Macron’s leadership in jeopardy amid pension plan tensions

A parody photo seen on protest signs and online in France shows President Emmanuel Macron sitting on rubbish heaps. The image refers to the rubbish not being collected due to sanitation workers 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 president who transformed the French economy for the 21st century. Instead, he finds his leadership controversial, both in Parliament and on the streets of major cities.

His brazen attempt to pass a pension reform bill without a vote has infuriated political opposition and could affect his government’s ability to legislate for the remaining four years of his term.

Demonstrators hoisted the parody photo during protests after Macron made a last-minute decision on Thursday to invoke the government’s constitutional power to pass the law without a vote in the National Assembly. Since then he has been silent on the subject.

Since becoming president in 2017, Macron has often been accused of arrogance and lack of contact. Perceived as the “president of the rich”, he stirred up resentment by telling an unemployed person that he only had to “cross the street” to find work and by claiming that some French workers were “lazy”.

Now Macron’s government has alienated citizens “for a long time” by using the special power it has under Article 49.3 of the French constitution to push through a largely unpopular amendment, said Brice Teinturier, deputy director-general of the Ipsos survey institute.

The only winners of the situation are far-right leader Marine Le Pen and her National Rally party, “which is continuing its strategy of both ‘becoming decent’ and being anti-Macron,” and the French unions, Teinturier said. Le Pen was second to Macron in the country’s last two presidential elections.

As the piles of rubbish pile up and the stench from them worsens, many in Paris blame Macron, not the striking workers.

Macron has repeatedly said he believes the French pension system needs to be changed to keep it funded. He says other proposed options, such as raising the already high tax burden, would crowd out investment and that cutting pensions for current retirees is not a realistic alternative.

The public expressions of displeasure can weigh heavily on his future decisions. The spontaneous, sometimes violent, protests that have erupted in Paris and across the country in recent days contrasted with the largely peaceful demonstrations and strikes previously organized by the major French unions.

Macron’s re-election for a second term last April bolstered his standing as a veteran player in Europe. He pushed for a pro-business agenda, vowed to tackle the pension problem and said the French needed to “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 a number of political groups.

Since then, conservative lawmakers have agreed to support some bills that fit their own policies. But tensions over the pension plan and widespread lack of trust between the ideologically divergent parties may end the search for compromise.

Macron’s political opponents in the National Assembly tabled two motions of no confidence in Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne’s government on Friday. Government officials are hoping to survive a vote on Monday’s motions as the opposition is divided and many Republicans are unlikely to support them.

However, if a proposal is accepted, it would be a severe blow for Macron: the pension law would be rejected and his cabinet would have to resign. In that case, the president would have to appoint a new cabinet and find that its ability to enforce laws has been weakened.

But Macron would retain significant powers in foreign policy, European affairs and defense. As commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he can make decisions about France’s support for Ukraine and other global issues without parliamentary approval.

France’s strong presidential powers are a legacy of General Charles de Gaulle’s desire to have a stable political system for the Fifth Republic, which he founded in 1958.

The Prime Minister’s future looks less certain. If the no-confidence motions fail, Macron could waive the higher retirement age, but try to appease his critics with a government reshuffle. But Borne has given no indication of backing down.

“I am convinced that we will find the good solutions that our country needs by continuing to seek compromises with workers’ and employers’ organizations,” she told French television channel TF1 on Thursday. “There are many issues on which we must continue to work in Parliament.”

Macron plans to propose new measures to bring France’s unemployment rate down from the current 7.2% to 5% by the end of his second and final term.

Another option in the President’s hands is to dissolve the National Assembly and call for early general elections.

That scenario seems unlikely for now, as Macron’s alliance is unlikely to win a majority of seats due to the pension plan’s unpopularity. And if another party wins, he would have to appoint a prime minister from the majority faction and empower the government to implement policies that diverge from the president’s priorities.

Mathilde Panot, an MP for the left-wing Nupes coalition, said sarcastically on Thursday that it was a “very good” idea on the part of Macron to dissolve the assembly and call for new elections.

“I think it would be a good opportunity for the country to reaffirm, yes, they want to lower the retirement age to 60,” Panot said. “The Nupes are always available to rule.”

Le Pen said she too would welcome a “dissolution”.


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