There’s an old saying about how you can only push the people just so far before they will take matters into their own hands. French President Emmanuel Macron appears to be learning that lesson this week, albeit a bit after the fact.
Last week, the normal legislative process in France broke down. After weeks of lobbying to raise the retirement age, Macron invoked a controversial constitutional tool known as article 49.3, allowing him to bypass the legislature and simply raise the age via executive fiat.
The response was immediate and aggressive, both from the opposition party and protesters who quickly filled the streets.
Labor unions went on strike, including the trash collectors, leading the streets of Paris to be filled with refuse. Calls rang out for Macron to resign, which he promptly ignored. And the National Assembly called for a vote of no confidence. Macron himself wouldn’t have been tossed out of office, but his Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne and her government could have been forced to resign, leaving Macron standing alone.
The first of two votes was held this afternoon, and the government survived by an extremely thin margin of nine votes. The second vote is expected to draw less support, so a bullet has been dodged. And yet the President of France currently appears to be stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Emmanuel Macron’s government faces several motions of no confidence in the National Assembly Monday after his government forced through a deeply unpopular pensions reform bill last week.Protesters took to the streets in major cities over the weekend, after the government invoked a controversial constitutional maneuver to pass its pensions reform bill in what was widely seen as a move likely to inflame social unrest. Industrial action is expected to disrupt public transport, refineries, universities and waste collection this week, as trade unions hope to strong-arm the government into withdrawing the pensions reform.
On Saturday, more than 100 people were arrested in Paris after protesters began setting fires, and scenes of violence were broadcast over social media networks. But through it all, Macron’s Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire continued to insist that raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 and the other tweaks to the system that the President ordered were vital to keeping the government’s finances stable.
In some ways, we should be able to express a bit of sympathy for Emmanuel Macron. He is wrestling with an intractable problem that is already playing out in the United States. France’s generous pension system is already overburdened and without some significant changes, it will eventually become insolvent.
We’re dealing with a parallel situation in America, where the Social Security system is already reaching the point where it will have to pay out more money each month than the government takes in to cover it. The so-called Social Security “trust fund” (which doesn’t actually exist except in the form of a stack of IOUs issued to it by the general fund) will keep it limping along for a while. But under current revenue projections, by 2035 the system will only be able to pay out 80% of the benefits it’s obligated to cover.
Some of the changes currently under discussion include measures similar to what’s being attempted in France. Raising the retirement age is one idea, along with means testing and other cost-saving measures. So how would the people of the United States respond if the government rams through such changes? We might not have to worry about it because most of the members of Congress are terrified to put any such limitations down in writing due to the backlash they would receive at the ballot box, particularly from senior citizens. But that doesn’t mean that the problem will simply go away if we ignore it for long enough. If Americans continue to have fewer children every year and the average lifespan doesn’t suddenly decrease significantly, the problem will accelerate with each subsequent generation.
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