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Blame the billionaires? French left protests against Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform

Emmanuel Macron’s unpopular plan to raise the retirement age by two years to 64 has sparked a debate in egalitarian France: Are the billionaires to blame?

When unions staged a second mass strike on Tuesday, sending hundreds of thousands into the streets across the country, politicians on the left went on the offensive, arguing that taxing the super-rich would be the best way to cover the budget deficit. state pension system.

In particular, Bernard Arnault, the world’s richest man and owner of French luxury goods group LVMH, has become a lightning rod for protesters at recent marches who carried placards with his face on a wanted poster and urged him to do more for the greater good.

François Ruffin, Member of Parliament for the Somme region and prominent figure in the left-wing Nupes alliance, was especially loud in relation to the debate about pension reform and how wealth is shared (or not) in French society.

“Billionaires have only gotten richer since the Covid-19 pandemic, Macron refuses to tax the windfall profits of our largest companies, and somehow all the efforts to solve the pension problem should fall on the shoulders of the workers?” he said in an interview.

“The moment has come to fight for the society we want, and not for one in which capital suppresses labor and people are just consumers.”

It’s easy to dismiss this as the typical dunking rich talk that comes up often in France, where wealth is viewed with suspicion. But that is not all.

Shortly after his election in 2017, Macron was dubbed “President of the Rich” by opponents for his business agenda. His government cut taxes paid by companies, cut unemployment benefits and, most controversially, eliminated the wealth tax.

Opponents of Macron’s pension reform, which would raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 and accelerate the transition from 41 to 43 years of full pension contributions, see it as part of a policy that favors the rich and business over the working. .

Government officials counter, pointing to declining unemployment and strong FDI performance as evidence that Macron’s economic program has paid off. In addition, they argue that the government provided generous assistance to dull the pain caused primarily by the pandemic and inflation caused by the energy crisis.

However, criticism of the “president of the rich” was skillfully used by far-right leader Marine Le Pen to garner votes from workers, helping her party win an unprecedented 88 seats in the National Assembly in June. Meanwhile, far-left standard-bearer Jean-Luc Mélenchon used Macron as a backdrop to argue that capitalism and globalization are discredited models that should take a back seat to social justice and the fight against climate change.

Given this political backdrop, the choice Macron made in his resignation proposal could prove risky. To make up for the shortfall caused by fewer workers for every retiree in the coming decades, he wants everyone to work longer. This burden falls more heavily on people who start working at a younger age and those who do manual labor.

He also set red lines: companies won’t be asked to pay higher taxes, and current retirees, even the richest, won’t be asked to contribute.

The left objected and quickly identified perceived alternatives, as well as calling for the retirement age to be lowered again to 60. Oxfam said all it would take was a 2 percent tax on French billionaires to cover the €12 billion annual pension gap expected by 2027. One left-wing MP tweeted that In 2022, French startups raised 13.5 billion euros. so why not look there while Mélenchon’s party compared the pension deficit to the 80 billion euros in dividends paid out by companies in France’s CAC 40 blue-chip index.

These ideas don’t make much economic sense, but they don’t have to be good policy. Polls show that nearly three-quarters of French people oppose raising the retirement age.

Ruffin, the former journalist best known for making a debunking documentary on Bernard Arnault, has long recognized the power of personifying the opposition between capital and labor. “Bernard Arnault does not have 400,000 times more merit than the workers who make bags on his production lines,” he said.

Arnault hit back on Thursday by announcing LVMH’s record annual profits, claiming the group hired 15,000 people in France last year and paid €4.5bn in taxes and social security contributions domestically.

None of this will stop Ruffin. “We have to seize this moment,” he said.

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