April 15, 2023
Yesterday at 6:00 pm, the French Constitutional Council, the 5th Republic’s version of the U.S. Supreme Court, announced the outcome of its review of the constitutionality of the new law reforming France’s sprawling retirement system. The Council validated the central provisions of the law — the elevation of the retirement age from 62 to 64, and the increase in the period of required payments into the system — while disqualifying two proposals for national referenda that would have put the law to the test of a national popular vote. Earlier today, the reform was officially promulgated by French President Emmanuel Macron and is now the law of the land.
Most observers had expected this outcome, including many on the left who opposed the reform and whose protests had been losing steam over the past few weeks. Still, the affirmation of the constitutionality of the law and the mechanism that enabled its adoption without a final vote in the National Assembly — the notorious clause 49.3 — was sobering. The victory is pyrrhic for Emmanuel Macron, whose ability to govern has been seriously, perhaps permanently eroded by his decision to bypass the Assembly. And it seems likely that the long-term damage extends further, perhaps even to the legitimacy of the 5th Republic itself.
It’s not clear what will happen in the streets. The unions and other groups on the left — including La France Insoumise, the leftwing opposition party led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon — are expressing their determination to continue the unrest that flared when 49.3 was invoked nearly one month ago. But now that the window for influencing the formal political process has closed, it will be more difficult to rally the troops. It’s not out of the question that smaller, unaffiliated groups will resort to more dramatic forms of protest.
One notable outcome of the Council’s decision is the strengthening of the prerogatives of the executive branch. To bypass the Assembly, the government had to make the argument that the reform measure was a matter of financial necessity. The Council apparently agreed, opening the door to further changes to the social security system based on the principle of financial exigency. If the current situation is any indication, changes pursued in this manner will not be well received.
A friend here recently reminded me that the reform that Macron has pursued so tenaciously, and perhaps destructively, is in effect a rolling back of the reforms that began in the Mitterrand era, when the shortening of working lives and the working week became the cornerstones of the political agenda of the French left. I spent time in France in the late 1970s, when the Communist and Socialist parties were in a state of uneasy and unstable alliance, and I recall the broad enthusiasm for the four-day workweek and retirement at 60. If work in advanced capitalism is fundamentally alienating, then let’s have less work! Looking back, it strikes me that this construction of social equity (not to say socialism) was a mistake, especially considering the expense of the other important commitments (universal healthcare and education among them) of the French social democratic welfare state. The Mitterrand era’s changes to work (and the way people think about work) sank into French culture and are now deeply embedded there. The reform to the retirement system that is now law is for that reason deeply disturbing to many, but it may enable new and different discussions about what social equity ultimately means.
One such avenue for discussion was outlined recently by the French sociologist Dominique Méda, whose study of recent surveys of working people in France suggests a pressing need for the country to engage in a social dialogue on the nature and conditions of work. Méda invokes the example of Germany and other northern European countries, where the unions are steadily and productively engaged with owners and management in corporate governance and the determination of the conditions of work. If the French government and unions turn in this direction, something might yet be salvaged from the current conflict over retirement.
Dominique Méda, « La codétermination apparaît comme la solution la plus raisonnable pour sortir de la crise du travail », Le Monde, Saturday, April 15, 2023
Patricia Cohen and Liz Alderman, “The Peace Dividend is Over in Europe. Now Comes the Hard Part.” The New York Times, May 3, 2023