What if the pension reform is to be for Emmanuel Macron what the taxation at 75% for the highest income was for François Hollande? The very example of an effective campaign promise, whose implementation can be more than difficult, counterproductive. To begin with, a simple idea likely to attract voters: replace the 42 existing pension schemes with an universal system based on the number of points acquired throughout the career, built on a highly attractive basic principle: one euro contributed should bring the same rights for everyone. Gone are the so-called ‘parametric’ measures (retirement age, number of years of contribution), replace by a real ‘systemic’ reform that has not been done since the French ‘Libération’ (when was created the global pension system) and then the beginning of Général de Gaulle’s septennia (complementary pension systems). It was envisaged in fact, as a milestone in the transformation of the French society that the President wanted to, regardless of any opposition it may generate.
Two and a half years later, the interprofessional strike of December 5th is announced, and the moment of truth arrives. Will the mobilization of the public sector and the few concerned private professionals force the President to abandon or distort his project? In either case, neither him nor the government neglected any communication effort to avoiding such a situation, a communication effort that is yet to make proof of its efficiency.
A communication that hesitates between openness and firmness
The pension reform started originally with a citizens’ consultation conducted in 2018 and which lasted over nine months. Thousands of contributions were submitted on an online platform, in regional workshops and during discussions with social stakeholders at all levels. This was the basis on which the High Commissioner Jean Paul Delevoye built his report and his recommendations in the summer of 2019. However, his propositions globally in line with the promises of candidate Macron also included a major point, that of the introduction of the pivot age of 64 years that marked a return of the ‘parametrics’.
The reactions to this point were so strong that the Government chose to postpone the presentation of the draft law and to proceed from October 2019 onwards with another round of citizens consultations to debate on the first one’s propositions. Should this be a sincere attempt to come back to base post the Yellow Jackets movement, or a barely discreet attempt to post pone the scheduling of the reform until after the municipal elections? The Prime Minister has reiterated multiple times that everything is on the table and thus open for discussion. And the President seemed to follow a similar track by treating the possibility for current salary earners adhering to a special regime to keep adhering to it as a done deal, a provision that quickly got labelled as the “Grandfather Clause.” But only a week later, the government’s tone changed again.
During his trip to Amiens, the President adopted a firm and determined attitude by declaring to BFM TV that “the announced strike mobilized primarily the salary earners adhering to the special regimes,” ignoring the concerns of care givers, firefighters, police officers, teachers… and many others who do not benefit from such regimes.
The divisive strategy quickly gained attention on Twitter. Two hashtags: « #Le5JeTravail » and « #Le5JeTravailPas », appeared on social network over the weekend. Internet geeks expressed their dislike for workers striking for corporate demands or even their lack of empathy for the French citizens who did not have the republican courage to strike for more social rights.
A misguided communication strategy
Glorifying the ambition of having a more fair system is a good campaign argument. However, when it comes to actual implementation, it is not necessarily the best way to convince people that the proposed measures are well founded. After the failures of 1995, Jean-Pierre Raffarin in 2003 and Francois Fillon in 2010 could carry out major parametric reforms successfully only because of their ability to convince public opinion that the survival of the entire system depended upon them. The argument for a subject such as that of the pension reform has to be made on the basis of necessity, and not equality.
In the same way, it’s not always a given that pitting the privileged against the non-privileged serves to mobilize the latter in support of a reform. Within every citizen lies a need to protect individual interests. Individual self-interests. Moreover, public opinion has always shown itself to be tolerant, or even supportive of privileged social groups defending their specific statuses. Something that was long known as a “preventive proxy strike.”
A mishandled communication strategy
The earlier estimations of a possible cancellation of the reversionary pensions were followed by hesitation over the pivotal age and then gave way to the “grandfather clause” controversy.
A public opposition to the latter earned Jean Paul Delevoye a more than explicit talking to, first by the President and then by the Prime Minister. On Friday, the President nuanced himself by arguing that we would have to “adapt some things, slip a little, and find ways.”
Less than 48 hours later, the Minister of Public Accounts and Budget’, Gerald Darmanin, took some liberties based on his official position. He too thus assured, during an interview with BFMTV on Sunday, that the application of such a clause was “objectively not possible.” The press was to announce a few hours later, “Grandfather clause definitively buried”
The Government argues that the future strikers are planning to protest against a project that they don’t even know yet. But isn’t this very absence of a precise idea after nearly two years of discussions, trials, and rumors in itself one of the causes of the opposition’s radicalization, and should one thus be really surprised by it?
In this context, and moreover since the release of the latest report from the Official Consultative Council on Retirement (COR) has given a new dimension to the parametric measures, one fears that the conflict will result less from the public opinion’s subscription to the reform or from its lack of support for the strike but from the gravity of the “inconvenience caused” by the latter to individuals and enterprises.