In his traditional New Year's address, French President Emmanuel Macron called for a "rapid compromise" with unions over a pension overhaul that has sparked the country's biggest transport strikes in decades. But there is one issue upon which he has no intention of compromising: ending the early retirement schemes enjoyed by striking transport workers.
A centrepiece of Macron's sweeping plans to reform France, the pension overhaul would get rid of 42 separate schemes and replace them with a single, points-based system the government claims would be fairer and more sustainable.
Unions have baulked at the plan, which would see some public employees lose their right to early retirement – and likely result in benefit cuts for millions. They have staged four consecutive weeks of strikes that have crippled train and metro services across the country and wreaked havoc on Christmas holiday plans.
In his keenly awaited New Year’s Eve address on Tuesday, Macron stayed firm on the principles of the reform, including its most decried measure: raising the eligibility age for full pensions from 62 to 64.
But he called for a “rapid compromise” between unions and his government, which has already offered concessions to a growing list of sectors in an effort to woo workers and divide the unions.
Police officers, gendarmes, firefighters and prison guards were among the first to secure guarantees that they would still be able to retire at 57 – and, in some cases, at 52. Air traffic controllers – notorious hard-bargainers – won the same rights, while air pilots and stewards obtained smaller concessions, as did truck drivers, fishermen and Paris Opera dancers (who have so far shunned the offer).
As the list of exemptions grows longer, opposition parties have mocked a reform that is becoming universal in name only. Macron himself has warned against allowing special treatment for any one group, arguing that more concessions would surely follow, “like dominoes”.
But two categories have been noticeably ignored by the government as it doles out special exemptions to its “universal” retirement age: workers at SNCF, France’s national rail company, and RATP, the Paris transport firm – which have spearheaded the strike movement and rank among the reform’s biggest losers.
Since the start of the conflict over pension reform, ministers and lawmakers from Macron’s ruling LREM party have repeatedly targeted the “perks” and “privileges” enjoyed by rail and metro workers, while sparing other sectors that also benefit from special pension schemes – known as “régimes spéciaux”.
“It is no longer fair that people who work for SNCF or RATP should have additional rights,” said LREM lawmaker Aurore Bergé in an interview with Sud Radio on December 16, arguing that improved working conditions meant early retirement was no longer justified.
There are clear electoral motives for the government’s intransigence on this issue. While polls continue to show broad support for the pension strikes, they also suggest that a majority of the French are in favour of ending the early retirement schemes enjoyed by some categories – of which SNCF and RATP are the most emblematic.
As analysts point out, support for ending the “régimes spéciaux” is especially high among Macron’s core support base of centrist voters and his key target constituency of centre-right voters.
According to an Elabe survey published on December 18, 67% of voters supported a single pension system for all. The figure rose to 90% among people who voted for Macron at the last presidential election and 87% among those who backed right-wing candidate François Fillon.
As a result, Macron’s camp is calculating that it can appease some categories while playing hardball with transport workers, mindful that the electoral dividends are likely to outweigh the cost of a protracted strike.
However, such a strategy risks fuelling suspicions about the real motive of the pension overhaul, with critics – including erstwhile supporters of the reform – accusing the government of turning a supposedly progressive reform into a cost-cutting ploy.
If the reform’s stated aim is to set up a universal system for all, they ask, then why keep some special schemes while removing others?
In an op-ed published last month by Le Monde, a group of prominent economists with close ties to Macron called for greater “clarity” over the reform, arguing that “budgetary considerations” had cast a pall over its objectives.
One of the signatories, economist Antoine Bozio, who helped write Macron’s pension proposals during his election campaign, asked in a separate op-ed: “Is the [reform’s] aim to set up a universal pension system that gives people greater guarantees and reduces pension inequalities, or is to cut the pension bill?”
While reiterating their support for a points-based retirement system, Bozio and his colleagues urged the government to drop its plans to raise the eligibility age for a full pension.
By refusing to do so, Bozio wrote, the government had “come clear about its objective to reduce spending on pensions – and thus vindicated the reform’s opponents”.