Zaid M. Belbagi
Keen to put last year’s electoral disappointment behind him, France’s President Emmanuel Macron chose pension reform as an important policy area where he could have an impact and, importantly, leave a legacy where his three predecessors had failed.
However, what he believed might be a difficult, but brief, period of bargaining and concessions has developed into three months of political upheaval. With workers now being urged to walk out for an 11th official national “Day of Action” on Thursday and the Elysee having had to cancel a visit by King Charles, France looks set for further instability and chaos.
At first, Macron’s proposed pension reforms – socially controversial but fiscally necessary – were expected to be seen through eventually, though not without some opposition. Last month, however, he decided to shun parliament and impose the reforms via a special constitutional power, the so-called Article 49.3, a procedure that allows the government to force passage of a bill without a vote unless the parliament passes a motion of no confidence. However, its use this time has drawn significant criticism because of the significant public opposition to the proposed reforms.
While Macron was chastised for wearing a luxury watch during an interview on the pension changes, the broader fury of opposition lawmakers was echoed on the streets, leaving France’s urban centers stinking with uncollected rubbish and public services in tatters. Along with protesters angry at the prospect of having to work longer before retiring, government critics also have condemned Macron’s use of special powers as detrimental to democratic debate. The government has since narrowly survived two no-confidence votes, while protests have resulted in hundreds of arrests and widespread destruction of property. The IGPN, the internal affairs unit of the French police, has reportedly launched 17 investigations into allegations of heavy-handed tactics since the pension protests began.
However, the arrests have failed to discourage further disruption. Although the government and opposition vary greatly in their estimation of the scale of public dissent, France’s powerful unions clearly retain their ability to pressure the country’s leadership further. The far-left New Ecological and Social Popular Union has vowed to use “any means necessary,” including mass protests and calls for a public referendum, to defeat the pension reforms.
With coordinated strike action on Thursday augmenting stoppages already planned across different sectors, the government is under significant pressure to meet with union groups in mediated talks to seek a resolution – no mean feat given that neither side has met since the legislation was presented to the National Assembly in January. Meanwhile, polls show there is still significant support for the unions and mass mobilization, while Macron’s popularity has fallen to 42 percent.
Public turnout on Thursday will be a useful barometer for the government and, no doubt, will help dictate whether the Constitutional Council, which is required to give final approval to the legislation, will dismiss or weaken the reforms. Although, in theory, the public can force a referendum, the process is complicated and requires a number of criteria to be met. In reality, an eventual waning of public support for continued protests is likely to come to the government’s rescue.
There is no doubt that France’s pension system requires reform, thanks to the country’s public spending deficit, aging population and a current retirement age below that of peer-group nations. However, the high-handed manner in which Macron has gone about these reforms highlights the shortcomings of his presidential style, so much so that even if his government can push through the changes, it may be at the cost of his presidency. Mounting public anger and disruption could lead to a situation where Macron either resigns or risks widespread chaos. His ham-fisted approach has emboldened both extremes of the political spectrum, as he saw to his detriment during last year’s election.
While Macron’s maneuvering drives voters into the arms of the extreme left and right, his commitment to pension reform only reinforces the view of him as anti-democratic. His alienation of would-be allies has left him without a majority in parliament and lacking support on the streets, so that the economic necessity of his proposals is being drowned out by disaffection with his presidency.