France shuts down as Macron touches the third rail of French politics

Dec 17, 2019, 5:53 AM | Updated: 6:05 am
PARIS, FRANCE - DECEMBER 17: Protestors gather at Place de la Republique as strikes in France enter...
PARIS, FRANCE - DECEMBER 17: Protestors gather at Place de la Republique as strikes in France enter their third week with new unions joining the strike and taking to the streets on a crucial day between the government and the unions over pension reforms on December 17, 2019 in Paris, France. President Emmanuel Macron is facing his biggest test since the Gilet Jaune or “Yellow Vest” movement as railway, transportation workers, Teachers, students, hospital employees, firemen, garbage collectors, truck drivers and airline workers join the strike called in protest to changes to France’s pension system. (Photo by Kiran Ridley/Getty Images)
(Photo by Kiran Ridley/Getty Images)

Editor’s note: David A. Andelman, executive director of The RedLines Project, is a contributor to CNN, where his columns won the Deadline Club Award for Best Opinion Writing. Author of “A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today,” he was formerly a foreign correspondent for The New York Times and CBS News. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAndelman. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

    (CNN) — The one-day general strike that was supposed to shut down France last Thursday is now stretching at least into next week as President Emmanuel Macron perseveres in his efforts to drag his nation into the 21st century.

This time, he’s leaping onto the third rail of French society and politics, the nation’s Byzantine pension system — actually 42 public and private systems that are hell-on-wheels to navigate and give French workers some of the world’s most liberal (and expensive) retirement benefits. Macron has declared an all-out campaign to consolidate them into a single national system managed — naturellement — by the state.

So, as with most major grievances of the French people, going back to the French Revolution, it’s “to the barricades,” or at least into the streets.

The walkout began on Thursday with transport workers, really the heart and soul of French life. Transportation is nearly frozen. All but two of 16 lines of the Metro system are shut down — those two being the only lines that run automatically without conductors.

Rail service across the country, including the high-speed TGV network, has slowed to a trickle. And now, the walkout has spread to schools and colleges, which are closing as their teachers strike. Even the Eiffel Tower shut down its gleaming lights that are a beacon in the night horizon of Paris.

The strike will continue at least until Monday, but unions are now calling for another nationwide demonstration on Tuesday — the day the government has said it will unveil details of just what it has in mind. Until now, France and its outraged workers have been running largely on rumors of what the plan might hold.

All that’s been disclosed thus far is that France would embrace some form of Sweden’s “points” system — with workers accumulating points throughout their working lives, which they could cash in at some still undefined moment. It would be a more equitable and simpler system, the president claims.

It’s not surprising that so many are afraid of losing ground. After all, while the official French retirement age is 62, as the New York Times reported, “Train drivers can retire at 52, public electric and gas workers at 57, and members of the national ballet, who start dancing at a very young age, as early as age 42.” And retirement can mean a pension of up to 75% of the wage they earn while they’re actively working. France has the lowest retirement age of any Western European nation.

A lot of this stretches back to the post-war leadership of Charles de Gaulle, who — facing the challenges of rebuilding France and taking the leading role as Europe’s statesman — simply let a host of different unions (including those representing teachers, lawyers, accountants, transport workers and stage and screen performers) set their own level of pensions and retirement age.

The result is that France is being bled white by the generosity of these plans.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates that France spends at least 14% of its GDP on pensions each year — more than twice the level of the 6.8% spent in the United States. “New measures to raise the effective age of labor market exit will be needed,” the OECD reported perfunctorily in April.

Indeed, the French government seems to feel that rationalizing the pension system, along with other reforms Macron has in mind, could actually mean tax cuts and a boost to GDP. Of course, other such Macron economic reforms — like a steep hike in gas taxes — are what sent the “gilets jaunes” (yellow vests) protestors into the streets a year ago.

Macron had only just gotten past that problem before the pension crisis arose. And it comes at a particularly parlous moment for him. On Monday, he is poised to host Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky in Paris for a landmark summit on Ukraine.

That meeting, along with his contentious run-in with President Donald Trump at last week’s NATO summit in London appear to be elements in the French President’s carefully-crafted campaign to assume the mantle of the leading political figure in Europe, now that Merkel has announced her retirement, at the latest in 2021.

The question, following the “yellow vests” movement, is how much more of this unrest he can take before his international standing starts to suffer and he loses his grip on the political party he created when he convinced people he was the answer to economic France’s stagnation?

Macron is not one to give up easily. Nor should he.

The fact is, he’s right. Too often France quite simply doesn’t work. Its bureaucracy is paralyzing. I should know. It’s taken me weeks and two visits to government offices simply to create a “personal page” on the French internet tax system — the only way to monitor my payments.

Still, Macron may have to compromise in order to win. The French often must be led forcefully to a solution they resist but that will improve all their lives in the long run. The problem is that most still can’t see beyond the fact that the long run might take them past their long-anticipated early and lucrative retirement.

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France shuts down as Macron touches the third rail of French politics