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Is Macron ready for a street fight? The petulant nation is resistant to pension reform

Non. Says Paris. Credit: Julien Mattia/Anadolu Agency/ Getty

Non. Says Paris. Credit: Julien Mattia/Anadolu Agency/ Getty


January 23, 2023   7 mins

“Will you still need me, will you still feed me
When I’m sixty-four.”

How many French people does it take to re-write the lyrics of a Beatles song? Answer: One million.

That was the combined size of the crowds which filled the streets of towns and cities across France last Thursday. Their message to President Emmanuel Macron was roughly as follows: “Do you really still need me (to work), will you still bleed me, when I’m 64?”

The size of the demonstrations took the government and its internal security services by surprise. The marches were especially large in the mid-sized, provincial towns where trades’ unions appeals for “manifs” (demos) and nationwide strikes usually go disregarded.

Unlike the atypical and unstructured Gilets Jaunes protests of 2018-9, this was an old-fashioned revolt led by the trades’ unions. Unlike any such protest for more than a decade, all eight of the French trades’ union federations took part.

Another day of nationwide strikes and marches has been called for a week on Tuesday. Battle-lines are being drawn for the biggest and most disruptive government versus union confrontation in France since 1995.

The issue back then was broadly the same as now — social security and pension reform. The unions triumphed. President Jacques Chirac capitulated after three weeks. Will President Emmanuel Macron also be forced to back down?

Some of his officials and supporters have been rattled by the size of Thursday’s marches. The President is right, they whisper, but he has failed to persuade the country. You cannot change a querulous nation like France against its will — even if the change is for its own good. Au contraire, say others close to the President. France is always reformed against its will. Protest is a national ritual. Future generations will thank Macron for leaving the country stronger than he found it. Maybe. In the meantime, grinding confrontation is inevitable. Compromise appears impossible; neither side can afford to lose.

Defeat for Macron would leave him, aged 45, a domestic lame duck for the remaining four years of his second mandate and the last four years of his political career. Defeat for the union federations, after years of declining membership and influence, would mark the end of their power as an organised — or even disorganised — force in French life. What displaces them might look more like the Gilet Jaunes movement: angry, chaotic and violent at the edges.

But was this confrontation really necessary now, when war is raging 1,500 miles to the east and Scholz is in town to dicusss it, when inflation is booming, and when tempers are still stretched by the Covid pandemic?

Macron has good reason to want to reform the muddled and often unfair French pensions system. He is right that French people must work longer if they want to maintain the strength of their economy and their generous (for some) welfare system, pensions included. One in four of France’s population of 68,000,000 is retired. Unless the state pension system changes, there will be only six French workers to support five pensioners by the middle of this century.

To face this challenge, most other developed countries have raised the legal retirement age to 65, even to 67. Macron is publishing detailed legislation to shift France’s official retirement age from 62 to 64 over six years. It is due to be enacted in March and go ahead from September. If the reforms go through, French people will still retire earlier in 2030 than Britons, Germans, Belgians, Italian, the Spanish or the Americans do now.

But while the argument for reforming the pension system is strong; the argument for doing so immediately is weaker. The Covid pandemic killed so many old people that the system is, for the time being, in reasonable balance between pension payments and monthly contributions by workers and their employers. That balance will be lost in the years ahead but only gradually.

Macron’s reasons for pushing ahead now are partly political. He promised a radical but painless pension reform when he was first elected in 2017 but withdrew his complex and much-hated package of changes when Covid struck in 2020. A second attempt at pensions reform was the headline proposal of a mostly unmemorable Macron re-election platform last year. He won in April but lost his parliamentary majority in June. If he abandons pension reform again, what will he do in his second term?

There is also another reason for rapid action which dares not speak its name: money.

The reform should save Euros 100bn in state or tax-payer top-ups to a loss-making state pension system over a decade. Without the changes, it will be difficult for Macron to reduce France’s annual budget deficit to the 3% of GDP which is the official limit for countries which use the Euro. France’s deficit will be 5% of GDP this year. Macron has pledged to hit the 3% target by 2027. But this is not an argument that is used publicly. Increasing the pension age to please Brussels does not play well through the country.

In fact, there is even more taxpayers’ money at stake.

France has no private pension schemes or individual pension pots. All but the very richest people depend on the state pension system for their old age. In theory, payments to the retired are matched by the contributions of active workers and their employers in each of 42 different state regimes — whether for rail workers, the self-employed, farmers, lawyers, Paris Opera ballet dancers etc.

Some of these regimes are roughly in balance. But the generous pension provisions for state employees – including retirement in their late-50s for rail workers and pensions of 75% of final year pay for all state-sector workers – are catastrophically and permanently in the red.

The shortfall of around Euros 30bn a year is paid by the national government (ie the taxpayer) on top of its normal contributions as an employer. This has become so accepted that it is never mentioned as part of the overall, annual pension “deficit”.

This permanent drain on French state spending is equivalent to more than half the country’s annual defence budget. Macron’s reform would not end such losses overnight but would free a few useful billions for more constructive spending and for deficit reduction.

As a political argument, though, it’s pretty taboo. Reducing taxes is always portrayed in France as a “policy for the rich”. So the President is peddling another line. France can no longer afford to work less than its EU partners or international competitors. According to an OECD study, France worked 630 hours a year per inhabitant in 2018, including children and the retired. Germany worked 722 hours per inhabitant; the UK 808 hours, and the USA 826. This is partly because of the 35-hour-week and unemployment but also because of the early retirement age.

The trades’ union response to these arguments is a mixture of reasonable fact and obfuscation. France’s real average retirement age is already 62.9, they point out (true). Some people already have to wait until they are 67 to claim a full pension (also true). Any increase in the official retirement age would disproportionately punish working-class people because they start work young, while the middle classes are studying (true but addressed in part in the small print of the reform).

The pension deficit could be made up in other ways, the unions say, by higher monthly contributions from workers and their bosses or by a levy on high pensions. That would work, for a while. It would also increase the jobs-destroying, pay-roll tax burden in one of the highest-taxed countries in the world

The present system is often unjust to women, farmers, the self-employed and to the employees in the private sector generally. If you work for a private company, rather than the state, your pension is 50% of average earnings in your best 25 years, compared with 75% of final salary for state employees.

And private-sector employees pay not only their own pension contributions but, as already mentioned, subsidise the pensions of state worker through their taxes.

Obviously, the unions have no reason to draw attention to this anomaly. Their waning support is heavily concentrated in the state sector. And the big marches and strikes last week were dominated by public employees, from rail workers to teachers. There were few big strikes in private enterprise — but a surprising number of private industry employees joined the provincial marches.

Macron and his government for some reason have chosen so far not to try to exploit this potential private-public divide. Perhaps they would rather sell it as something uniformly positive, rather not divide and rule. That may yet change.

The unions also have to be careful what they do next. Militant voices are calling for open-ended rail strikes, cuts in electricity supplies and blockages of petrol refineries. But the national union leadership fears that such a hard-ball strategy would turn public opinion against them, not against Macron.

Seen from abroad, there is something demographically and economically irrational about the French aversion to an advance in the retirement age from 62 to 64 by 2030. Irrational or not, the opposition to pension reform is deep and passionate. Up to 70% of people tell pollsters they see no reason to work longer. And as the pro-government politician Jean-Louis Bourlanges points out: “Opinions may be mistaken but the fact that millions of people hold those opinions remains a political fact.”

French people are not lazy. Those who work do so very productively. But much of the country has a kind of teenaged relationship with the state — a blend of petulant rejection and needy dependency. There is a constant demand for “change” but an opposition to all changes. Presidents are elected to get stuff done but, once elected, are resisted. The “street” counts more than in almost any other large democracy.

So what next? Despite his lack of a parliamentary majority, Macron has a reasonable chance of pushing the reform through the national assembly in March. The centre-right Les RĂ©publicains, who hold 62 swing votes, are, in theory, in favour. The final version of the proposed reform, with 64 as the new retirement age, not 65 as originally suggest by Macron – was partly shaped by them. However, the prospect of a two-month long battle with the “street” and unions is causing some centre-right deputies and even some pro-Macron parliamentarians to have cold feet.

Macron and his Prime Minister, Elisabeth Borne, could use their emergency constitutional power to ram through the reform by decree if necessary. But that would doubtless cause more strikes and, possibly, street violence.

Macron has the casting vote. The decision on whether or not to bow to public anger will be his. He is, by all accounts, determined not to be a “second Chirac”.  And paradoxically, the intensity of the opposition could allow him to appear (abroad at any rate) as a courageous and resolute leader after enacting what is, in all truth, a modest reform.

He knows that if he blinks he faces a lonely and empty final four years in the Elysée Palace.

So will he blink? Probably not.

 


John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.

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Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 year ago

For sixty years after WWII the French paid for their lifestyle by taxing their neighbours through instruments like the CAP and Target 2. Now we’ve opted out and the Germans can’t afford it any more. Too bad.

Matt M
Matt M
1 year ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

The Germans rely on the US for defence, Russia for energy, China for exports and the other EU countries to keep its currency cheap.
We have seen their debacle on defence and obviously their energy policy has been a disaster. China is in real trouble and the other EU countries, including France, rely on Germany for their exports and for bail-outs.
Trouble ahead I think!

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

Bang on, Hugh. They only allowed us in the EU to subsidise their farmers. The fact that we’re not going to be around (I hope we don’t get caught up in small print here now we’ve “left”) to underwrite their unfunded pension liabilities (which are massive compared to our own huge liabilities) is just one of many reasons they’re fuming about Brexit.
I worked in France for a few years in the mid 90s. The industrial relations and strikes felt just like Britain in the 1970s. Some industries almost had scheduled strikes every year. As far as I can see, very little’s changed.

Matt M
Matt M
1 year ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

The Germans rely on the US for defence, Russia for energy, China for exports and the other EU countries to keep its currency cheap.
We have seen their debacle on defence and obviously their energy policy has been a disaster. China is in real trouble and the other EU countries, including France, rely on Germany for their exports and for bail-outs.
Trouble ahead I think!

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

Bang on, Hugh. They only allowed us in the EU to subsidise their farmers. The fact that we’re not going to be around (I hope we don’t get caught up in small print here now we’ve “left”) to underwrite their unfunded pension liabilities (which are massive compared to our own huge liabilities) is just one of many reasons they’re fuming about Brexit.
I worked in France for a few years in the mid 90s. The industrial relations and strikes felt just like Britain in the 1970s. Some industries almost had scheduled strikes every year. As far as I can see, very little’s changed.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 year ago

For sixty years after WWII the French paid for their lifestyle by taxing their neighbours through instruments like the CAP and Target 2. Now we’ve opted out and the Germans can’t afford it any more. Too bad.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 year ago

Intersecting article. You would think Macron would focus reform on public sector pensions – something that is obviously unfair to the private sector. Puzzling.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

We have very similar problems with over 50% of the population now receiving more from the state than they pay in tax.
https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-11665761/Covid-convinced-Brits-Tories-claim.html

Andrew Martin
Andrew Martin
1 year ago

A very interesting analysis made by Rachel Rickard Straus in the MOS. Looks like something is going to hit the fan here too.
https://www.thisismoney.co.uk/money/comment/article-11660987/RACHEL-RICKARD-STRAUS-Goodbye-triple-lock-doubt-itll-stay.html

Andrew Martin
Andrew Martin
1 year ago

A very interesting analysis made by Rachel Rickard Straus in the MOS. Looks like something is going to hit the fan here too.
https://www.thisismoney.co.uk/money/comment/article-11660987/RACHEL-RICKARD-STRAUS-Goodbye-triple-lock-doubt-itll-stay.html

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Well, he’s a French public servant and on the gold-plated pension scheme himself …

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter B

Time perhaps for a “Day of the Jackal”?

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter B

Time perhaps for a “Day of the Jackal”?

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

We have very similar problems with over 50% of the population now receiving more from the state than they pay in tax.
https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-11665761/Covid-convinced-Brits-Tories-claim.html

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Well, he’s a French public servant and on the gold-plated pension scheme himself …

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
1 year ago

Intersecting article. You would think Macron would focus reform on public sector pensions – something that is obviously unfair to the private sector. Puzzling.

Malcolm Webb
Malcolm Webb
1 year ago

Excellent article. Informative and thought provoking. I really liked the reference to “a teenaged relationship with the State”. That phrase captures so much of what is wrong in current political “discourse” over there – and let’s not kid ourselves, over here too.

Malcolm Webb
Malcolm Webb
1 year ago

Excellent article. Informative and thought provoking. I really liked the reference to “a teenaged relationship with the State”. That phrase captures so much of what is wrong in current political “discourse” over there – and let’s not kid ourselves, over here too.

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
1 year ago

He blinked last time. He is already a lame duck. Even my parents’ friends who voted for him in both rounds say he has lost the plot. Cosying up to to the Germans hasn’t gone down well, french power slipping further down the European pecking order after his botched Ukraine intervention, debacles in French Africa, French arms humiliated by the AUKUS u-turn etc. It is a lesson for those here who want a republican system. Far more likely to be disfunctional than someone who at least needs to keep the support of half+1 of their parliamentary colleagues.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago
Reply to  Milton Gibbon

What has how the Head of State is selected got to do with it? I’m not sure the chaotic and incompetent British governments of the last few years (to my regret) exactly provide strong evidence for your thesis!

The Americans also have a Republican system and elected President. Whatever there many many current problems and divisions are, they are very different from the ones the French have.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

But Presidents in both countries are essentially appointed by the bankers.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

Money Lenders NOT Bankers please!
Let’s get back to basics and call “a spade a spade”?

Andrew Holmes
Andrew Holmes
1 year ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

I read this kind of comment and wonder if I’m not getting the joke.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

Money Lenders NOT Bankers please!
Let’s get back to basics and call “a spade a spade”?

Andrew Holmes
Andrew Holmes
1 year ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

I read this kind of comment and wonder if I’m not getting the joke.

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

The fact that there is a presidential elecion where two unpopular candidates are put head to head (in the last 3 out of 5 it has been Le Pen vs. Someone else similarly unpopular) is a farce of democratic will especially when combined with the cordon sanitaire. To pretend that British foreign policy has been handled as badly as Macron is just wilful denial while on the domestic side the lack of political will to push through small reform to pensions is striking. Remember the WASPI women and how little traction they got despite prominent backing by Labour in 2017/2019? Brexit has been handled badly but (a bit like Covid) has been forced upon the political class so I find it harder to blame them than in other things.

I think the astonishing unpopularity of both the last two presidents (with the inability to change them, unlike in Britain) makes my case in the American system as well.

Last edited 1 year ago by Milton Gibbon
Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  Milton Gibbon

You’re correct about the WASPI, but I think the main reason that they failed was they had very little support from the women affected. I was affected, my pension was deferred for three years, and. whilst it’s always annoying to lose money, we were given quite a bit of notice that it was going to happen; it wasn’t as if you were expecting to retire next week and suddenly you had to work an extra five years, I remember when it was announced all the women that I knew who were affected just said “d*mn”, shrugged their shoulders and got back to work. It was never a popular cause, so not many were eager to take to the streets.

Matt M
Matt M
1 year ago

I like to think I’m pretty clued-up about British politics but I had to look up “WASPI women” and now that I have, I can’t remember ever having heard about it before. So, as Milton says, not a huge amount of popular traction.

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago

Part of the problem with the WASPI case was that they were complaining about still getting earlier retirement than men. And they did – as you say – have notice about the changes. Ridiculous really. It got plenty of publicity – and I think far more than it deserved. There are far bigger issues with pensions than the WASPI stuff that need dealing with first.

Matt M
Matt M
1 year ago

I like to think I’m pretty clued-up about British politics but I had to look up “WASPI women” and now that I have, I can’t remember ever having heard about it before. So, as Milton says, not a huge amount of popular traction.

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago

Part of the problem with the WASPI case was that they were complaining about still getting earlier retirement than men. And they did – as you say – have notice about the changes. Ridiculous really. It got plenty of publicity – and I think far more than it deserved. There are far bigger issues with pensions than the WASPI stuff that need dealing with first.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 year ago
Reply to  Milton Gibbon

I think the American system is quite a different animal actually. The American system is the wild wild west compared to Europe. It’s much much easier for someone outside political circles to upset the political apple cart, and that makes it harder for big money oligarchs to completely control the parties, whereas in Europe, it’s nigh impossible for outsider candidates to succeed without conceding a lot of ground to the ‘establishment’. It’s doubtful someone like Trump could come close to power there. Also, the unpopularity of the last two Presidents was for wildly different reasons. Biden is disliked because of his policies and the direction the country has gone while he’s been in office and because he looks like a senile old man half the time. Trump was hated, and still is, because he’s a buffoon who puts combative, ranting, self-congratulatory, sometimes offensive, comments on social media like an attention seeking teenager. Even if things are going pretty well, and by all accounts in 2020 pre-Covid they were, he’s still an embarrassment and a constant source of controversy. Moreover, America’s electorate is highly polarized. About 40% of politically active people will dislike any Democrat and the same percentage will dislike any Republican. Of the remaining 20%, there’s about 10-15%, and I include myself here, who are so disgusted with politics we’d hate most anybody short of a revolutionary like Sanders, with about 5% being the traditional sort of easily satisfied centrist Americans who were so prominent in the 80’s and early 90’s, and who vote more on who they like more personally or who has their preferred take on local issues and that 5% probably decides most competitive elections. Long story short, any approval rating north of 45% is likely to indicate some national tragedy or a war is influencing the numbers. Whether any individual or party can change that dynamic is one of the big questions in American politics at the moment.

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Hard not to sympathise. I don’t know about Europe so much but there isn’t the constant attempts at delegitimising elections here in Britain that seems so toxic for the longevity of the USA. I include in this both Reps and Dems (and conspiracists of neither party) who among other things have gone in for “hanging chads”, birtherism, Russiagate and whatever Trump did at the last election. It is totally unedifying and not something that I could ever really see happening here. Sure some might try to claim that the Tories are evil or that Labour are evil in a different way but at the end of the day it isn’t a question of delegitimising elections to try to win them for your own side. I dread to think what a referendum would do to the USA on changing the voting system to AV nationwide but here hardly anyone remembers that vote for the status quo in 2011.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 year ago
Reply to  Milton Gibbon

The USA couldn’t actually have a national referendum. There’s no mechanism for it in the constitution. The only nationwide elected office is the Presidency and the arcane electoral college system for electing a President is spelled out in the constitution. Today’s heavily modified version of that is still a series of statewide elections in favor of one candidate or the other, with most states using winner take all elections to assign their electoral votes. Even amending the constitution comes down to a series of state by state elections, with 2/3 of the states having to pass an amendment to successfully change the constitution. Amending the constitution is hard. There are 28 amendments. Ten of them were passed with the constitution itself and so bypassed the process by being voted on with the constitution itself. Of the remaining, many are technical/procedural in nature. Only a few, like prohibition and repeal thereof, granting women the vote, abolishing slavery, the income tax, and so forth were issues with everyday impact. The latest amendment was passed in 1992 after being first proposed in 1789. America is not, and never has been, a true national democracy. It’s a representative Republic of smaller democratic states, but few outside the US, and sadly a lot of people inside it as well, realize this. The elections themselves are handled entirely by the states. The USA is more analogous to the EU as a whole than any of its members. That loose and decentralized structure is what allows the USA to function at all in today’s polarized political climate. If the federal government stopped running, things would carry on normally for quite a while simply because there’s almost nothing the federal government does that isn’t handled entirely by the states or duplicated at the state level. I suspect America’s level of political turmoil would cripple most European states internally. Oh, and to address your actual point, aside from the civics lesson. The de-legitimization of elections is a serious problem, but it’s not as new as you think. Look up the corrupt bargain election of 1876. The rhetoric is irresponsible, but there are no truly ‘federal’ elections, so the states are free to, and have, passed their own anti-fraud laws, much to the consternation of the Democratic party. Americans’ distrust and dislike of the federal government doesn’t tend to extend to a similar level of dislike for the state governments. Again, this is what makes the system that looks so dysfunctional to foreigners actually work.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Jolly
Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Great post. I think the major difference between the USA and even smaller european countries is the lack of sustained “separatist” movements. It would be interesting to see if Hawaii or Alaska tried to break away from the Union peacefully would the response be peaceful or not. When a country has been on the up as the USA has been since the Civil War it is easy to paper over the cracks. I am definitely happy that the USA is top dog and the Anglo-US succession of order has had huge benefits for the world that the coming “multi-polar” world will definitely not have. However, the size and diversity of the USA will have negative repercussions for the future. A good example is that southern states already have hispanic majorities (or pluralities) which are growing, just one issue among many. While the USA is top dog and confident in itself that is alright and may even be beneficial but if there are difficult times to come it is likely to be expressed in a less positive way. I have seen in my lifetime how language rights have gone from an outward-looking, eccentric pass-time to a nasty nationalist badge which is weaponised against “outsiders”, even those from within the same nation. I don’t think the majority of US citizens who aren’t hispanic will bother to learn Spanish (most Welsh residents speak no Welsh, Irish residents no Irish and Scots no Scots) and if equal language rights are granted to those states with large Spanish populations – as they should – it would fundamentally alter the governance of those states in the same way it has here in the UK.

Last edited 1 year ago by Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Great post. I think the major difference between the USA and even smaller european countries is the lack of sustained “separatist” movements. It would be interesting to see if Hawaii or Alaska tried to break away from the Union peacefully would the response be peaceful or not. When a country has been on the up as the USA has been since the Civil War it is easy to paper over the cracks. I am definitely happy that the USA is top dog and the Anglo-US succession of order has had huge benefits for the world that the coming “multi-polar” world will definitely not have. However, the size and diversity of the USA will have negative repercussions for the future. A good example is that southern states already have hispanic majorities (or pluralities) which are growing, just one issue among many. While the USA is top dog and confident in itself that is alright and may even be beneficial but if there are difficult times to come it is likely to be expressed in a less positive way. I have seen in my lifetime how language rights have gone from an outward-looking, eccentric pass-time to a nasty nationalist badge which is weaponised against “outsiders”, even those from within the same nation. I don’t think the majority of US citizens who aren’t hispanic will bother to learn Spanish (most Welsh residents speak no Welsh, Irish residents no Irish and Scots no Scots) and if equal language rights are granted to those states with large Spanish populations – as they should – it would fundamentally alter the governance of those states in the same way it has here in the UK.

Last edited 1 year ago by Milton Gibbon
Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 year ago
Reply to  Milton Gibbon

The USA couldn’t actually have a national referendum. There’s no mechanism for it in the constitution. The only nationwide elected office is the Presidency and the arcane electoral college system for electing a President is spelled out in the constitution. Today’s heavily modified version of that is still a series of statewide elections in favor of one candidate or the other, with most states using winner take all elections to assign their electoral votes. Even amending the constitution comes down to a series of state by state elections, with 2/3 of the states having to pass an amendment to successfully change the constitution. Amending the constitution is hard. There are 28 amendments. Ten of them were passed with the constitution itself and so bypassed the process by being voted on with the constitution itself. Of the remaining, many are technical/procedural in nature. Only a few, like prohibition and repeal thereof, granting women the vote, abolishing slavery, the income tax, and so forth were issues with everyday impact. The latest amendment was passed in 1992 after being first proposed in 1789. America is not, and never has been, a true national democracy. It’s a representative Republic of smaller democratic states, but few outside the US, and sadly a lot of people inside it as well, realize this. The elections themselves are handled entirely by the states. The USA is more analogous to the EU as a whole than any of its members. That loose and decentralized structure is what allows the USA to function at all in today’s polarized political climate. If the federal government stopped running, things would carry on normally for quite a while simply because there’s almost nothing the federal government does that isn’t handled entirely by the states or duplicated at the state level. I suspect America’s level of political turmoil would cripple most European states internally. Oh, and to address your actual point, aside from the civics lesson. The de-legitimization of elections is a serious problem, but it’s not as new as you think. Look up the corrupt bargain election of 1876. The rhetoric is irresponsible, but there are no truly ‘federal’ elections, so the states are free to, and have, passed their own anti-fraud laws, much to the consternation of the Democratic party. Americans’ distrust and dislike of the federal government doesn’t tend to extend to a similar level of dislike for the state governments. Again, this is what makes the system that looks so dysfunctional to foreigners actually work.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Jolly
Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
1 year ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Hard not to sympathise. I don’t know about Europe so much but there isn’t the constant attempts at delegitimising elections here in Britain that seems so toxic for the longevity of the USA. I include in this both Reps and Dems (and conspiracists of neither party) who among other things have gone in for “hanging chads”, birtherism, Russiagate and whatever Trump did at the last election. It is totally unedifying and not something that I could ever really see happening here. Sure some might try to claim that the Tories are evil or that Labour are evil in a different way but at the end of the day it isn’t a question of delegitimising elections to try to win them for your own side. I dread to think what a referendum would do to the USA on changing the voting system to AV nationwide but here hardly anyone remembers that vote for the status quo in 2011.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 year ago
Reply to  Milton Gibbon

You’re correct about the WASPI, but I think the main reason that they failed was they had very little support from the women affected. I was affected, my pension was deferred for three years, and. whilst it’s always annoying to lose money, we were given quite a bit of notice that it was going to happen; it wasn’t as if you were expecting to retire next week and suddenly you had to work an extra five years, I remember when it was announced all the women that I knew who were affected just said “d*mn”, shrugged their shoulders and got back to work. It was never a popular cause, so not many were eager to take to the streets.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 year ago
Reply to  Milton Gibbon

I think the American system is quite a different animal actually. The American system is the wild wild west compared to Europe. It’s much much easier for someone outside political circles to upset the political apple cart, and that makes it harder for big money oligarchs to completely control the parties, whereas in Europe, it’s nigh impossible for outsider candidates to succeed without conceding a lot of ground to the ‘establishment’. It’s doubtful someone like Trump could come close to power there. Also, the unpopularity of the last two Presidents was for wildly different reasons. Biden is disliked because of his policies and the direction the country has gone while he’s been in office and because he looks like a senile old man half the time. Trump was hated, and still is, because he’s a buffoon who puts combative, ranting, self-congratulatory, sometimes offensive, comments on social media like an attention seeking teenager. Even if things are going pretty well, and by all accounts in 2020 pre-Covid they were, he’s still an embarrassment and a constant source of controversy. Moreover, America’s electorate is highly polarized. About 40% of politically active people will dislike any Democrat and the same percentage will dislike any Republican. Of the remaining 20%, there’s about 10-15%, and I include myself here, who are so disgusted with politics we’d hate most anybody short of a revolutionary like Sanders, with about 5% being the traditional sort of easily satisfied centrist Americans who were so prominent in the 80’s and early 90’s, and who vote more on who they like more personally or who has their preferred take on local issues and that 5% probably decides most competitive elections. Long story short, any approval rating north of 45% is likely to indicate some national tragedy or a war is influencing the numbers. Whether any individual or party can change that dynamic is one of the big questions in American politics at the moment.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

But Presidents in both countries are essentially appointed by the bankers.

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

The fact that there is a presidential elecion where two unpopular candidates are put head to head (in the last 3 out of 5 it has been Le Pen vs. Someone else similarly unpopular) is a farce of democratic will especially when combined with the cordon sanitaire. To pretend that British foreign policy has been handled as badly as Macron is just wilful denial while on the domestic side the lack of political will to push through small reform to pensions is striking. Remember the WASPI women and how little traction they got despite prominent backing by Labour in 2017/2019? Brexit has been handled badly but (a bit like Covid) has been forced upon the political class so I find it harder to blame them than in other things.

I think the astonishing unpopularity of both the last two presidents (with the inability to change them, unlike in Britain) makes my case in the American system as well.

Last edited 1 year ago by Milton Gibbon
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago
Reply to  Milton Gibbon

What has how the Head of State is selected got to do with it? I’m not sure the chaotic and incompetent British governments of the last few years (to my regret) exactly provide strong evidence for your thesis!

The Americans also have a Republican system and elected President. Whatever there many many current problems and divisions are, they are very different from the ones the French have.

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
1 year ago

He blinked last time. He is already a lame duck. Even my parents’ friends who voted for him in both rounds say he has lost the plot. Cosying up to to the Germans hasn’t gone down well, french power slipping further down the European pecking order after his botched Ukraine intervention, debacles in French Africa, French arms humiliated by the AUKUS u-turn etc. It is a lesson for those here who want a republican system. Far more likely to be disfunctional than someone who at least needs to keep the support of half+1 of their parliamentary colleagues.

Emmanuel MARTIN
Emmanuel MARTIN
1 year ago

French here
The article is quite accurate, and provides an interesting perspective. I would however like to point a few elements not mentioned
1-The French society is fractured in three camps. To oversimplify it, FarLeft, Eurocrats and FarRight. Macron won through a less -than plutrality (which would have been FaRight), but through a second turn majority (FarLeft prefer Eurocrafts to FarRight). Macron has therefore two opposition factions that won’t unite on anything, and therefore has the political and popular support to pass his reform

2- Macron’s reform sucks, but so does doing nothing.French people are aware that the current status quo is insolvent. Better policies would be possible, but so could worse policies (such as inaction)

3- Due to CoviD lockdown experience, the laptop class (who shapes the opinion that matters) is not much inconvenienced by strikes. A journalist in Figaro called strikes a “Trade Union Lockdown”. Trade unions know this, but they have to protest anyway so that they do not appear as betraying their constituents

4- The reform will go through, possibly with a few modifications so that everyone can pretend to have achieved victory. The rest is political kabuki theatre, customary this side of the Channel.

Last edited 1 year ago by Emmanuel MARTIN
TIM HUTCHENCE
TIM HUTCHENCE
1 year ago

I agree with some of your comments and I agree the article was very thought provoking.
Some lazy journalism though – ‘The Covid pandemic killed so many old people that the system is … a reasonable balance between pension payments and monthly contributions by workers and their employers’ – is typical of the prevailing conventional wisdom of crowds. And also wrong.

Last edited 1 year ago by TIM HUTCHENCE
Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago
Reply to  TIM HUTCHENCE

I found that claim that “Covid killed so many old people that the pension funding shortfall was temporarily sorted” (I paraphrase) utterly ludicrous. It didn’t kill that many people. And there’s no way the French pension funding is even close to being sorted.

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago
Reply to  TIM HUTCHENCE

I found that claim that “Covid killed so many old people that the pension funding shortfall was temporarily sorted” (I paraphrase) utterly ludicrous. It didn’t kill that many people. And there’s no way the French pension funding is even close to being sorted.

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago

Some excellent insights and these ring true for me.
Top marks to whoever came up with “Trade Union Lockdown”. Describes it perfectly here too.

TIM HUTCHENCE
TIM HUTCHENCE
1 year ago

I agree with some of your comments and I agree the article was very thought provoking.
Some lazy journalism though – ‘The Covid pandemic killed so many old people that the system is … a reasonable balance between pension payments and monthly contributions by workers and their employers’ – is typical of the prevailing conventional wisdom of crowds. And also wrong.

Last edited 1 year ago by TIM HUTCHENCE
Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago

Some excellent insights and these ring true for me.
Top marks to whoever came up with “Trade Union Lockdown”. Describes it perfectly here too.

Emmanuel MARTIN
Emmanuel MARTIN
1 year ago

French here
The article is quite accurate, and provides an interesting perspective. I would however like to point a few elements not mentioned
1-The French society is fractured in three camps. To oversimplify it, FarLeft, Eurocrats and FarRight. Macron won through a less -than plutrality (which would have been FaRight), but through a second turn majority (FarLeft prefer Eurocrafts to FarRight). Macron has therefore two opposition factions that won’t unite on anything, and therefore has the political and popular support to pass his reform

2- Macron’s reform sucks, but so does doing nothing.French people are aware that the current status quo is insolvent. Better policies would be possible, but so could worse policies (such as inaction)

3- Due to CoviD lockdown experience, the laptop class (who shapes the opinion that matters) is not much inconvenienced by strikes. A journalist in Figaro called strikes a “Trade Union Lockdown”. Trade unions know this, but they have to protest anyway so that they do not appear as betraying their constituents

4- The reform will go through, possibly with a few modifications so that everyone can pretend to have achieved victory. The rest is political kabuki theatre, customary this side of the Channel.

Last edited 1 year ago by Emmanuel MARTIN
Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
1 year ago

Quelle surprise. French trade unions, overwhelmingly represented in the bloated public sector, going on strike to defend their ‘avantages acquis’. Never mind demographics, never mind the Ponzi scheme that is French state pensions, nobody’s going to make me work a day longer to take some of the burden off my kids and grandkids.
Georges Marchais must be spinning in his grave with pleasure at the antics of his dinosaur successors.

Last edited 1 year ago by Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
1 year ago

Quelle surprise. French trade unions, overwhelmingly represented in the bloated public sector, going on strike to defend their ‘avantages acquis’. Never mind demographics, never mind the Ponzi scheme that is French state pensions, nobody’s going to make me work a day longer to take some of the burden off my kids and grandkids.
Georges Marchais must be spinning in his grave with pleasure at the antics of his dinosaur successors.

Last edited 1 year ago by Rocky Martiano
David Ginsberg
David Ginsberg
1 year ago

i was studying in Limoges in 1995 when they had the strikes against the Chirac reforms and the scale of the unrest was quite something. it all happened in the run up to Christmas and all us English students were worried we would get stuck in Limoges for Christmas as the rail,airports and even ferries were due to go on strike. we had to sit an end of term exam which we all skipped in favour of getting the last coach out of Limoges. In scenes reminiscent of the fall of Saigon, over 20 of us took a 14 hour coach and ferry trip back to Victoria courtesy of Eurolines and a couple of very grumpy Yorkshire coach drivers.

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago
Reply to  David Ginsberg

Limoges really isn’t that bad ! I quite like it.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter B

Poitiers is finer architecturally speaking.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter B

Poitiers is finer architecturally speaking.

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago
Reply to  David Ginsberg

Limoges really isn’t that bad ! I quite like it.

David Ginsberg
David Ginsberg
1 year ago

i was studying in Limoges in 1995 when they had the strikes against the Chirac reforms and the scale of the unrest was quite something. it all happened in the run up to Christmas and all us English students were worried we would get stuck in Limoges for Christmas as the rail,airports and even ferries were due to go on strike. we had to sit an end of term exam which we all skipped in favour of getting the last coach out of Limoges. In scenes reminiscent of the fall of Saigon, over 20 of us took a 14 hour coach and ferry trip back to Victoria courtesy of Eurolines and a couple of very grumpy Yorkshire coach drivers.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 year ago

Articles like this remind me that as bad as things seem in the US, Europe has it so much worse. Unions have accomplished a lot of good things in history. They provided a voice for workers when they had none, and the threat of strikes and labor disruptions led to changes that benefited the common man. Unfortunately, the private union born out of the industrialists disregard for the well being and safety of their workers begat the public employees union, a misbegotten half breed representing people’s self-contradictory impulses. That public employees should have more influence over a government which they already have influence over by virtue of the fact they are citizens in representative democratic states, has always seemed irrational. The public employees thus enjoy a sort of double privilege, where they get two bites at the apple, influencing governments through their votes on the one hand and their union dues on the other. I sympathize, however, with workers general discontent with their government broadly. There are other possible courses of action which are, for reasons of elite influence, not even considered. Downward pressures on wages and upwards pressure on retirement ages comes from many quarters. True, demographics is one driver, but the unregulated and unlimited outsourcing of industry to exploited workers in countries with questionable governments and nonexistent environmental and labor standards through free trade laws, which the government of France is, per usual for western governments, failing to address or even acknowledge. The unionists can, and should, remind Macron why unions exist in France and remind everyone of the status of workers in places where there are no unions. Personally, I’m torn. Whether to support the scourge that is the public employee union over perhaps the world’s most obvious and unapologetic globalist stooge, Macron, is quite a dilemma. One can only hope that the two villains inflict as much damage on one another as possible regardless of who wins.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
1 year ago

Articles like this remind me that as bad as things seem in the US, Europe has it so much worse. Unions have accomplished a lot of good things in history. They provided a voice for workers when they had none, and the threat of strikes and labor disruptions led to changes that benefited the common man. Unfortunately, the private union born out of the industrialists disregard for the well being and safety of their workers begat the public employees union, a misbegotten half breed representing people’s self-contradictory impulses. That public employees should have more influence over a government which they already have influence over by virtue of the fact they are citizens in representative democratic states, has always seemed irrational. The public employees thus enjoy a sort of double privilege, where they get two bites at the apple, influencing governments through their votes on the one hand and their union dues on the other. I sympathize, however, with workers general discontent with their government broadly. There are other possible courses of action which are, for reasons of elite influence, not even considered. Downward pressures on wages and upwards pressure on retirement ages comes from many quarters. True, demographics is one driver, but the unregulated and unlimited outsourcing of industry to exploited workers in countries with questionable governments and nonexistent environmental and labor standards through free trade laws, which the government of France is, per usual for western governments, failing to address or even acknowledge. The unionists can, and should, remind Macron why unions exist in France and remind everyone of the status of workers in places where there are no unions. Personally, I’m torn. Whether to support the scourge that is the public employee union over perhaps the world’s most obvious and unapologetic globalist stooge, Macron, is quite a dilemma. One can only hope that the two villains inflict as much damage on one another as possible regardless of who wins.

Last edited 1 year ago by Steve Jolly
G A Braine
G A Braine
1 year ago

There is enough money in the system! Why does everyone have to work till they die, when the elites are worth trillions! Some change is needed.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
1 year ago
Reply to  G A Braine

Work till they die? The average age of mortality in France is 83. I would say a 40 year working life followed by a 20 year retirement is a pretty fair deal.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
1 year ago
Reply to  G A Braine

Work till they die? The average age of mortality in France is 83. I would say a 40 year working life followed by a 20 year retirement is a pretty fair deal.

G A Braine
G A Braine
1 year ago

There is enough money in the system! Why does everyone have to work till they die, when the elites are worth trillions! Some change is needed.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago

The author is not from Stoke-on-Trent you know

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago

Maybe not, but Lichfield is only 23 miles from Stoke-on-Trent, as the crow flies.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

He was BORN in Stoke-on-Trent apparently!*

(* Source:UnHerd blurb.)

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago

No he was born in a nice village outside Stoke-on-Trent

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

Lucky chap! Why can’t UnHerd be accurate?
Thank you.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago

My brother still works in the city. He lives in the beautiful Pennine hills just to the east, close to the village where we were brought up.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago

My brother still works in the city. He lives in the beautiful Pennine hills just to the east, close to the village where we were brought up.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

Lucky chap! Why can’t UnHerd be accurate?
Thank you.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago

No he was born in a nice village outside Stoke-on-Trent

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 year ago

Maybe not, but Lichfield is only 23 miles from Stoke-on-Trent, as the crow flies.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

He was BORN in Stoke-on-Trent apparently!*

(* Source:UnHerd blurb.)

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
1 year ago

The author is not from Stoke-on-Trent you know

jules Ritchie
jules Ritchie
1 year ago

Don’t French employee’s enjoy the benefits of Superannuation as we do here in Oz and many other countries? Why are they so dependent on pensions? Maybe ‘pension’ in France is different to ‘pension’ in Oz. I have to add that we have EFTPOS to withdraw cash when out shopping, which allows us to avoid bank terminals and Europe still hasn’t adopted it.

jules Ritchie
jules Ritchie
1 year ago

Don’t French employee’s enjoy the benefits of Superannuation as we do here in Oz and many other countries? Why are they so dependent on pensions? Maybe ‘pension’ in France is different to ‘pension’ in Oz. I have to add that we have EFTPOS to withdraw cash when out shopping, which allows us to avoid bank terminals and Europe still hasn’t adopted it.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

What the hell has happened to the famed CRS!?

They sorted this nonsense out in ‘short order’ in 1968, even if that bed-wetting spastic, otherwise known as Charles de Gaulle did flee to the French Army in Kaiserslautern, W Germany.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

What the hell has happened to the famed CRS!?

They sorted this nonsense out in ‘short order’ in 1968, even if that bed-wetting spastic, otherwise known as Charles de Gaulle did flee to the French Army in Kaiserslautern, W Germany.