Many have characterised the recent French pension reform as primarily a budgetary measure, one that aims to save money for future tax cuts and social expenses. Yet this analysis overlooks the broader context of a persistent struggle led by Emmanuel Macron’s successive administrations to redefine the surplus boundary, that is the boundary that separates disabled populations from nondisabled populations, in order to supply French businesses with cheap labour.

Emmanuel Macron’s recent policies vividly exemplify Marta Russell’s analysis in Capitalism & Disability, where she conducts a political economy examination of disability within capitalist societies. Russell traces the origins of disability back to the level of labour exploitation in a given society. Drawing on the social model of disability (see for instance Mike Oliver’s 1990 Politics of Disablement and the retrospective account given by Bob Williams-Findlay’s Disability Praxis), Marta Russell argues that a worker is ‘disabled’ when they do not provide their employer with a certain rate of surplus value. The concept of surplus boundary, the boundary that separates disabled from nondisabled populations, is contingent upon the level of this rate of surplus value.

Importantly, this level itself varies with the economic conjuncture. Russell demonstrates that when employers can demand a higher intensity of exploitation, for instance when unemployment is high, they advocate for an extension of the surplus boundary. Consequently, more working-class individuals are categorised as disabled, segregated from the nondisabled labour market, and placed in specialised institutions. This allows employers to exclusively hire employees capable of generating a high rate of surplus value, thereby increasing their profit margin.

Conversely, when employers require more labour and are willing to accept lower surplus rates, for instance in times of labour shortages, they seek to shrink the surplus boundary. Individuals previously labelled as disabled and excluded from the job market suddenly lose their status, they are driven to participate in the job market to maintain lower wages. Below, I argue that France is experiencing its Russellian moment, with significant efforts being made to transform the surplus boundary and bolster the labour supply for the job market. Additionally, I will shed light on some of the political motivations behind this Russellian moment.

Macron’s Pension Reform

The 2023 pension reform was a significant step in the shrinking of the surplus boundary currently happening in France. Macron’s first government attempted to pass the reform in 2019, before withdrawing it due to the social unrest it triggered in the context of the Covid-19 crisis. It tried again to pass it in 2022-2023, this time successfully. The reform has affected the whole working class and it was not specifically directed against the disabled population.

The French pension system is organised around three main parameters, the ‘minimum age’[1] and the ‘maximum age’[2] of retirement, and the number of annuities to be paid into the system to get a full pension. The reform left the number of annuities unchanged[3], but it increased the minimum age (from 62 to 64) and the maximum age (from 65 to 67). The reform therefore kept the cohorts that were about to retire on the job market for two additional years, whatever their retirement plans were.

Even though the reform was not specific to disabled people, it is remarkable how it has had a considerable effect on the politics of disability in France. As a result of the high pressure exerted on employees and the high level of workplace accidents, France has a high rate of disability around retirement age. In 2021, 12% of people aged 61 were inactive due to health and/or disability reasons. And reciprocally, the proportion of active workers with disability between 50 to 59 years-old (18%) was significantly higher than for the rest of the population (9%).

Disability is an important factor when considering the retirement threshold. The pension reform includes provisions that allow people with high legal disability levels (that is, higher than 50%) to go on retirement at the same age as prior to the reform. But the vast majority of them does not fit these drastic criteria. The pension reform therefore supplies the job market with large numbers of aged disabled workers.


According to this graph from INSEE (2021), 12.1% of people aged 61 are not working due to health or disability reasons.

Macron’s ‘workfare’ policies

The institutions that govern disabled workers have concurrently been considerably transformed over the past few years. Since 2019, Macron’s governments have constantly pushed to supply the job market with an increased amount of surplus labour. This occurred through successive reforms of the institutions that employ disabled people.

Around 2.7 million working-age people are considered disabled workers in France. Many of them (58%) are unemployed. For those who are employed, they generally work for three types of institutions: the so-called Etablissement et Service d’Aide par le Travail (ESAT, around 120,000 disabled workers) for populations whose condition strongly affects the exploitation rate, the Entreprises Adaptées (EA, around 55,000 disabled workers) for populations with lighter conditions, and large corporations (entreprises ordinaires, around 500,000 disabled workers), which are compelled to hire a certain proportion (6%) of disabled people in their workforce. Since 2018, Macron’s governments have reformed both Entreprises adaptées and ESAT institutions (in 2018 and 2023). These reforms have aligned them with ordinary corporations, pushing them towards maximising the profitability of disabled people.

These reforms clearly belong to the realm of ‘workfare’ policies that tend to condition welfare payment to the performance of work by the recipient. Academic literature has brought to the fore the links between neoliberalism and workfare policies, along with their ableist premises. Still, some organisations in the French disability field have emphasised the positive aspects of these reforms. Indeed, they have narrowed the working conditions gap between disabled and nondisabled workers – even though, as French disability activist Lili Guigueno underlines, disabled people remain fundamentally segregated.

Yet the reforms also encouraged these institutions to increase their employee turnover, turning them into spaces of transition towards ordinary corporations. These institutions were increasingly tasked with supplying a steady flow of disabled workers to ordinary corporations. While this might look like a progress towards the de-institutionalisation and de-segregation of disabled workers, this is not. On the contrary, the reform turns disabled workers into an auxiliary force in times of labour shortage, without fundamentally questioning their distinct status with regard to French labour laws.

At the same time, Macron’s government also resisted calls to reform the allowance system that enables disabled people left out of the job market to survive. This allowance, the Allocation aux Adultes Handicapés (AAH), was granted to disabled people provided that they had what the law determined as a ‘strong’ level of disability. But it was paid only if the income of the disabled person’s household was lower than a certain threshold, the household including partners. Therefore, many disabled people could not receive the allowance, unless they divorced. If they did not, they ended up being funded by their carers. As French disability studies’ scholar Charlotte Puiseux explains in De chair et de fer, ‘this situation pushed disabled persons to remain single or to lie on their conjugal life if they wanted not to depend financially on their partner.’ This was estimated to exclude around 80,000 disabled people from receiving the allowance altogether.

In 2021, opposition parties to Macron’s government formed an unprecedented coalition on the issue of disability. Left-wing (France Insoumise, PCF, PS and EELV), centrist (UDI) and right-wing (LR) parties in Parliament coalesced to individualise the disability allowance. Macron’s party ignored the growing public outcry on this issue and rejected the parliamentary proposal. Here again, by preventing them from receiving the allowance, Macron’s government not only made disabled people dependent upon their relatives, but also pushed them towards the disabled job market. (French lawmakers finally voted the reform in July 2022, after Emmanuel Macron’s movement lost its absolute parliamentary majority.)

What were the political aims of these transformations? The question is made even more relevant by the strong meaningfulness of disability issues amongst the French population. Around a quarter of the French population is disabled and more than 50% of the population will be disabled at some point in their life. Disabled people are a powerful social force, a force that could very well be at the heart of what I call here, after Beatrice Adler-Bolton and Artie Vierkant’s recent book, the ‘surplus bloc’. And this was visible in the strong popular opposition to the recent reforms. In 2019, opinion polls showed that 89% of disabled people disapproved of Macron’s disability reforms. The pension reform generated similar opposition. In January 2023, an opinion poll showed that 93% of working age people opposed the pension reform. Among the reasons brought forward, people worried about becoming disabled before reaching the full pension age – a fear that demonstrators encapsulated through the slogan la retraite avant l’arthrite (in English: retirement before arthritis).

Disability Capitalists

However, Macron’s reforms have relied on powerful social forces that have allowed his government to hold firm despite popular opposition. Two forces in particular have been pushing to increase the supply of labour from disabled populations. The first force is the French business community. Since 2021, it has been especially worried about work shortages. The business confederation MEDEF noted with great concern, in April 2023, that ‘due to work shortages the balance of power between employers and employees [has been] reversing’. After two decades of high unemployment that provided it with cheap work, it has been concerned that it would have to train workers or raise wages. A solution to address this shortage has consisted in using disabled people as what Marta Russell calls ‘a reserve army’ to keep wages under pressure. In 2022 for instance, the French business newspaper Les Echos, described the disabled population as ‘welcome’ in the context of low unemployment. ‘Disabled people are a crucial tool against work shortages’, another business confederation asserted even more clearly. In other words, the business community has been pressing the government to tap into the disabled population to increase the available workforce.

The second force at work consists in disability capitalists. Corporations and associations involved in managing disabled people, making them work, or providing them with services are supportive of Macron’s reforms. This is for instance the case of Groupe SOS. Groupe SOS is the biggest European non-profit organisation and a major actor in French disability capitalism. In the field of disability capitalism alone, it has 63 institutions in its portfolio – and these institutions host or employ more than 5,000 disabled people. Jean-Marc Borello, the CEO of Groupe SOS, was an early supporter of Emmanuel Macron’s first presidential campaign and a member of the executive board of En Marche, Macron’s party.

In January 2018, Borello was tasked to write a report on ‘the unexploited potential of inclusion policies’. His report began with the prospect of growing work shortages, that required to include new groups into the workforce, among whom disabled people. The report summarised its approach with the following motto: ‘everyone can be employed.’ In the following years, Jean-Marc Borello and his company Groupe SOS were instigators and supporters of Macron’s disability reforms. And later on, unsurprisingly, they were also staunch supporters of the 2023 pension reform: Jean-Marc Borello declared in March 2023 that the reform was ‘good’ and ‘needed’.

Over the past years, France has gone through several reforms that aimed at addressing labour market issues by reshaping the surplus boundary. On the one hand, Macron’s governments have released significant numbers of disabled people onto the job market by delaying the retirement age for those at the highest risk of being disabled. On the other hand, they have reformed the institutions that employ disabled people, keeping disabled individuals into subordinate legal statuses, but pushing an increasing number of them towards ordinary corporations.

This double push was unpopular, but it was supported by powerful social forces – including business confederations and large corporations operating in the field of disability capitalism. It echoed Marta Russell’s description of what happens to the surplus boundary in times of work scarcity. And this analytical framework helps to understand the forces at work in recent French political events, especially the struggle about the pension reform. But France is far from being the only country that experiences this Russellian moment. All over Europe, as work shortages bite, governments are setting up similar reforms that reshape disability institutions to address labour shortages – the EU strategy on disability and the controversial reform of disability allowances in the UK being other examples of this trend. In France and beyond, this movement asks a pressing issue: why has the ‘surplus bloc’ failed to materialise?


[1] The age from which people can retire (with a cut on their pension) if they have worked the required number of annuities, currently 42.5 years.

[2] The age from which people can retire with full pension (full pension being only a part of the full-time wage of the person in employment), if they have worked the required 42.5 years.

[3] To be exact, it slightly anticipated the increase in the number of annuities already scheduled in the pension reform of the Hollande presidency.


Théo Bourgeron is a Chancellor’s fellow in sociology at the University of Edinburgh. He has been working on the sociology of finance and health. His co-authored book Alt-Finance was published by Pluto Books in 2022. He is now investigating the financialisation of the pharmaceutical sector.

This is the second contribution of PERC’s new series, Neoliberal Visions of HealthIf you wish to get involved or would like to pitch an idea for a contribution, get in touch with our editor Carla Ibled (c.ibled[at]