STUMP » Articles » Checking in on French Retirement Age Protests » 24 March 2023, 21:32

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Checking in on French Retirement Age Protests  


24 March 2023, 21:32

I’ve done a few posts on the protests in France over raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 already:

January 23: Retirement Age – Protests in France, But Choices Must be Made

February 16: French Retirement Ages, Social Security Benefit Cuts to Come, and What is Sustainable

It’s now March, so I should check in again…

BBC, 3 hours ago (as I write this): Bordeaux town hall set on fire in France pension protests

Bordeaux town hall has been set on fire as French protests continued over plans to raise the pension age.

More than a million people took to the streets across France on Thursday, with 119,000 in Paris, according to figures from the interior ministry.

Police fired tear gas at protesters in the capital and 80 people were arrested across the country.

The demonstrations were sparked by legislation raising the retirement age by two years to 64.

Unions have called for further protests next Tuesday, which would coincide with King Charles III’s state visit to the country.

As I retweeted:

Look, being all republican (little r, historically – representative democracy, yadda yadda), I don’t like the imagery of legislation by executive order. It gets my hackles up.

(And, of course, being an American of Irish and Scottish ancestry loves seeing British royalty getting embarrassed, though it’s not really Charles’s fault in this situation.)

Have the People Chosen?

But it’s not my country. The French seem to have a habit for overthrowing executives and having to re-form republics all the time (what are they on now — their fifth republic? I’m not going to keep on top of that. )

That said, just because some people are in the streets, setting things on fire, doesn’t mean I assume this is a popular position. But I need to look – did the legislators actually reject raising the retirement age?

Let us actually look at what happened in terms of legislation and executive action:

20 March 2023: French government survives no-confidence votes over pensions

PARIS — Parliament adopted a divisive pension bill Monday raising the retirement age in France from 62 to 64, after lawmakers in the lower chamber rejected two no-confidence votes against the government.

But the bill pushed through by President Emmanuel Macron without lawmakers’ approval still faces a review by the Constitutional Council before it can be signed into law. The council has the power to reject articles within bills but usually approves them.

The first no-confidence motion, proposed by a small centrist group with support across the left, narrowly missed approval by National Assembly lawmakers Monday afternoon, garnering 278 of the 287 votes needed to pass. The second motion, brought by the far-right National Rally, won just 94 votes in the chamber.

Macron’s centrist alliance has more seats than any other group in the lower chamber.

The speaker of the National Assembly, Yael Braun-Pivet, said the failure of both votes means parliament has adopted the pension bill.

The U.S. does not have a parliamentary system itself, which does operate very differently from how we pass legislation.

I am not an expert in these things, but this isn’t exactly like the U.S. President simply signing an executive order and pronouncing “Make it so!” (This is an iffy proposition for many matters, but the U.S. isn’t relevant here, so let me drop this line.)

Not enough of the Parliament wanted to overthrow Macron’s proposed changes, so now it goes to this Constitutional Council:

21 March 2023: Protests, appeals, referendum: What’s next for France’s pension reform?

Following a series of dramatic days in French politics, controversial pension reforms were adopted on Monday the hard way. French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne rammed through the bill in the National Assembly, the lower house, last week by invoking Article 49.3. The constitutional clause grants the government executive privilege to pass a bill without a parliamentary vote and gives the opposition the opportunity to respond with a no-confidence vote.

French opposition lawmakers have other tools at their disposal to try to rescind the new pension law. They include an appeal to France’s Constitutional Council. It is charged with ruling on the constitutionality of new laws before they can be implemented.

The defeat of the no-confidence votes on Monday cleared the way for the adoption of new pension legislation, but the law does not yet have the green light for implementation.

A Constitutional Council appeal enables the suspension of the implementation deadline until it examines the new law within a one-month deadline. But under Article 61.3 of the French constitution, the government can ask the council to examine the text on an urgent basis, which reduces the deadline to eight days.

On Monday night, Borne announced that she will refer “directly to the Constitutional Council” for an examination “as soon as possible”, according to a statement from the prime minister’s office. The prime minister hopes that “all the points raised during the debates can be examined”, the statement added.

Referendum: putting it to the people

Another option is a public referendum, or the referendum d’initiative partagée (RIP).

An RIP request was also submitted to the Constitutional Council on Monday after the government survived the no-confidence votes.

A constitutional weapon at the disposal of French parliamentarians, the RIP requires a complex combination of parliamentary and voter endorsements.

French lawmakers organising a “popular consultation of a bill” require an endorsement of one-fifth of the members of both houses of parliament, or at least 185 of the 925 parliamentarians in the 577-member National Assembly and 348-member Senate.

It must also be “supported by one tenth of the electorate”, or 4.87 million people, whose signatures must be collected within nine months.

So we may very well find out the actual will of the people, and not just those energized enough to set things on fire.

Not Over Yet

So, this isn’t over yet. I went to look to see if there was something special about the French national pension, other than the retirement age, but the average amount reported here is only about $1,500 per month. That’s for the French benefit, post taxes, etc.

For Social Security in 2023, the average benefit per month is about $1,800 per month. The current maximum for an individual at full retirement age (FRA) is $3,600 per month (approximately). In the U.S. this year, the FRA is about 66 and 1/3 years old. Those numbers are pre-tax (and pre-Medicare premiums… and let me not go down that rabbit hole.)

As I’ve mentioned before, the French are not particularly short-lived (or long-lived) compared to other European nations. The benefit amount, as described above, post-tax, does not sound like very much.

But it’s not sustainable even at the French level of taxation. [I added notation to this graph to make it more readable]

The U.S. is not graphed, but unsurprisingly, it’s below the OECD average, sitting near 26% in 2021.

For France to keep its 62-year-old early retirement age for some groups of people, the tax rates would have to increase higher. That may be a trade-off the majority of the French people are willing to make… even the younger people who make up an ever-smaller slice of the population.

In the U.S., the younger generations do not necessarily have solidarity with the oldsters, especially childless and grandchildren-less oldsters who instead built up plenty of assets instead of future generations. The youngsters in the U.S. might be happy with means-testing old-age benefits and other cuts on said people.

Americans do protest and riot, but not over retirement ages of 64.

After all, we’re not French.

But then, we’re just seeing the people willing to go out in the streets in France, not the people who didn’t riot. Perhaps many people in France do see the reality that the taxes are pretty damn high and 62 years old is actually pretty damn young.

Perhaps this issue will go to referendum in France, and then we’ll see. Or perhaps the Constitutional Council will tell Macron to stuff it.

I guess I will be back in April to find out what the French are up to.