The coming days promise to be eventful. On January 10, the government presented its pension reform. Text with high explosive potential: the unions are unanimous against it, and according to the polls published so far, the French are suspicious of it. According to an Ipsos poll published on January 7, 79% of French people oppose the postponement of the statutory retirement age.
Raymond Suby, Nicolas Sarkozy’s former social adviser, is quite pessimistic. The president of the consulting company Alixio is a consummate specialist in sensitive texts. In 2010, he was on the manoeuvre, when the then-pension reform was passed, which brought the age of majority from 60 to 62. How do we manage to carry out a reform of this magnitude without a major social crisis? Interview.
L’Express: In a recent interview with AFP, Edouard Philippe let it slip: “The British have Ireland, the Americans have weapons, we have pensions.” Do you share this observation?
Raymond Subi: As in other countries, we have a main problem – generation imbalance. We, especially in Europe, have a demographic imbalance. Since the active pay for the inactive, the system is necessarily unbalanced. This situation is not limited to France. So, unlike Edouard Philippe, I would say that pensions are not only our problem. Reform projects were put forward in Germany, Italy, and others.
If you look back, you will notice that the topic of pensions is not new. In his white paper in 1991, Michel Rocard already spoke of this generational imbalance. The first major reform carried out by Edouard Balladur in 1993 was the extension of the contribution period to 40 years. Then there was the second reform by François Fillon in 2003, the third by Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010, the fourth by Marisol Touraine in 2014. All these texts were parametric measures, which consisted in restoring the financial balance. There are not a thousand ways to achieve this goal: you need to either reduce, as some suggest, labor pensions, or increase contributions, or shift the age. There is no way out of this triangle. Therefore, we have been carrying out pension reforms for more than thirty years, which are sometimes associated with age – as in the case of Nicolas Sarkozy – sometimes with the period of payment of contributions. This is nothing new for our landscape.
Did he not talk more about opposition to reforms than about the reforms themselves?
Indeed, there is a French specificity in the reactions caused by the reforms. Some people, for example, advise lowering the superannuation. Let’s dwell on this sentence for a moment: it would mean that people who think they are contributing to their pension, even if they are not, will suddenly see their future pension decrease. Others say companies should pay. But these already have many difficulties in the current times, which are very unpredictable. Finally, the last major reform, a systemic one, was proposed. The latter was to combine all the schemes in such a way that everyone has the same rights for one euro contributed. It was a grandiose reform that cleaned up the past, started too quickly, without sufficient preparation, which had to be interrupted. Therefore, I believe that the solution recommended today is the least bad one.
How to compose a text of this scale? The unions have already unanimously declared that they are against it.
All unions most of the time, and this for 35 years, opposed any pension reform. If we listened to them, there would be no reform. I don’t think we can have wiggle room on their side. What are the risks of the operation? There is the most classic, these are special diets. The first measures to adjust the special regimes to the general regime took place in 2007, then in 2010. But we are still far from the goal, and their regime is still much more favorable. From there, we’re going to cancel the special modes to move their agents to general mode? Emmanuel Macron gave the answer. This is out of the question in this five-year period.
However, do you think that special diets are really a risk factor for this reform…
Yes, because the idea now is not to cancel the special regimes, but to correct them. If we are forcing private sector workers to work longer hours and asking them for a longer contribution period, then it is only logical, in fairness, to ask special programs workers to put in a little effort, but without linking them directly to the general system. This measure is currently in the draft of the government and is likely to force them to react.
Firstly, because special regimes always reacted to their resignation, because they considered it an acquired advantage for history, for the difficulty of their activity. This is the identity factor. Then, because it should be clear that many of these houses, SNCF and RATP in particular, are on another formidable front today: the competitive front. Metro lines, bus lines, railway lines will leave RATP and SNCF and go to competitors. Of course, this has nothing to do with pensions, but the climate adds to the difficulties. For employees of special schemes, this is an attack on their personality. This is the end of the great unity. That is why today they may be on a war footing. These added elements mean that if there is a risk to pensions, it will undoubtedly come from special schemes in the first place.
What do you think about how the reform was introduced by the current executive branch?
One of the big problems that Emmanuel Macron is facing today is the inopportuneness. Three months ago, he thought about carrying out this reform with the first text to be submitted to the National Assembly from 49-3. This did not happen because François Bayrou was against it and the Prime Minister was not happy. But, as Monsieur de La Palis would say, if the president did it … It would be up to him!
Instead, Emmanuel Macron opened a consultation period. At the moment this does nothing for the trade unions, but allows for political negotiations with LR. This is not a trifle, while the President’s party is in the minority in the Assembly. The idea of forming a political majority around his reform makes sense to him. However, he is on the verge of success. His reform can take place thanks to the support of a large part of the Republicans.
Earlier you spoke about the issue of temporality. What do you think about this from the communication of the executive branch? Was she right?
The President of the Republic made a small mistake related to shortening the path. He said that this reform would finance other expenses. No one really understood that he was making an ellipse, simply saying that if we delay the retirement age, then the employment rate of the oldest will increase. And that if the employment rate rises, activity in general becomes more positive, which leads to an increase in tax and social receipts. It’s a roundabout way of reasoning that served him a bit.
Further, the topic of pensions is so complex that we must constantly rely on the very strong and indisputable idea of demographic imbalance. To say that we must take this into account, to point out that the situation has changed, that we are no longer in the baby boom years at all. To sum up, one should always repeat the same argument, and not have several more or less scientific arguments that no one understands anymore.
Let’s look at the precedent of Edouard Balladur’s pension reform. Launched in August, no problems. In 1995, Alain Juppe accomplished the feat of not having a reform project – he just said he was thinking about it – and getting most of the public transport running. Finally, you have Sarkozy’s 2010 reform. At the time, the method followed by Nicolas Sarkozy was to say, “Age 62, kids, you can tell me what you want, I won’t move.” He didn’t move from beginning to end, and this had the paradoxical consequence of defusing the movements.
Poll after poll shows that the French are strongly opposed to this reform. Does it bother you?
French opinion today is subject to many irritants. Today, rising prices are more annoying than a pension plan that will be in place for the next ten years. There were also Christmas strikes. You also have irritants about the threats currently looming over the economy. Therefore, the French are worried, and not only about pensions. They should not be a detonator that would serve as a catalyst for other anger.
That being said – and I could be wrong – I think another issue will be difficult and probably more complex than the issue of pensions: wage negotiations in 2023. Tensions on this issue between companies and unions are growing. , and I think that this needs to be watched no less than the case of pensions.
You mentioned the strike movement in December. It was initially launched by a group of controllers outside the traditional unions. Is this element a point of interest for you?
This is a very important point, because it concerns the issue of dialogue with trade unions. This has been relaxed in recent years. This is connected not only with the will of the President of the Republic, but also with the position of the trade unions themselves. When you look at the Cevipof polls for ten years, you will see that the attitude of the French towards trade unions has fallen sharply, as well as towards politicians. They do not have the influence on French society that they had ten years ago. When you talk to union leaders in companies, many will tell you that it is difficult for them to find successors. The younger generation is no longer aspiring to union positions. This is not very timely, and they come out of it weakened. Add to this the development of autonomous movements outside the control of the unions…
Since 2010, something else has changed: the appearance of black blocks. This is the focus! In 2010, we had three monstrous demonstrations that attracted over a million people. But these mobilizations were peaceful. The people walked peacefully. The emergence of black blocs in 2015-2016 changed the face of the demonstrations, making them a risk factor in their own right. Their progress could create a problem that didn’t exist in 2010.