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Despite fierce protests, France has raised the retirement age from 62 to 64

MILES PARKS, HOST:

For months, France has endured ongoing strikes and protests over controversial government pension reforms. The strikes have, at times, brought the country to a standstill, and the protests have often turned violent. Yesterday, the French Constitutional Council approved a proposed retirement reform bill. And President Emmanuel Macron enacted it almost immediately. Jake Cigainero is in Paris, and he joins us now. Hi, Jake.

JAKE CIGAINERO, BYLINE: Hi, Miles.

PARKS: So what exactly is in these pension reforms?

CIGAINERO: Well, the core of the reforms raises the retirement age from 62 to 64. The Constitutional Council rejected other aspects of the bill such as a measure that would force big companies to report how many older workers they employ. And starting in September, the retirement age to collect a pension will be raised incrementally by three months every year until the age reaches 64 in 2030. The reforms also raise the monthly pension rate, and it has measures that account for physical labor-intensive jobs.

But everyone has been really fixated on the retirement age, which is still below most European countries, where it's 65. Of course, opponents were not happy about raising the retirement age. The French are very protective of the country's universal health care and generous Social Security system. You could probably even say it's part of their identity. And the idea is that you pay very high taxes, and you're working years, and you get to retire at a relatively young age.

But protesters were way more outraged at the way that the government forced the law through using special constitutional powers once it was clear the bill was not going to make it through Parliament, which is why the Constitutional Council got the final say. And so that's a nine-member body that's also known as the wise ones. They're not judges. They're former politicians or high-ranking civil servants. And one is actually a former conservative prime minister, Alain Juppe, who tried and failed to change the pension system in the 1990s.

PARKS: OK. So I feel like that process kind of shows how unpopular a move this is in France. What does all this mean for Macron?

CIGAINERO: Yeah. So, you know, he's in his second consecutive term now, so he's not really worried about reelection in 2027. It certainly doesn't help his popularity rating. But Macron has said he doesn't really care about the price of unpopularity. That's how important this reform is to him. Macron has always been seen as a president for successful city dwellers and not really your blue-collar workers. He has weathered social upheaval when he changed labor laws by executive order early in his presidency, and he has weathered the yellow vest protests in 2019. This reform, though, seems to have really galvanized a broad swath of the French population from young people to students and seniors and blue-collar laborers and white-collar workers.

PARKS: What are the other political parties in France saying about all this?

CIGAINERO: So leftist politician Jean-Luc Melenchon said on Twitter that the ruling showed the council is more at the service of what he called the, quote, "presidential monarchy" rather than the sovereign people. And far-right leader Marine Le Pen said that enacting the pension reforms would, quote, "mark the definitive break between the French people and Emmanuel Macron." And, you know, political analysts have said that Macron has pretty much practically handed the keys to the Elysee Palace to Le Pen for the 2027 presidential elections.

PARKS: Are we already seeing protests in response to all this?

CIGAINERO: Not like we've seen in recent months. Obviously, there were protests yesterday evening after the Constitutional Council announced their ruling. But, you know, May 1, which is Labor Day here in France, is just around the corner, and it's always a big day for demonstrations. The unions have vowed to keep the pressure on until the government scraps the reforms altogether.

PARKS: That's reporter Jake Cigainero in Paris. Thank you so much, Jake.

CIGAINERO: Thanks, Miles.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES ATLAS' "THE SNOW BEFORE US") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.

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