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Context

France is currently facing nationwide strikes due to pension system reformation discussions. According to France24, there seems to be a debate over the opportunity of such a reform:

French President Emmanuel Macron insists the proposed changes are needed to reform a moribund system – but some of the government’s own experts have said the pension system is in relatively good shape and would likely eventually return to a balanced budget even without reforms.

Question

Let's assume that Macron is right and the system is not economically sustainable. I see this situation (grossly oversimplified) as:

  • the government wants to reform an unsustainable system
  • there are massive protests over this
  • it is a democratic country, so the government needs to take into account the protests

What options does the government have? Can it simply do nothing and let one of the following governments deal with the issue?

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  • The protests were not just focused on the effect of the reform itself, but also, importantly, on the way the reform was brought around. The government arguably misused a set of laws to bypass parliament completely and pass the law even though parliament was voting against that law. This was seen as an attack of democracy by many.
    – Stef
    Commented Aug 1, 2023 at 13:17

4 Answers 4

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I'm ignoring the protests issue here. Let's just assume there isn't even a popular majority in favor of some reform(s), but that the status quo is economically unsustainable. There's no simple answer to what a government or party that believes in the reform should do. Some options are:

  • PR campaign explaining the situation and hoping the public opinion changes enough (not necessarily to a majority-- see my final para elaborating on that.)
  • Failing that, let those who do oppose the measures come to power. If the reforms really are needed, the economic situation is likely to get worse, and hopefully the public will realize that by living it, but...
  • It's entirely possible the other/non-reformist government manages to fool the public that something else is responsible for the crisis (external forces, some minority etc.)

Alas that's democracy. Ultimately the public gets the government it deserves, on average.

There is one other point here, which is that significant parts of the electorate may not be single-issue voters on that reform. So, even if the there's a majority (but not an overwhelming one) against a reform, if its [short term] disadvantages are not likely to top the voters' agenda, particularly by the next election time, then a government [that believes in the necessity of the reform/measure] may well do it at a time calculated to minimize the [negative] electoral impact. (Although it's a non-economic example, see e.g. Turkey and NATO admission of the Nordic courtiers, postponed until after the election, as I understand.) This is actually a well quantified strategy when it comes to anything resembling austerity measures:

governments become less likely to introduce austerity measures as elections approach.

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    This answer is based upon the idea that the government's proposed solution is good, or at least that the status quo is actually worse than that. Both are more than questionable. If you're answering in that hypothetical only, then you should make it visible in your answer, so that it's not mistaken for an analysis of the current particular situation. Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 9:15
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  • There is a reason why many democracies are representative democracies rather than direct democracies. Direct democracies are very suitable to answer clear 'yes or no' questions not related to many other questions. Things like should a certain drug be legalized or should we build the highway as it has been proposed are suitable for a ballot initiative.
    But direct initiatives are bad at getting a compromise budget, for instance. Imagine the three questions should we raise taxes, should we cut government-subsidized pensions, and should we increase the debt on the same ballot. What if the answer is 'no' to all three? A triple 'no' would give no budget.
    So a government (and a parliamentary majority, if they are not the same) could simply tough it out and hope that future majorities will see the necessity. This could hurt the parties in power, or not. (Compare the German Agenda 2010 and what it did to the Social Democrats.)
  • In addition, the government (or rather the political parties in power, both executive and legislative) can try to explain to the voters why something has to be done. They would have to demonstrate that there is no other way, and that the pains are being shared 'in a fair manner.'
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    Logically, if something as complex as the economic health of an entire country is involved, there's just no way you expect majority of the citizens to even know how to understand this, let alone vote on such things in a way that is actually good for the country and not only for themselves. I mean, just look at Brexit.
    – Nelson
    Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 2:44
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    @Nelson Your opinion that Brexit was a bad thing to vote for does not mean that people who voted for it were objectively wrong, stupid, or "didn't understand". If you automatically disregard the possibility that you may not understand their reasoning, then you're not much better that what you paint them as. Building a political analysis upon whether people in a specific instance voted the way you would have wanted or not and concluding that direct democracy is doomed sounds more than a bit short-sighted. Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 9:11
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    @Gouvernathor Nobody I've talked to who voted on Brexit understood the issues involved. Not the leavers. Not the remainers. (Not me, either.) Some of them are quite angry that they were "lied to"; others just shrug and go "yeah, but that's just politics". Most people know more, and are less confident, now, than they did and were 6½ years ago.
    – wizzwizz4
    Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 19:38
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    @Gouvernathor You can definitely have different views on Brexit or any other actual activity, but the fact that the vast majority of people are utterly uneducated and incapable of understanding any given question is just demonstrably true. This is not due to "the other people being stupid" It's due to the fact that almost all even slightly interesting questions are way to complex. I've studied mathematics for over 15 years and have two advanced degrees in it, and I've mostly found out that I know almost none of it.
    – DRF
    Commented Feb 13, 2023 at 10:19
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    @Gouvernathor - I'd actually argue Brexit is an excellent example of where direct democracy breaks down. You have a comparatively simple, yes/no question covering a wide range of possible views and positions, all of which were thrown around during the referendum. That's not to say the vote is invalid, but it simplifies a hugely complex issue down to a binary choice. A giant survey, with questions like "would you prefer the government prioritise the good friday agreement, trade, or controlling immigration" might have given more actionable feedback.
    – lupe
    Commented Feb 13, 2023 at 10:25
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it is a democratic country, so the government needs to take into account the protests

What are you basing this on? This government was elected, democratically. It made no secrets of its wish to reform the pension system in its campaign.

Before the first round of the election, the outgoing president (Macron) had announced that he wanted to raise the legal retirement age, now set at 62, gradually to 65, by raising the age by four months from generation.

Laws changing from pension age from 62 to 64 years will have to be voted on, democratically, by the representatives elected, democratically, to the Assemblee Nationale. That, or, has been commented on - mea maxima culpa - the possible future use of Article 49.3 of the Constitution, which... is not that exceptional.

In any case, article 1, doing away with some of the special perks of public servants, was voted on directly, passing 181 to 163.

If the public thinks this is truly a terrible idea, they can "vote out the bums" at the next elections. That's what democracy is about, not burning cars during protests *.

To flip this around so I don't get attacked for being a Rightist tool: an equivalently large minority of Americans opposed, and still oppose, Obamacare. Do they get to hijack the American legislative process because they feel strongly opposed? Despite not having the electoral power to get their way by the rules?

Of course, the Macron government could be forced to reverse course, by the protests. That is a strong possibility. So is not getting enough votes at the Assemblee Nationale.

But that is an entirely different thing than claiming that a democratic government has to listen to the mob, in order to be democratic. And even if the protests are entirely peaceful, that still remains the case: there are procedures to pass laws in democracies, those have to be followed to be democratic. Those procedures and laws do not include having to formally do anything with regards to said protests.


I am also glad the subject of traditions wrt to the "partenaires sociaux", i.e. unions was brought up in a comment. Yes, traditionally unions do get consulted about such large scale labor-facing arrangements.

However, in terms of democracy, one wonders why exactly so much importance is given to unions, given the really very low rates of union participation which is less than 8% in the private sector.

According to a study just published by the Ministry of Labor, the overall unionization rate, public and private combined, fell from 11% to 10.3% between 2013 and 2019. It fell below 8% in the private sector.

What, democratically speaking, gives such a small percentage of workers the right to speak on behalf of the non-unionized majority? (a subject that certainly was an irritant to me when I lived in France and one occasion triggered not-insignificant wage losses for me).

p.s. As an aside, to explain how many French people view the relationship between the government and the governed, you need to understand the appeal of Mai 68, where large scale protests basically told De Gaulle to go fly a kite. Having once tasted blood, a fairly common French viewpoint is that strong enough protests, including possibly involving property destruction, are themselves a new rule onto themselves and should always force governments to back down. That's the appeal of the Gilets Jaunes.

p.p.s.

Why bother? Because actuarial projections indicate that in the future, the ratio of current workers to retirees will be quite low which is "not great" for a Pay As You Go system.

In 2000, there were 2.1 workers paying into the system for every one retiree; in 2020 that ratio had fallen to 1.7, and in 2070 it is expected to drop to 1.2, according to official projections.

Do the math...

* to be fair, the protests so far don't seem all that violent and destructive by French standards. Searching for "voitures brulees" got me repeat pictures of the same car in Paris.

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    Many factual mistakes about France here. The current government is a minority government, and relies on a controversial constitutional provision to pass laws. When it comes to labor laws, by French tradition, the government is supposed to come to a compromise with workers' unions and business unions, and for the current pension reform even the most rightist workers' unions are very strongly against the reform. Also, a majority of people are opposed. The mention of property destruction is plain propaganda: it's not at all what workers' protests do (even with Gilet Jaunes, it's anecdotic). Commented Feb 11, 2023 at 21:57
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    The fact that the government is a minority government doesn't change the fact that they will still need to command a majority of pro-reform votes in the Assemblee Generale to pass these reforms, so not as relevant as you claim. For the rest, can you link to the controversial constitution info? I am only tangentially following these pension reforms, and I answered more in the general terms of questioning why there would be an obligation to listen to protesters. Commented Feb 11, 2023 at 23:36
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    "Laws changing from pension age from 62 to 64 years will have to be voted on, democratically, by the representatives elected, democratically, to the Assemblee Nationale." No, the constitution (article 47-1 §3) allows the law to pass by executive orders (ordonnances) if the parliament doesn't approve or reject the bill in 50 days - and the government has massive powers to delay things as much as it wants. Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 8:52
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica "they will still need to command a majority of pro-reform votes in the Assemblee Nationale to pass these reforms" Not true either, for the reason stated above (47-1 §3) and the unlimited allowed use of article 49 §3 for these kinds of laws regarding finances (of social security). These two articles (especially the second) are the controversial constitutional provisions. See a translated version of the Constitution here conseil-constitutionnel.fr/sites/default/files/as/root/bank_mm/… Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 8:58
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There are a series of important element that were left out of the question and of the existing answers. I'll try to list as many of them as I can so people can have a more global view of the problem.

  • First, as said in the quote within the question, a lot of people, including experts in the domain and including ones within the administration, consider the pensions system to be sustainable.
  • Second, right-wing political parties in france always want to raise the age of retirement no matter the context, season or pretense. Such a reform is regularly deemed "necessary" every 10 years or so, at least when they're in power. This makes the reform and the issue it's supposed to address look more like an ideological choice and a made-up pretext, than a pragmatic necessity.
  • The government's budget, which passed without a vote from the elected representatives, includes a lot of the equivalent of tax breaks, but applying to payments towards pensions. In other words, they listed a massive series of instances in which corporations don't need to pay for pensions (and unemployment benefits, and healthcare for those injured at work...), allegedly as incentives - same as what tax breaks are for. The total amount of the new "social breaks" (as they are called) created in the last budget exceeds what deficit the government alledges the reform will fix in the pensions' budget.
  • Macron was reelected in a close race which reproduced known loopholes in two-turns first-past-the-post electoral systems. I won't expand about that right now, but it's widely known that a massive part of Macron voters in the second term were only (and openly) voting against his opponent. So, even though he was open about wanting to go against the retirement system during his campaign, he far from won because of that.
  • Macron's party came tied with the left-wing union in the congressional election in the first turn, and as a result, did not win a majority of the seats in parliament. This is in the french context, in which the legislative elections following a presidential election are given a boost for the president's party.
  • Polls seem to indicate that more than half, and up to 75% of the population reject the reform.
  • The french constitution allows the government a massive amount of power to meddle in how the parliament works - which contributes to making it appear as authoritarian - in particular with the use of the infamous article 49§3, which allows the government to pass a law without a vote in parliament, as many times as it wants for budget acts and one extra time per year. The reform counts as a budget act, for the purposes of this provision. That provision is infamous among the population, and governments invoking it almost always trigger a backlash in popular opinion where it's seen as a power grab.
  • An additional provision applies to social budget acts, and therefore in this specific case : by article 47-1, the government has the power to impose a time limit in each house for considering the bill, and to enact it via executive orders (ordonnances) if the parliament doesn't pass or reject it early enough.
  • The government also has vast powers to stall the parliament as much as it wants, if it wants the deadline to trigger. For instance, it can set the agenda on every other week, and so, if it so chooses, halve the allotted time for consideration of the bill. And this is only one of the ways the government can interfere in legislative operation, the constitution contains plenty.

For all these reasons, the government has at the same time vast legal powers to enact its reform, and almost no legitimacy to do so. Given the constitutional tools it uses to try and pass it, and the lack of popular support it received in the last elections, it gives the free expression of people through the streets a more direct appearance of democracy than the government itself. Since the problem allegedly being adressed is doubted of, since the government appears as responsible for it in the first place, and since the solution is widely rejected among all possible alternatives, the government appears as dishonest and as pushing its own agenda despite the economic context, instead of working for the common good.

Because of that, the current government can hardly expect a future government to address the issue : the elections don't occur before another 4 years, and when the government sees what people actually think of their retirement system, when they're up to going on the streets to defend the status quo, it can't rely on the same parties with the same views on dismantling the retirements system to be elected again next time.

In addition to all this, the impacted population is the workers, and there already are calls for strikes, and to even "block the country" next month. A lot of these (sewers workers, garbage collectors for instance) are essential to making a country function and are losing the specific retirement regimes they are getting for working in dangerous jobs. This is a comparable situation, for a government to face, as a US president getting blamed for a government shutdown. Except that in the case of a general strike actually blocking the country, much more than just the federal government stops working, and the group they disagree with are those making the country run - in other words, the people. It's very hard for a government in any country to win in such a situation.

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    consider the pensions system to be sustainable : citations please. Which.. generally applies to this answer as a whole. Also, the blurb about public workers forgets to mention that their pension sure as heck doesn't kick in at 62 years old. In quite a few cases, public sector workers can retire in their 50s. Train driver? 50-52 yrs old. Made sense when trains were running on coal... Functionaries' pension calculations are also different from the private sectors Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 22:02
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    Also, where is the evidence that the existing French system can work so well, given that other Western countries with similar demographics have found it necessary to bump their retirements to 65+? There is also no secret "the right" wants to change the system, while "the left" wants to keep it as is. Didn't Hollande get elected to bump it back down to 60, from 62? Just because something is popular doesn't mean it's fiscally realistic, long term. Ask Greeks about how much misery they got out of their system. Commented Feb 12, 2023 at 22:17
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    For sources saying that the pensions' system is sustainable, look for the Conseil d'Orientation des Retraites, or for Michael Zemmour, who openly say that, and a lot of people are convinced by them - which is what the question is about, whether they're right or not is irrelevant. So are the different ages of retirement : different job sectors obtained different gains, and ripping that off (be it fair or not, which is not the point) will cause backlash and strikes. The coal hoax doesn't have anything to do with this either. Commented Feb 13, 2023 at 11:15
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    The right doesn't "secretly" want to take down the retirements system, they do this quite openly, what I'm saying is that reformers often pretend they're fixing specific problems while defending the same "solutions" when said problems aren't there. That's something widely interpreted as hypocrisy, which moves a lot of people to rise against the reform. The point is what the forces for and against the reform are, not whether they're right or wrong - that's not what PoliticsSE is for. Commented Feb 13, 2023 at 11:20
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica Most western countries are very economically right wing by the standards of the last 100 years. Stating that a bunch of countries tacking to the right economically have moved retirement age in a direction that the right wing prefers isn't evidence it is required. What is true is that raising the retirement age is cheaper than not, and that the political power of unretired people on this issue isn't as strong as where the money saved could be spent elsewhere.
    – Yakk
    Commented Feb 13, 2023 at 15:31

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