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As U.S. debates social security, Macron increases France’s retirement age

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As U.S. leaders tip-toe around reforms to Social Security, French President Emmanuel Macron is ramming through an unpopular increase to the national retirement age—a move its proponents claim is necessary to save the country’s pension system from insolvency.

On Thursday, Macron invoked a special constitutional power to advance a bill raising the national retirement age from 62 to 64 in an effort to reverse the system’s trend toward bankruptcy, defying hundreds of thousands of protesters and shunning parliament. Some observers believe the decision will trigger a no-confidence motion in Macron’s government.

The developments in France represent a sharp contrast to a similar debate in the United States over reforms to Social Security, a long-standing national pension program that has become something of a “third rail” in American politics.

While most economists—including analysts with the Congressional Budget Office—believe the system is likely to become insolvent by the middle of the next decade, any suggestions of reforms to the system—including raising the age to access pensions—have attracted intense debate ahead of the 2024 presidential elections.

Macron Biden French President Emmanuel Macron and U.S. President Joe Biden (inset) are pictured here against an image of a protester holding a placard reading “People’s 49,3” during a demonstration on Place de la Concorde after the French government pushed a pensions reform through parliament without a vote, using the article 49,3 of the constitution. The developments in France represent a sharp contrast to a similar debate in the United States over reforms to Social Security. Newsweek Photo Illustration/Getty Images/Thomas Samson/Ethan Miller/Kin Cheung

During his State of the Union Address, President Joe Biden accused some Republicans of wanting to sunset the program entirely, while Republicans have tread lightly around the topic as they seek to strike a budget deal with House and Senate Democrats to address the national debt.

While some Republicans have proposed slashing funding to Social Security or even privatizing the program, the conservative proposal on paper is much more subdued.

Currently, Social Security Administration guidelines stipulate Americans born after 1960 are eligible for full retirement benefits at 67. Last June, the Republican Study Committee released a budget plan including a number of suggested reforms for Medicare and Social Security, including raising the eligibility ages for each program to 67 and 70 in an effort to “strengthen” the viability of the program. This is the first proposed increase since a Republican-led Congress under President Ronald Reagan raised the retirement age from 65.

Some presidential candidates, like Republican Nikki Haley, have also proposed raising the retirement age as part of their platforms ahead of the 2024 elections.

Democrats, however, have jumped on the proposal as a wedge issue, describing the Republican plan as an effort to begin privatizing—if not shutting down—the program entirely. Some in the Republican party have noted, however, that figures like Biden himself once pointed out that reforms to Social Security were likely necessary, if not inevitable.

Newsweek has reached out to the White House for comment, including on whether they would support a similar increase to the retirement age. Polling shows opposing any change is a strong position to take.

One 2021 survey from the American Association of Retired Persons showed 85 percent of Americans age 50 or older opposed cutting Social Security and Medicare to reduce the federal budget deficit, with similarly overwhelming opposition from Republicans and Democrats alike.

Most of those surveyed in similar polls found voters of both parties agreed that benefits should be expanded in order to keep up with rising levels of inflation, while favorability for all programs remains highest with those who access them: according to one recent YouGov survey, 64 percent of those aged 65 and older have a “very favorable” view of Social Security.

The protests in France helped underscore that tension. Over the past several weeks, labor unions and left-leaning groups across France have pushed supporters to take to the streets in a series of strikes and protests. This has lead to thousands packing the streets in solidarity and mountains of garbage piling on the sidewalks by garbage collectors who opposed the bill to increase the official retirement age. Ahead of the vote, numerous lawmakers defected, prompting Macron to take special action to force the legislation through, earning him rebukes both from lawmakers on the left as well as the right.

“Today is the first day of the end of Emmanuel Macron’s term,” Mathilde Panot, head of the hard-left party France Unbowed in the National Assembly, told reporters.

“It is a total failure for Emmanuel Macron,” Marine Le Pen, a former presidential candidate and leader of the far-right National Rally party, told reporters before committing to supporting a no-confidence vote against him.

Macron’s supporters argued that reforms to France’s pension system were necessary in order to maintain the nation’s competitiveness on the world stage. France’s retirement age—implemented by then-President Charles de Gaulle in the years after World War II—ranks among the lowest in Europe. For example, Norway—often cited as a paragon of social benefit programs around the world—has a minimum retirement age of 67.

France’s system also varies based on what age you started working, or what job you had. Train engineers may retire at 52, for example, because they work long hours, while public utility workers can retire at 57—a system Macron described as “outdated.”

However, the French protests were spurred by young people who felt the decision to raise the retirement age was emblematic of the decreasing value of work—a trend echoed in the United States.

Half of all workers in the United States—including 57 percent of Gen Z workers and 56 percent of millennial workers—currently support moving to a four-day work week like those used in countries like Belgium and Iceland, one Gallup poll showed last year. Other surveys show support for a European-style single-payer healthcare system remains highly popular among young voters.

Americans seem to acknowledge though that the Social Security program could soon become bankrupt as people continue to live longer and benefits are having increasing difficulty in keeping up with the rising cost of living. Those who understand the issue appear willing to take unpopular positions to address it.

A unique survey conducted last fall by the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation gave approximately 2,500 voters a briefing on the issues facing Social Security and were asked to evaluate the costs and implications of various reforms to fix the program, including raising the retirement age and cutting benefits for the program’s top earners.

With that information, 75 percent of respondents—including 75 percent of Republicans and 76 percent of Democrats—favored gradually raising the retirement age from 67 to 68, eliminating approximately 14 percent of the shortfall.

“Many politicians think that addressing the problems of Social Security is a ‘third rail’ so they have persistently avoided taking action,” Steven Kull, director of the PPC, said in a statement announcing the findings. But large bipartisan majorities say they are ready to take tough steps to secure the Social Security program for future generations.”


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