Yesterday, the French prime minister gave a major speech about the government's plans to deal with the crisis. According to an editorial in the left-leaning Paris newspaper Libération, he ventured into controversial territory and has made the situation even worse. When he was running for election in 2017, French president Macron (who appoints the prime minister) promised that he wouldn't raise the current retirement age, which is 62. Here's a translation of the editorial:
Let's salute this tour de force. Yesterday Prime Minister Edouard Philippe gave a major speech in an attempt to calm the ongoing strikes against government-proposed pension plan reforms. He has succeeded only in uniting everyone against the government. His goal was to resolve the conflict that is paralyzing the the national railways, only to see it now double in intensity. He wanted to divide and conquer the subway drivers, but now they are more united against him than ever. He sought to reassure teachers, but they're even more uneasy and anxious. He thought he could make a separate deal with hospital workers; instead, they've joined the movement against the government's plans. He reached out to white collar workers for support, and now they will be demonstrating next week as well. He moved to exempt the police from the planned pension reforms — now they plan to take an even harder line against his proposals.Meanwhile, a fairly big wind- and rainstorm is moving in off the Atlantic today. We will probably be closing shutters and staying in except for the mandatory walks with the dog. I have a pot of beans cooking on the stove for our lunch and I'll make a big salad. Hang on tight.
The prime minister thought he might be able to win neutrality from two of the country's major labor unions. One of them has now said that it is determined to prolong the strike, and the leader of the second stormed out, furious. What a stellar success! The prime minister had warned he could not perform miracles. In fact, he actually performed one: he turned the white flag of surrender into a bloody-red rag.
How did this happen? As I wrote last Tuesday, the main mistake the prime minister needed to avoid was mixing together wide-ranging social and government reforms with short-term economic measures. Instead of avoiding that trap, Edouard Philippe fell right into it. After enumerating a series of changes to already announced government plans that he thought would reassure workers in one group or another — some of his concessions were significant, which shows strikers that their movement is working — he insisted on the idea based on a "pivotal age" that he is now calling an "equilibrium" age for retirees. From here on out, workers will have to stay on the job until age 64 if they want to retire with a full pension. According to the prime minister, people who leave the work force earlier will get a reduced retirement pension, and those who stay longer will get a bigger pension. For him, this is the only logical plan. For the unions, it is the kind of slip of the tongue that reveals the government's real intentions and sends union members and leaders into bouts of apoplexy.
In the current battle, the labor leader who was the government's only possible ally issued only this terse reaction: "A red line has been crossed." Edouard Philippe says that "the door is open" and that "his hand is outstretched." Nevertheless, the door seems to have slammed shut, the outstretched hand has gone limp, and, in all likelihood, commuters and other transit users will still be hoofing it next week.