If one of French President Emmanuel Macron’s New Year’s resolutions was to avoid the strikes and protests that characterized his first term, he is off to a shaky start. 1.1 million people took to the streets on January 19th, and 1.27 million took to the streets again on the 31st according to the Interior Ministry. A month on, strikes show no sign of slowing down – March 7th saw upwards of 1.4 million strikers close down trains, schools, and, critically, the refineries that deliver fuel to French consumers and industry. The protests and strikes that plagued Macron’s first term were spurred in part by his 2019 proposal to reform the French pension system and only abated once he retracted that proposal in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. This year’s strikes come on the heels of Macron’s reintroduction of a pensions reform package that, while differing in details from 2019’s, sets the same broad goals (a primer on the 2023 package can be found here).
France’s pension system is generally considered to be one of Europe’s most generous. The country spends over fourteen percent of its GDP on its pension system, one of the highest rates in the OECD. The system is characterized by forty-two different schemes and therefore, despite the official retirement age being sixty-two, some workers receive a full pension two to three years before reaching the official retirement age. Macron’s 2019 reform plan proposed eliminating these varying plans and employing a single, points-based, system while simultaneously raising the retirement age from sixty-two to sixty-four or sixty-five, among other reforms. His goals for the latest package are broadly the same: repair a pension system that is ‘structurally in deficit’ by making the French work more, thereby boosting national competitiveness and growth.
Emmanuel Macron is not the first President to take a stab at reforming France’s pensions. The pension question has been a thorn in the side of Presidents over the years from across France’s political spectrum. In 2014, Francois Hollande of the center-left Parti socialiste (PS) increased the years of work needed to receive a full pension from forty-one years to forty-three. In 2010, the conservative Nicolas Sarközy increased the retirement age from sixty to sixty-two. In 1995, another conservative president, Jacques Chirac, tried to reform pensions but ultimately caved under pressure. What characterized all these efforts, both those that succeeded and those that failed, was the staunch resistance and strike action that is rearing its head again in response to Macron’s proposal.
Thus, the only thing standing in Macron’s way now is…well almost everything. A vast majority of French citizens oppose the reforms, and that figure has only grown since industrial action began. According to polling by Institut Elabe, fifty-nine percent were opposed to the reforms in the first week of January, sixty-six percent the following week, and seventy-two percent by the end of that month. The unions of course oppose the reforms as well, and their power is evident in the millions who have taken to the streets.
This display of street politics has been an impressive show of force by the unions and their sympathizers. Inside the halls of the National Assembly, parliamentary politics have been just as contentious. Predictably, the key parties of France’s left wing – ranging from the far left La France Insoumise (LFI) to the French Green party Europe Ecologie Les Verts (EELV) to the centrist Parti socialiste (PS) – oppose the reforms. Perhaps more surprising, the far-right Rassemblement National (RN) headed by Marine Le Pen has shown equally potent opposition to the reforms. Back in 2020, after Macron’s Prime Minister invoked a convoluted rule to push pension reform through parliament without the necessary votes, the RN supported a vote of no confidence, headed by the center-right Les Republicains (LR), against Macron’s government which ultimately failed. And while LR has recently been co-opted into supporting Macron’s reforms, RN’s opposition has only grown. Their opposition has become both more fervent and more potent, in part because the party increased their seats in the National Assembly from eight to eighty-nine in last year’s legislative elections, making them France’s largest opposition party. In the face of this opposition, as well as staunch opposition from the left-wing NUPES alliance, Macron has once again signaled his willingness to walk away from the pretense of democratic input. Unable to secure a National Assembly vote on the package, Macron turned to the Senate, which approved the most controversial element of the package – raising the retirement age to sixty-four – on March 9th, while vaguely suggesting they would now consult with the Assembly. Regardless, the far right’s opposition, and strength, is a testament to the new kind of party that Marine Le Pen is trying to build with the Rassemblement National.
The working man’s far right
The RN’s opposition today was first expressed on the campaign trail during last year’s presidential election, where Marine Le Pen faced Emmanuel Macron in the second round. While Macron campaigned on his signature pension reform, Le Pen not only opposed his reforms but proposed her own – except her preferred reforms were to make pensions more generous, not less. These included lowering the retirement age from sixty-two to sixty for those who began working at twenty years old, raising pension allowances for some seniors, and re-indexing pensions to grow at the rate of inflation. Her opposition to Macron’s package, and defense of her own, was and is not couched in technocratic analysis, as Macron’s own pleas are. Rather, her opposition takes on a moral tinge. She has called Macron’s reforms at times “simply completely unfair,” “terribly unjust and ineffective,” and an “unprecedented brutality,” among other things.
Le Pen’s rejection of pension reform is part of a larger move away from her party’s neoliberal past. In the first decades of the RN’s existence, the party advocated for lower taxes, the privatization of public resources, deregulation, the “dissolution of the bureaucracy,” and even phasing out the welfare state. It was largely considered a “party of the petit bourgoisie” that drew support from merchants, artisans, and farmers. Throughout the 1990s, the party made incremental moves away from its neoliberal profile and began to court the working-class vote more intensely than before, and saw some results. When Marine Le Pen took the reins of the party from her father in 2011, she expedited the party’s transition into a new political profile. However, critically, as late as the 2007 election Jean Marie Le Pen ran on a platform that advocated a “harmonization” of pension schemes into a single scheme and raising the retirement age to sixty-five. These proposals are almost identical to the Macron reforms that the RN is now fiercely opposing. And while the RN has generally fallen in line around opposition to the pension reform, remnants of the elder Le Pen’s influence remain today, and the pensions issue has had the effect of creating internal tensions “between free-market advocates such as Nicolas Bay and Louis Aliot and economically left-leaning elites such as Sébastien Chenu and Philippe Olivier within the RN.”
Thus, for Marine Le Pen this issue is as much about political calculus as it is about taking a moral stand. While ultimately Le Pen did not get close to winning the Presidency last year, she got far closer than anyone could have imagined twenty years ago when her father resoundingly lost his bid for the French presidency. Given that she managed to capture sixty-seven percent of working-class voters in a race she lost by seventeen points, she knows that maintaining and expanding her support among that bloc is essential for the RN’s future prospects. Opposing this pension reform is one vehicle for doing that and lends itself to the RN’s new strategy, which involves presenting the party as one that is neither left nor right but that looks out for all the French.
This strategy is pursued on its own merits but is also a way for Le Pen to differentiate herself from far-right competitors like Eric Zemmour and her niece Marion Maréchal. Zemmour in particular maintains an affinity for neoliberalism and is far less concerned with the plight of the working class. Both he and Maréchal are pursuing a strategy of l’Union des droites (Union of the Rights) that seeks to reconcile the mainstream Right with the far right, a task that seems to require maintaining a more market-friendly orientation that can appeal to the traditional voters of center-right parties like LR. On pensions specifically, Zemmour ran his presidential campaign on a platform that vowed to raise the retirement age to sixty-four by 2030 and has recently stated that he would vote for Macron’s proposal if he could.
Le Pen and the RN are clearly pursuing a different strategy that involves courting left-wing voters, as opposed to those of the mainstream Right. While this strategy has failed to break through entirely, it has been increasingly successful. In last year’s presidential election, seventeen percent of those who voted for the far-left LFI in the first round voted for Le Pen over Macron in the second round, compared to only seven percent of LFI voters who did the same in 2017. France’s Left recognizes the danger in this play by Le Pen and the RN, and it is part of the reason why, for the first time in over a decade, left-wing parties have officially partnered with French unions to take to the streets. This is part of a larger play to win the ‘lost electorate’ of the working class back to the Left. As a column in Le Monde recently stated, “if the unions and the left are united, it’s because Marine Le Pen is on everyone’s mind.”
Marine Le Pen, Président de la République?
Le Pen’s rejection of Macron’s pension reform and embrace of populist economics is a two-step. While it is partially true that the Rassemblement National has had a genuine ideological evolution on economic issues, it is more apt to see the party’s opposition to pension reform as a sharp political play meant to differentiate themselves from the center-right-far-right pursuits of Zemmour and company on the one hand, while simultaneously peeling left-wing voters away from LFI and other left-wing parties on the other. Thus, while in some ways we can view this episode as the culmination of a long trajectory, it is equally important to see it as potentially the beginning of something new for the French far right, something which may – if the center cannot continue to hold and the left continues to bleed its base – include seeing Marine Le Pen and her party in the halls of power.
Aaron Irion is a graduate student at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University and a Research Assistant at the Illiberalism Studies Program. He is primarily interested in the political economy of undemocratic, populist, and illiberal movements. All views are his own.
Photo by John Chrobak made using “Manifestation pour la défense des retraites du 31 janvier 2023” by Jeanne Menjoulet licensed under CC BY 2.0 and “Meeting 1er mai 2012 Front National” by Blandine Le Cain licensed under CC BY 2.0.