Heaps of trash and anger are growing rapidly on the streets of Paris which no longer look or smell like the City of Love. On March 16, 2023, the people of France reacted with uproar when President Emmanuel Macron passed unpopular pension reform using controversial tactics. The French president set to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 in order to reform the pension system that has become strained with a change in population demographics. However, this action has been seen as a denial of democracy because Macron directly bypassed parliament to enforce the reform. The following week saw a no-confidence vote, eruption of civil protests, and the greatest threat to the government since the yellow vest protests.
President Macron was able to bypass the parliament by invoking Article 49.3 of the French Constitution. This controversial tool allows the president to pass a vote without the approval of the lower house of Parliament, the National Assembly, following a Cabinet meeting. The caveat is that the government may be subject to a no-confidence vote if the bill receives a motion supported by 10 percent of members of parliament within 24 hours. If the no-confidence vote passes, then simultaneously the bill is rejected and the government must resign. In the high-stakes vote, the 278 count fell short of the nine additional votes which were needed to oust the government and reject the bill, saving Macron by a narrow margin.
Despite the massive protests and the no-confidence vote, the French President has stuck by his decision. Macron believes that it is important to raise the pension age in order to account for a future which shows the pension system falling into a deficit. The deficit would occur due to the low birthrates that have been seen to trend around Europe, meaning less younger workers to support a larger aging population. Since Macron has assumed office, the number of French pensioners has increased from 10 million to 17 million people with an increasing trajectory. Furthermore, the change to 64 years for the new pension age is still less than other European countries such as Germany and Spain which range from 65 to 67 years. However, Macron no longer leads a majority and now has to battle with a minority government that does not provide him with enough support. While the president believes it is a necessity to save the pension system, he is undermining democracy by bypassing the overwhelming majority of legislators and citizens that are against the reform and may want a different solution. Passing this deeply unpopular policy poses an immense threat to Macron’s legitimacy and presidency.
Workers spanning many sectors from trash collection to railroad operations have begun protesting in the streets of France’s capital. Since the strikes began, more than 9,300 tons of trash have accumulated in the streets of Paris, with some heaps towering over the average person. Furthermore, people blocked airport terminals, piled burning debris on the highway, sat on train tracks, and clashed with the police. This poses an issue to not only the people of Paris, but also to the many tourists that travel to the historic city. As workers air their grievances, they further note that the new bill particularly penalizes women who are expected to take time out of their careers to raise children and thus are left with lower paying jobs that they must work in for a longer period of time. Many citizens are also nervous of what will happen in the following decades as the population issue further exacerbates.
These questions grow ever more pertinent as the protests continue on in full force with a low likelihood of dying down. France looks to deal with the weakened Macron, denial of democracy, raging protests, and resolution of the pension decision.
Polyna Uzun is from Cary, North Carolina, studying Public Policy.