These days, news of Paris burning—again—hardly warrants much surprise. France has lurched from one crisis to another for longer than many of us have been alive. Riots on the heels of unpopular decisions are so common that the French love of raucous protest has become a punchline. The French political system has weathered these storms before, and looks poised to do so again. At the same time, each new confrontation does seem to leave President Emmanuel Macron in particular and the system in general worse for wear.
This latest flare-up has to do with the Macron government’s attempt to reform the pension system. The question of pensions is a political hot potato across Western democracies. Almost all of the pension systems set up in the days of the postwar boom are flashing warning signals that they can’t be sustained in the long term. Many other countries, including Sweden, have already faced political battles over the future of retirement, and in many places the problems are being compounded. The sudden crisis for UK treasuries that played a large part in dethroning Prime Minister Liz Truss had an ominous effect on the sustainability of pension funds.
In the scheme of things, Macron’s proposal isn’t particularly heartless or draconian. The general pension age in France is currently 62, and Macron’s proposal would push that back to 64. For comparison, the pension age in Sweden is 63, though certain benefits only start paying out at age 66. In other words, even if these French reforms were successful, they wouldn’t spell the end of the welfare state.
Even so, the attempted reform has been massively unpopular and led to a vote of no confidence against the government, one that Macron only barely survived. This happened because, lacking the votes to push his reform through the lower house of the legislature, the National Assembly, Macron fell back on Article 49 of the French constitution, which allows the government to make a bill law without a vote. When this article is invoked, the only way to stop the passage of the bill in question is a successful vote of no confidence in the government, which would usually trigger snap elections.