, politicians have tried to push through pension reforms in hopes of improving public finances.
In 1995, Jacques Chirac faced massive strikes that were ultimately unsuccessful. While his successor Nicolas Sarkozy succeeded in raising the retirement age from 60 to 62 in 2010, he also encountered a huge backlash.
French commentator Agnes Poirier says: “The French are very lucky and probably don’t realize how lucky they are.
This would only bring France closer to its European neighbours.
“But pension reform is a very heated and passionate topic in France, probably because most people here – apart from the very, very wealthy – depend on state pensions.
“There’s no such thing as the individual private arrangements you get in the UK or the US.”
What happens now?
A caveat to Article 49.3 is that it could trigger a vote of no confidence in the government, which will happen in the coming days.
Two no-confidence motions have been tabled against Macron. One from Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National party signed by 88 cross-party MPs, while another group of independent politicians introduced a second motion supported by 91 MPs.
Both Professor Bell and Ms Poirier say the economic justification for pension reform has not been effectively communicated to the public or MPs by Mr Macron and his team.
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“Tampering with the pension system requires a degree of persuasion that the government has not yet shown,” says Professor Bell.
“And whether Macron survives the no-confidence vote depends on the level of tact of his team – which they have failed to show so far.”
Ms Poirier added: “The real reason for all this is that there are huge shortages.
“But instead of taking a pragmatic stance and telling the French that – speaking of demographic failure – the government has said it is ‘fairer’, which is probably not the case.”