Angry French pensioners revolt over hike in social contributions payments

French pensioners held nationwide protests on Thursday over a recent rise in a levy imposed on them to fund the country’s social security system, and which for many represents a yearly loss of several hundred euros. The demonstrations were organised by a united front of pensioners’ unions, who dismiss the government’s argument that the rise is necessary to finance a reduction in social security payments by young workers, what it calls a gesture of “inter-generational solidarity”. While the pensioners’ protest movement shows no signs of abating, some MPs among the ranks of Macron’s normally loyal LREM party have begun voicing their unease over the measure. Manuel Jardinaud, Mathilde Goanec and Romaric Godin report.   

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Under rain and occasional thunder storms, thousands of pensioners took to the streets in Paris and several towns across France on Thursday to protest at cuts in net pension payments, notably following an increase introduced earlier this year on a social security levy that affects all but the lowest pensions.

The generalised social contribution (la contribution sociale généralisée), or CSG, introduced in 1991, is a payment imposed on income earners to help fund France’s indebted social security system, and in January this year President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist government raised by one quarter (1.7%) the CSG levy on pensions equal or above 1,289 euros per month. The government has argued that the CSG hike for pensioners is necessary to offset its introduction of a 3% reduction in social security payments made by young workers, what it describes as "inter-generational solidarity" to give those starting out more purchasing power.

Meanwhile, planned measures which would have in part compensated the loss of income for pesnioners have been postponed and diluted, such as an exoneration of local housing tax for 80% of households.

For a vast number of pensioners receiving middle retirement income, the increase in the CSG payments will represent a loss of around 400 euros per year, and the widespread anger over the move was witnessed in the joint call for the demonstration on Thursday led by nine different union organisations representing pensioners. That united front is the first social movement of its kind since Macron arrived in office last May, and is in stark contrast to the failure of French trades unions to agree a common platform against labour law reforms introduced last autumn.

 “We’re told about the abolition of the housing tax to compensate for the rise in the CSG, but it has strictly nothing to do with it,” commented Michel Salingue, general secretary of one of the pensioners’ unions, the FGR-FP. “The end of the housing tax is a measure that concerns everyone, without taking into consideration that the end of that tax will result in fewer services [managed] by local authorities who will be deprived of it, and so [also] for users. So it’s all window dressing.”

“The average pension in France is 1,300 euros per month, and of course less for women,” added Salingue. “A number of them live below the poverty line. We will never be able to catch up on what’s taken away from us through a supposed rise in spending power, because our pensions are not indexed alongside salaries, like before, but against the evolution of prices.”

The organisations representing pensioners have so far been invited for discussions only by the health and social solidarity minister, Agnès Buzyn. Members of Macron’s ruling LREM party underline that the CSG rise was detailed in the president’s election campaign manifesto.

“I know I’m asking for an effort from the most elderly, that occasionally some express anger, that it doesn’t make one popular, but I take on the responsibility,” said Macron during a visit to Châlons-en-Champagne, in north-east France earlier this month, when he encountered a small group of angry pensioners during a walk through the town. Speaking on condition his name is withheld, one of the president’s close entourage said,” We think the [rise of the] CSG will be acceptable in the end”, adding: “When you know how to explain things, you can move against the tide of public opinion.”

But during another trip he made to Tours, in centre-west France, on Wednesday, Macron was again met by pensioners expressing dismay at the move (see video below, in French only), who appeared little convinced by his arguments, in which he underlined that the rise in pensioners’ contributions allowed for an inverse reduction in social security payments for wage earners, and notably younger, lower-paid employees.

“You have worked all your life to pay the pensions of your elders,” he told a small group of pensioners. “I have a lot of respect for elderly people, and all those who are retired, but I have to put the country’s economy back on the move […] For all those who work, they must earn more from work, that it picks up quicker, so that they can pay you a pension.”

“I ask you for a little effort to help me relaunch the economy and the active [population],” he added.

"We've worked all our life, we're not happy": pensioners tackle President Emmanuel Macron during his visit to Tours on March 14th. © BFMTV

Meanwhile, the staggered reduction in employees' social security contributions, which will be fully in place in October, will however be offset, in terms of immediate spending power, by the introduction in January 2019 of a generalised ‘pay as you earn’ system of income tax, which will be deducted from salaries on a monthly basis instead of the current once per year payment of income tax.

The anger among pensioners is further fuelled by recent reforms easing taxes on the most wealthy, such as the recalculation of the wealth “solidarity” tax, the ISF, as a tax on property value alone, and which no longer includes financial assets. In short, the argument, as set out by Macron in the filmed encounter with pensioners in Tours, that the retired should accept the rise in the CSG in solidarity to help younger generations, is regarded by some, as expressed above by union official Michel Salingue, as “window dressing” to mask the new shortfall in tax payments by the rich.   

Macron’s ruling LREM party leader, Christophe Castaner, who is also a junior minister for government relations with parliament, tackled on Wednesday in the lower house, the National Assembly, about the government’s policies regarding the redistribution of purchasing power, said: “The French people have voted in the elections. The president was elected on a clear contract [of policies which were] announced during a meeting on December 10th 2016, and this was never hidden.” Castaner was referring to Macron’s first major public meeting at the start of his election campaign.

On Thursday, as the pensioners took to the streets, Castaner released a long statement entitled “The inter-generational solidarity to support the working generation”, in which he repeated the arguments developed by Macron and his government over recent weeks. “While employment gets going again,” he wrote, referring to the recent fall in jobless numbers in France, “the government has decided to strongly support workers’ purchasing power. This support is funded most largely by the better management of public spending, but also, as Emmanuel Macron announced during his [election] campaign, thanks to the contribution at the beginning of this year of a section of pensioners who pay the rate of CSG”. Castaner added his “sincere” thanks to “all pensioners”.  

At stake also for the government is that the retired population in France represent a significant electorate, and which made up an estimated 25% of all those who voted in favour of Macron during the first round of the presidential elections last year, and 27% of those who chose him in the second round over far-right leader Marine Le Pen. In that final round last May, an estimated 65% of voters aged over 65 chose Macron.

Among the ranks of LREM Members of Parliament (MPs), even some of the most loyal admit to a failure in the government’s public presentation of the CSG hike for pensioners. “This measure was part of what we put forward during the [June 2017 parliamentary election] campaign, I’m convinced it’s a good measure,” said LREM MP Yaël Braun-Pivet, who heads the National Assembly law commission, but adding that the public argumentation “could have been better”.

Another LREM MP, Guillaume Chiche, agreed, saying that while he was in favour of the “inter-generational solidarity” demanded of pensioners, “the message is not easy to carry”, adding that in face of the protests, “We’re eager for the time to pass”. His LREM colleague Pierre Person, a Paris MP who was one of the first to rally behind Macron in his presidential bid, admitted the apparent contradictions perceived by public opinion over the government’s policy strategies. “When one angles a policy line on [attracting] investment, it’s difficult afterwards to talk about purchasing power,” he said.

But LREM MP Naïma Moutchou was more direct in her reservations over the pensions issue, revealing that “MPs have raised this failure within the [parliamentary] group”, adding: “This failure, I believe it actually exists not only in terms of communications.” One of the LREM parliamentary group’s spokesmen, Gilles Le Gendre, admitted that it was necessary to “explain the weakness of the measure”, implying that beyond questions over its presentation it was intrinsically unjust.  

For Michel Salingue, leader of the FGR-FP pensioners’ union, the move is more than simply unjust. “This manner of treating pensioners is scandalous,” he said. “That’s also what makes us react so sharply. We are ‘privileged’, a ‘golden generation’. Yes, we have more wealth than a 25-year-old youngster, but we have worked all our lives to pay for it, the house.”

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  • The French version of this article can be found here.

 

English version by Graham Tearse

 

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