Macron vs the unions: What’s at stake for France?

French President Emmanuel Macron is facing his biggest standoff with France’s trade unions since coming to power in 2017, with the outcome of a series of strikes and protests over a pensions overhaul seen as decisive for both sides.

As labour groups look to bring the country “to a standstill” on Tuesday, AFP looks at what’s at stake for the president, the unions and the country at large.

What’s in the reform?

Macron’s flagship proposal would raise the minimum retirement age from its current level of 62 to 64, bringing France more into line with its EU neighbours, most of which have pushed back the retirement age to 65 or higher.

The law also stiffens the requirements for a full pension and would abolish privileges enjoyed by some public-sector employees, such as those at the Paris Metro.

After initially claiming it was intended to make the system fairer, the government now emphasises that it is about savings.

“The status quo in the next 10 years means 150 billion euros [$160 billion] of accumulated deficits and a fall in the quality of life of pensioners,” Labour Minister Olivier Dussopt said at the weekend.

The changes, which would also see small raises for the lowest pensions, are slated to come into force in September.

Who are the opponents?

France’s trade unions have organised five separate days of protests so far, but Tuesday will see them move into a higher gear, with a threat of rolling strikes risking a severe knock-on in subsequent days.

Their main complaint is that the changes penalise unskilled workers who tend to start their careers early and often toil in physically demanding jobs, unlike university graduates.

They also contest that government’s claim of looming deficits for the pay-as-you-go pensions system, saying that small increases in contributions could keep it solvent.

The unions are backed by the hard-left France Unbowed (LFI) political party, which wants the retirement age lowered to 60, as well as the Socialists and Greens.

The far-right party of Marine Le Pen is also against the overhaul, while expressing unease over attempts to paralyse France with rolling strikes.

A host of left-wing intellectuals have also voiced opposition, notably star economist Thomas Piketty, who sees Macron as reinforcing his reputation as “the president of the rich”.

What’s at stake for Macron?

After trying and failing to push through pension reform during his first term, Macron returned to the issue while campaigning for re-election last April.

He defeated Le Pen running on another pro-business platform that promised to lower unemployment and make the French “work more” in order to finance the country’s social security system.

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