The communication around the retirement reform: somewhat of a success, therefore, somewhat of a failure
According to an Opinion Way poll, 2/3 of the French judge the reform around the retirement system necessary. They are just as many however who consider it unfair… Though the paradox is more apparent than real, these numbers lead to wonder about the efficiency of the governments communications strategy around this project. It clearly shows that if the executive managed to convince of the unavoidability of the reform, it failed in federating support on the measures suggested.
In the first stage of the reform, which corresponded until June 2010 to the preparation and presentation phase of the texts, the government managed to demonstrate and have people admit its unavoidability. Certainly, the 20 years of public debate on the subject, Michel Rocard’s White Book on the Fillon law in 2003, the Balladur Lax in 1993, the Juppé plan in 1995 and the creation of a Retirement Orientation Counsil (Conseil d’orientation des retraites) by Lionel Jospin, all helped the public opinion become aware of the problem. Moreover, while Greece was exposing to the world the limits of public debt, and while France was increasing announcements on the pressing necessity to cut expenses, the threat of a decrease in pensions in a close future was becoming more and more possible. In this favorable but delicate context, the government’s communication was well lead. As soon as September 2009, the reform was announced by Nicolas Sarkozy, who wished to begin the debate as soon as possible. The media started increasing the number of articles on the subject. After a break linked to the regional elections, the debate picked-up again in April 2010 with the publication of the Retirement Orientation Council’s previsions of a particularly alarmist scenario. During this period of time, the government knew how to explain pedagogically the project and therefore making its determination credible. The public opinion followed without questioning the basic premise: the system needed to be urgently changed as in the past fifty years the ratio retirees/workers was split in two while the amount of time spent in retirement was doubled. In fact, neither the unions, nor the opposition clearly request the withdrawal of the reform. The necessity of a reform was finally accepted by all.
However, as summer began, meaning the moment when the Parliament started to examine the project, the trend progressively changed as the power to convince changed sides. Despite several compromises by the government, the unions and the opposition managed to make the public opinion admit the terms of the reform were unfair. Several “affairs” and the early announcement of a future reshuffle contributed to weaken the government’s voice. However, if the content of the reform was ill-received and finally judged unfair, it is mainly because of two tactical choices that turned out to be negative from a communications aspect.
- The first was to have presented upfront the two central points regarding the financial consequences and their symbolism – the change in the minimum legal retirement age, and the maximum pension level without taxation. These two points were presented at the minimum of what could have been done so that it could be said that something really needed to be done. But from then on they became non negotiable and no concession could have been considered neither during the consultations with the unions nor during the parliament’s debates. This created a strong and federating opposition subject for the unions who had the easy role of denouncing the lack of real negotiations and the artificial social dialogue organized by the government.
- The second choice is in most part the consequence of the first. Convinced that no social organization would accept to sign an agreement and as they had not many tools to reach one, the government refused to enter the usual game of the three-party meetings (social organization, employers and government) that are part of the French traditions in social dialogues. The theatrical negotiations have been replaced by bi-party meetings that seem always numerous but unsuccessful. Their increase gave the feeling that the government preferred the appearance of a dialogue than a dialogue itself. And this even more so since it had made concessions – and real ones regarding taking into consideration the hard quality of a job, the people with long carriers or those who are mothers. It had chosen to announce them in the Council of Ministers, giving hence the impression of a decision allocated more than fought for, or even planned and for which none of the social partners could have prevailed. Without any surprises, this attitude put the unions in a position of complete rejection as they had no elements allowing them to walk out head high. Therefore, to the question, is it necessary to hope for an agreement to engage in public negotiations, last week’s event have us answering no from a communications perspective.
In any case, by limiting discussions with the unions the government encouraged the population to express itself, therefore widening the terms of the debate. Instead of staying centered on the means to insure by 2020 a financial equilibrium of the retirement system by distribution without lowering pensions, which was the objective of the reform, the discussion widen to the questions of professional activities, therefore complicating the arguments of the ones and the others, and therefore opening the door of the demonstrations to the youth. The government’s messages lost of their impact on a political field that became more evasive.
Today, despite a difficult and still changing social climate, the government seems to be reaching its goal: the reform will be voted then promulgated, the gas stations refilled, the trash picked-up, even in Marseille, and the students will go back to school. But, because the communication war was lost, the President might not find in the passing of the reform the recovery it was anticipating. What is worse for our retirement plans is the social climate that went along the parliamentary debate and that pushed the opposition to make decisions that might facilitate a second mandate even though making a little more sensitive, while arising always more skepticism of the politician by the public opinion.