Opinion

Macron Should Go Ahead with Pension Reforms

It’s the right thing to do.

Emmanuel Macron
French president Emmanuel Macron chats with a guard at the Elysée Palace in Paris, December 19, 2017 (Elysée/Ghislain Mariette)

Emmanuel Macron is reportedly mulling pension reforms that were put on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are risks: reforms will almost certainly spark protests, including from trade unions, which oppose raising the retirement age. Macron can ill afford social unrest a year away from the election.

But it could also burnish the French president’s reformist credentials after the COVID-19 crisis forced him into a more managerial role.

Macron is expected to unveil his plans when he addresses the nation ahead of Bastille Day on July 14. The fact that it has leaked reforms may be back on the table suggests he is testing the waters. So let me add my arguments to the discussion.

I’ll take the political first before covering the — more important — substantive arguments.

Political

Here I’m not sure what’s wise.

On the one hand, Macron’s approval rating is hovering around 40 percent, not bad by French standards, and polls still suggest he would defeat his most likely opponent, Marine Le Pen, in a presidential runoff. That argues for not upsetting the apple cart.

On the other hand, last month’s regional elections have thrown doubt on Macron’s reelection strategy, which was to count on lukewarm center-left and center-right support. It’s no longer unthinkable that a strong center-right candidate could keep him out of the crucial second voting round. That argues for shoring up his base; remind them why they voted for him in the first place by embarking on a bold, liberal form.

Substance

The substantive arguments are definitively in favor of change.

  • French average life expectancy at birth is 85.4 for women and 79.5 for men. Although the official retirement age is 62, men on average retire at 60 while one in four women, who interrupted their careers to raise children, have to work until they’re 67 to avoid benefit cuts. Public sector workers get a sweetheart deal. Railway drivers can retire at 50, policemen at 52 and metro workers at 55. Macron would raise the retirement age to 64 for everyone. (Still below the EU average.)
  • France has 42 different public pension schemes, ten for the state railway company alone. (Not counting private, supplemental insurance plans.) Macron would merge them into a single, points-based system, which would make it easier to switch jobs and take a few years off from work to parent.
  • Some funds, like those of metro workers, are chronically loss-making (no wonder!) while others, like those for lawyers and nurses, are in the black. They fear losing out, but they currently subsidize loss-making funds anyway, only it’s through their taxes.
  • Those who are low-paid early in their careers, like teachers, fear losing out if pensions are decided by points accrued over a lifetime rather than a percentage of their salary at retirement. However, they would also be making lower monthly pension payments throughout their working life under the new rules.
  • Reforms would not apply to anyone in or close to retirement. There would be a fifteen-year transition to the new system, so the argument that no changes should be made during the pandemic is moot.

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