“I want to convince the French people”, repeated Elisabeth Borne several times during her France Inter interview on January 14th. The Assemblée Nationale begins to examine the pension reform proposal on January 31rst: the government has now 15 days left to explain to our fellow citizens why it is essential to raise the retirement age to 64. During a press conference, Aurore Bergé, president of the Renaissance group, emphasized the need to “win over public opinion”. Yet the measure was a part of Emmanuel Macron’s election program; how did the situation come to this then? Let us take a look at the government’s communication since last June on this highly inflammatory issue.
The previous reform project was in the works from 2017 to March 2020, where it was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This subject is more than sensitive, as during all this time the President kept maintaining that there was no need to delay the retirement age. This 180° change therefore requires a particular educational effort. On top of that, we are now at a time where the reference points of the French on the notion of efforts – let alone sacrifices – have been more than disturbed by the famous “whatever it costs” in healthcare and in energy. And yet, until very recently, there was no such thing as educating the public.
First, the government got bogged down all summer long in a debate on the possibility of acting swiftly: by resorting to an amendment in the rectifying Social Security Financing bill that was to be debated in Parliament during the fall session. The advantage? No formal prior consultation is required, and the possibility of parliamentary obstruction is limited pursuant to article 47-1 of the Constitution – which sets the maximum duration of debates at twenty days in the Assemblée Nationale and fifteen days in the Senate. Not to mention the possibility of using Article 49.3 as many times as necessary, without it affecting the government’s annual quota for ordinary laws. The argument justifying such a hasty procedure? That since the measure was part of the President’s program, the French had therefore approved the reform in advance through his election.
The reactions were strong enough – including within the relative majority – for the executive to renounce and engage in a long and very structured consultation with the trade unions and parliamentary groups. In her interview, Elisabeth Borne emphasized the positive points brought about by these discussions – led with the representants of both the elected officials and the workforce. Initially scheduled for December, the presentation of the reform was delayed until January 10th, officially to allow the Prime Minister to continue the consultation process. This quarter could and should have been used to explain to the French people why the reform is imperative – in parallel with the institutional consultation. This was not done. Engaged in all those discussions with trade unions and political forces, the executive seems to have “forgotten” to talk to the French people. Not about the details of the measures submitted to the consultation, but about their elementary foundations. There was no great national debate, or citizens’ meetings, or even special television broadcasts on the subject – unlike what had been done in 2003 and 2010.
But to be able to even do so, maybe the government itself would have needed to have a clear picture about the cornerstones of the reform. But for several months, it has been oscillating between two different justifications. On several occasions, notably during his speech on Bastille Day (July 14th), the President emphasized the need to finance dependency and the pensions of the elderly. Simultaneously, Bruno Le Maire was speaking about the need of saving the “pay-as-you-go” pension scheme, which is threatened by the deterioration of the active to retired ratio due to longer life expectancy. Collective solidarity in one case, individual safeguarding in the other. These repeated divergences at the highest level have clearly disrupted how people understand the government’s intentions, and therefore tainted the credibility of the reform. Since January 10, the matter seems to have been settled. Emmanuel Macron declared that the project was “indispensable and vital to preserve the system” and Elisabeth added on France Inter that “it is the future of one of the hearts of our social model that is at stake”. An argument that is undoubtedly more effective in getting everyone to accept the required efforts.
However, this somewhat chaotic launch does not necessarily mean that the government will fail in its “reformist ambition”. By securing an agreement with the Republicans, who should allow her to pass the bill without resorting to the 49.3, the Prime Minister has probably saved her reform. The evidence? The poll published by the Journal du Dimanche on January 15th: while 68% of French people do not support the text, the exact same proportion believes that it will be voted and implemented.