France: another mass protest against pension reform

Hundreds of thousands of people once again gathered across France on Thursday to protest the planned pension reform - the fourth mass protest in five weeks of permanent strikes. Local and long-distance transport was disrupted and lawyers, teachers and postal employees also stopped their work. Europe's press discusses how much longer Macron can resist the pressure from the streets.

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The Economist (GB) /

France no longer absolutist

The Economist is convinced that Macron's pension plans are necessary and justified:

“His pension reforms are fair: there is no reason why young taxpayers should subsidise their elders who are so much better-off. They are necessary: ridiculously early retirement makes France poorer than it would otherwise be and its public finances more precarious. And they are democratic: Mr Macron's ideas were clearly set out in his manifesto before he won thumping victories in presidential and legislative elections in 2017. The idea that people on the streets should determine policy had some justification in the absolutist days of Louis XVI, but the Revolution was 231 years ago.”

La Stampa (IT) /

There's no getting the better of demography

Columnist Alberto Mingardi explains in La Stampa why in his view the protests against the reform are pointless:

“Pensions are a kind of financial chain letter that works as long as the population grows. ... So does it make sense to protest against demography? Ultimately the strike in France, which aims to torpedo the reform, simply wants to put off paying the bill and to pass the hot potato on to the next generation. ... To maintain employment levels and improve working conditions we need dialogue, not confrontation. Even sixty days of strike won't be enough to make a welfare system that is demographically unviable sustainable.”

Népszava (HU) /

A vicious circle of rebellion

The patience of French society has its limits, warns Népszava:

“The president is following a wait-and-see strategy, and time seems to be on his side. But the French have had enough of these seemingly interminable strikes. While the yellow vests made life in the city impossible 'only' on the weekends, the effects of the current strike are being felt every day. ... This is the vicious circle of the labour movement's classic methods: the very people whose interests are being fought for rise up against the impossible conditions. Macron is in the driver's seat.”

Les Echos (FR) /

Opposition has no constructive alternative

When it comes to the pension reform, the opposition parties are even less popular than Macron, the left-wing trade union confederation CGT and the striking railway workers, according to a recent survey. The business paper Les Echos isn't surprised:

“For extremists on the right and left, the answer is as simple as it is unrealistic: a return to retirement at 60, with as few as 40 contribution years for [Marine Le Pen's] RN! ... The French remain unconvinced by any of these plans and have for the most part grasped that they have to work longer. ... That's exactly what the Republicans stand for. ... However, for fear of being deemed anti-social the party is presenting a system that is at the very least surprising, which takes account of occupational stress. … For their part the socialists keep moving further to the left and are calling for the reform to be withdrawn.”

Le Figaro (FR) /

Pension privileges at other people's expense

Le Figaro accuses the trade union confederation CGT of brazen effrontery:

“The scandal from the CGT's point of view is that the government has the audacity to want to abolish the system of special regimes. These privileges inherited from the last century allow railway workers and some others to retire well before everyone else with a comfortable pension. Preserving them has long been the union's highest goal. Not, as it claims, to defend pensions as a whole, but only those of the trade organisations that are also its last bastions of support. As for the French, they're being urged to uncomplainingly accept a double sentence: a paralysis of transportation services which makes their lives hell on earth and continued financing of these special regimes at a high cost.”

Le Soir (BE) /

The people are impatient

Coordination with the collective bargaining partners according to the Scandinavian model doesn't appear to work so well in France, Le Soir concludes:

“The government thought that lengthening the phase of consultation and agreement, as was done in the Scandinavian countries, would help to defuse the social rebellion. But this is France. Slowness was interpreted as hesitation, and consultation as evidence of uncertainty. Clearly, the country with the most systematic public protests is also the one where the ability to take decisions is most urgently needed.”

Avgi (GR) /

Macron must give a real answer

The protests were a warning, Avgi explains:

“The ball is now with the government camp. We can reckon now with a campaign of appeasement - but what the citizens expect is political answers from President Macron and his prime minister. Decisive now is how the government seeks to defuse the situation described by Le Monde in its leading article as a 'warning'. ... Thursday's mobilisation has shown that the citizens are watchful and looking for substantial - and not communicative - answers.”

Neue Zürcher Zeitung (CH) /

Macron's mover-and-shaker image depends on reform

The outcomes of this reform will also have implications for Macron's European policy, writes the Neue Zürcher Zeitung:

“If he can push through the pension reform this will polish up his image as a mover and shaker after it was dented somewhat by the yellow vest protests. A new dynamic in the second half of his term is precisely what Macron needs. But if he buckles, he can kiss his credibilty goodbye. And not just in France: at the European level too, he'll have a hard time achieving the leadership role he aspires to. Because who's going to believe he can reform Europe if he can't even reform his own country? The stakes are high, and Macron is well aware of it.”

Le Point (FR) /

Not the people but the government is inept

In the row over pensions it's clear who is incompetent, Le Point comments:

“What has to be explained isn't the theoretical conversion of the number of years a person has worked into points, but the need for the French to work a little longer if they want to receive a decent pension despite higher life expectancy. ... The tragi-comedy over pensions shows that the problem isn't that France can't be reformed but that its leaders are irresponsible, and that it's not the French who are resistant to change but their leaders who are unable to explain what needs to be done and to implement the changes in a coherent manner.”

Corriere della Sera (IT) /

New alliances against the system

The protests against the pension reform could become the starting point for new political alliances, warns Paris correspondent Stefano Montefiore in Corriere della Sera:

“The president is pursuing the reform programme that brought him to the Elysée Palace two and a half years ago, but a lot has happened in the meantime. New spontaneous counter-movements such as the yellow vests have emerged, and traditional opponents are also reorganising themselves. Yesterday, the trade unions, the followers of Marine Le Pen's far right and of Jean-Luc Mélenchon's hard left stood on the square. Mélenchon magnanimously reached out a hand to his former ideological enemy [he had praised her call to strike in an interview]. ... The battle for pensions could become a test ground for new, broad anti-system alliances in the run-up to the 2022 presidential elections.”

The Times (GB) /

Trade unions defend special interests

The Times has no understanding for the protests:

“The trade union protests do not promote the equality that the labour movement professes to advance. Instead they exemplify the defence of special interests at the expense of taxpayers. Maintaining the system means that France devotes about 14 per cent of national income to public pensions. It is among the biggest spenders, as a proportion of GDP, of any country. The equivalent figure for Germany is 10 per cent and for Britain, where the bulk of pensions are provided by the private sector, is 6 per cent.”

Corriere della Sera (IT) /

Strike is aimed at Macron

As with the yellow vest protests, this protest too is above all aimed at the president, writes Paris correspondent Stefano Montefiori in Corriere della Sera:

“In the logic of this conflict, which also dominates French politics, it's not so much individual measures as the socio-economic order on which the country is still based that is under discussion. ... What is being rejected is a plan that is still vague, but above all Macron and his 'neo-liberal and authoritarian' government, as 180 intellectuals and artists – from Annie Ernaux to Robert Guédiguian and from Édouard Louis to Thomas Piketty – explain in an open letter to Le Monde in which they declare their solidarity with 'the men and women who have taken up the struggle'.”

Süddeutsche Zeitung (DE) /

Acid test for the president

The pension reform will show whether France's government really is capable of pushing through major reforms, the Süddeutsche Zeitung comments:

“The government has been putting this project off for more than a year. At the start of its mandate it tackled easier, quicker reforms. Now the presidential elections of 2022 are already too close for the head of state to wage an all-too tough battle. ... What's more, the government has left key questions unanswered for months. For example which age groups the reform will affect. ... The president may well have achieved much. Unemployment in France is going down, investors are returning, the economy is robust. But if Macron fails on pensions, this blemish will cover up everything else.”

The Guardian (GB) /

Don't destroy a model retirement system

France's retirement plans go in the wrong direction, The Guardian complains:

“They would also take a bludgeon to one of the best retirement systems in the world. In France, just seven percent of older people are at risk of poverty. This is the lowest rate in the European Union, much less than the 19 percent in the UK and Germany. It's also likely to be part of the reason why France has slightly greater life expectancy than either country. A system like this ought to be cherished and expanded, not cut. ... The country's welfare state is a world-class achievement that ought to be protected, not hollowed out for savings.”