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Pensions: what are the ways out of this crisis from the top?

By Michel Ghazal

In terms of decision-making strategy and conflict management, Mazarin advised : "If you decide to enact new laws, begin by demonstrating the urgent need for them to a council of wise men, and work out the reform with them. Or simply spread the news that you have consulted them and that they have given you plenty of advice. Then legislate without worrying about their advice, as you see fit"..

Can we blame the government for using these principles based on mistrust and manipulation to launch its promised pension reform?

The answer is NO, quite the contrary. The President has appointed a "high commissioner for pension reform", Jean-Paul Delevoye. He embarked on a marathon of almost 18 months of consultations with all the players involved in this project. He then submitted his report to the government with his recommendations. Thanks to this wide-ranging consultation, and despite the fact that the subject is inherently explosive, it should have been possible to make progress on this difficult reform without any major pitfalls.

And yet, the trade unions were soon up in arms. As soon as 5 December a strike (the longest in the history of the SNCF) which was widely followed. This has caused serious disruption, with the French people finding it extremely difficult to get around, a considerable drop in turnover for many traders and businesses, and the closure of several universities, preventing students from taking their mid-term exams.

To resolve this crisis, the government quickly found itself faced with three possible solutions: give in and withdraw its reform, as demanded, unsurprisingly, by the protesting trade unions such as the CGT or SUD; try to force the issue and table his bill as recommended by his right wing; find accommodations thanks to the multiplication of objects negotiation on the table (arduous work, retirement age for senior citizens, etc.), as called for in particular by the reformist trade unions (CFDT, UNSA) and the left wing of the majority.

Negotiation is not capitulation

Edouard Philippe has opted for the third way, urged on by a President who stated in his New Year's address that he wanted to " a compromise[1] fast. In this spirit, he clearly stated that he wanted to make progress on the two aspects that would once and for all put a viable retirement system on track: a systemic reform considered fairer with a universal points-based system, and ensuring financial equilibrium through long-term funding. He also said that he was open to any proposal that would make it possible to achieve these objectives.

In fact, unfortunately, many concessions have been made without any quid pro quo. (On the one hand, these have increased the cost of this reform. On the other hand, they have rendered part of it meaningless. Indeed, some categories will retain their specific features).

On the eve of a decisive meeting with Edouard Philippe at Matignon, there remains one major sticking point. The government's desire to introduce a pivotal age of 64 for a full pension (with bonuses and penalties), and a CFDT for whom this is a red line. However, Laurent Berger does not deny the need to find a financial balance. His proposal is to defer to a "financing conference the decision on this aspect. Similarly, the President of the National Assembly has proposed a temporary 3-year discount linked to the retirement age, instead of a lifetime discount, in order to win the good graces of the CFDT and get out of the crisis?

How can we break the deadlock over the pivotal age?

It seems that there is already an agreement The Prime Minister says he is open to all "intelligent" solutions for financing the new system. So, the problem that remains to be solved can be formulated as follows: how can we find, within the framework of a new system, a solution to the problem of financial equilibrium? "financing conference as proposed by Laurent Berger, concrete ways of achieving financial equilibrium in the new system without abandoning the pivotal age that the Prime Minister is so keen on?

As we can see, the obstacle facing the various players in this decision is the dramatic shortage of ideas for breaking this deadlock. How can this be done without giving the impression of going backwards, losing face and being seen to be losing out?

Knowing that there are many obstacles to creativity:

the fear that the new idea will commit the decision-maker who submits it
the fear that it will be seen as a concession pushing the other party to demand more

the fear of appearing weak in the eyes of their constituents by agreeing to be flexible and to explore options that are far removed from their initial positions
What can be done to overcome these obstacles?

Using an innovative procedure: the second-level joint committee

Knowing that if there are 10 or 15 ideas on the table, it's easier to find the right solution than if there are only one or two, I recommend a procedure[2] that I used successfully during the banana conflict in Martinique to get around these obstacles and unleash creativity: the creation of a "brainstorming group". "second level joint committee tasked with generating as many ideas as possible for solutions to the funding problem. This commission would be made up of one or more representatives, familiar with the issue, from all the parties concerned by this reform. With one special feature: its members would be deemed not to have no decision-making power. This compares with 1st level negotiators who are able to make commitments on behalf of their party.

With no fear of being trapped by their ideas, and thanks to creative meeting facilitation methods, a surprising harvest of new ideas that the parties did not think of at the outset can be harvested. In this context, the pivotal age of 64, either for life or temporary, will be an option like any other, and the "financing conference with the official delegations will receive them for examination and objectification. The likelihood of reaching an agreement acceptable to all, without going down the slippery slope of concessions, is thus considerably increased.

The success of this procedure presupposes prior negotiation and acceptance of a number of ground rules:

  • confidentiality no public statements to the media are permitted until negotiations have been completed, as this is a complicating factor
  • participation To be associated as far as possible all actors affected by the decision but not the decision-makers themselves
  • neutrality organise creativity sessions with this committee, led by an external facilitator who is neutral and accepted by all.
  • objectivity submit new ideas to official decision-makers to stimulate discussion and examine them in the light of objective criteria
  • continuity of the relationship To meet for new creative sessions as soon as the official negotiations come to a standstill. In this way, the official negotiations are just put on hold and the relationship is never broken off.
    Tomorrow, Friday, Edouard Philippe will discuss with the social partners the content and timetable for a possible "conference on financing". The procedure I am proposing is an effective response to the underlying concerns of the various parties in relation to this major issue of reform: to temporarily dissociate the implementation of the universal system from that of funding, without putting off this aspect to the Greek calendar. The Prime Minister could therefore say yes to the CFDT's proposal, but he would make it conditional on a second-level joint commission. In this way, he guarantees a concrete outcome to the negotiations. Everyone comes out a winner.
In conclusion

Beyond the posturing of some and others, the pension reform is a unique opportunity not to be missed to restore its legitimacy to social negotiation damaged during the crisis of "yellow waistcoats" resistant to any organization. The various players must succeed in elevating the debate to save pension insurance founded on a fine idea of solidarity between generations. The fundamental question of how to finance the system to ensure its long-term viability, given demographic trends, must not be sidestepped under any circumstances.

This never-ending crisis also raises questions that need to be addressed later:

  • Is it possible to change the culture of negotiation in France, which is still based on the balance of power? Is it not absolutely urgent to promote and establish a new type of relationship between the State and the social partners and to improve social dialogue in companies through more constructive negotiation methods?
  • Is it possible to find new forms of strike that reconcile the desire of staff to demonstrate their disagreement with the need to respect the public's need to travel and the fundamental values of public service?

[1] Knowing that I don't like the term compromise, which suggests concessions on both sides, and prefer the term creative arrangement.

[2] This procedure was successfully used in South Africa between the De Clerck and Mandela teams to bring the country out of apartheid.

See also

the European Negotiation Centre, quoted in Le Point.

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