Macron’s leadership in jeopardy amid tensions over pension plan
PARIS — A parody photo appearing on protest signs and online in France shows President Emmanuel Macron sitting on piles of rubbish. The image refers to the uncollected rubbish with the garbage collectors on strike, but also to what many French people think of their leader.
Macron, 45, had hoped his push to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 would cement his legacy as the president who transformed France’s economy for the 21st century. Instead, he sees his leadership challenged, both in parliament and on the streets of big cities.
His brazen decision to force a pension reform bill without a vote has infuriated the political opposition and could hamper his government’s ability to pass legislation for the remaining four years of his term.
Demonstrators hoisted the parody photo during demonstrations after Macron chose at the last minute on Thursday to invoke the government’s constitutional power to pass the bill without a vote in the National Assembly. He has remained silent on the subject since then.
Since becoming president in 2017, Macron has often been accused of being arrogant and out of touch. Perceived as “the president of the rich”, he aroused resentment for telling an unemployed worker he had only to “cross the street” to find work and suggesting that some French workers were “lazy”.
Now the Macron government has alienated citizens “for a long time” by using the special power it has under Article 49.3 of the French Constitution to impose a largely unpopular change, said Brice Teinturier, deputy director general of the Ipsos polling institute.
The only winners from the situation are the far-right leader Marine Le Pen and her National Rally party, “which is pursuing its strategy of both ‘becoming respectable’ and opposing Macron”, and the French trade unions, said Teinturier. Le Pen was a runner-up behind Macron in the country’s last two presidential elections.
As the piles of trash grow bigger and their smell gets worse, many people in Paris blame Macron, not the strikers.
Macron has repeatedly said he is convinced that the French pension system needs to be changed to keep it funded. He said other proposed options, such as increasing the already heavy tax burden, would deter investment and that cutting pensions for current retirees was not a realistic alternative.
Public displays of discontent could weigh heavily on his future decisions. The spontaneous, sometimes violent protests that have erupted in Paris and across the country in recent days have contrasted with the largely peaceful demonstrations and strikes previously organized by France’s main trade unions.
Macron’s re-election to a second term last April cemented his position as a senior player in Europe. He campaigned on a business-friendly platform, pledging to solve the pension problem and saying the French must “work longer”.
In June, Macron’s centrist alliance lost its parliamentary majority, although it still holds more seats than other political parties. He said at the time that his government wanted to “legislate in a different way”, based on compromises with various political groups.
Since then, conservative lawmakers have agreed to back some bills that align with their own policies. But tensions over the pension system and a general lack of trust between ideologically diverse parties could put an end to attempts to find a compromise.
Macron’s political opponents in the National Assembly on Friday tabled two motions of censure against the government of Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne. Government officials are hoping to survive a vote on motions scheduled for Monday because the opposition is split, and many Republicans are unlikely to support it.
If a motion passes, it would be a blow to Macron: the pension bill would be rejected and his Cabinet would have to resign. In this case, the president would have to appoint a new cabinet and see his ability to pass legislation weakened.
But Macron would retain substantial powers over foreign policy, European affairs and defence. As commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he can make decisions on France’s support for Ukraine and other global issues without parliamentary approval.
France’s powerful presidential powers are a legacy of General Charles de Gaulle’s desire to have a stable political system for the Fifth Republic he established in 1958.
The Prime Minister’s future seems less certain. If no-confidence motions fail, Macron could enact a higher retirement age but try to appease his critics with a government reshuffle. But Borne gave no indication of backing down.
“I am convinced that we will build the right solutions that our country needs by continuing to seek compromises with the unions and the employers’ organisations,” she told French television channel TF1 on Thursday. “There are a lot of issues that we need to continue to work on in parliament.
Macron plans to propose new measures aimed at bringing the unemployment rate in France down to 5%, from the current 7.2%, by the end of his second and final term.
Another option in the hands of the president is to dissolve the National Assembly and call early legislative elections.
That scenario seems unlikely for now, as the unpopularity of the pension scheme means Macron’s alliance is unlikely to win a majority of seats. And if another party wins, it would have to appoint a prime minister from the majority faction, giving the government the power to implement policies that diverge from the president’s priorities.
Mathilde Panot, an MP from the left-wing Nupes coalition, said sarcastically on Thursday that it was a “very good” idea for Macron to dissolve the Assembly and call an election.
“I think it would be a good opportunity for the country to reaffirm that yes, it wants the retirement age to be lowered to 60,” Panot said. “The Nupes is always available to govern”.
Le Pen said she too would favor a “dissolution”.
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