Le Pen emerges as political winner in battle for pensions in France

‘There will be a democratic problem if the reform is approved like this,’ Laurent Berger – the leader of France’s largest union – tells EL PAÍS

Reforma pensiones Francia
Marine Le Pen at the French National Assembly in Paris on February 18.LUDOVIC MARIN (AFP)
Marc Bassets

The fight over a highly unpopular pension reform has redrawn the political landscape in France. According to various polls and experts, the person who can benefit the most from the unrest is Marine Le Pen – the leader of the far right, who has been defeated in runoff elections by President Emmanuel Macron in 2017 and 2022.

Unlike the left-wing La France Insoumise – an anti-capitalist and eurosceptic party – Le Pen and her National Rally haven’t been getting involved in protests. Rather, they have taken an institutional position against the government in parliamentary debates.

“I would say that, rarely taking a position and without speaking too much, [the political winner] is the National Rally,” sums up Frédéric Dabi, a general director at the Ifop polling institute, alluding to Le Pen’s political party. “La France Insoumise [has become] a kind of protest force, and they instead have wrapped themselves in the cloak of the ‘alternative.’”

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne – a member of Macron’s liberal Renaissance party – has proved incapable of swaying public opinion, which is mostly opposed to the project. The government wishes to increase the retirement age in order to guarantee the viability of the public pension system.

Laurent Berger – general secretary of the moderate CFDT union – warns: “There will be a democratic problem… clearly, there will be a democratic malaise if the reform is adopted like this.”

Protestors against the reform – which aims to increase the retirement age from 62 to 64 and is currently under discussion in the Senate – took to the streets this past Tuesday, February 7. Across France, 1.3 million people rallied, although the CGT union says the number was closer to 3.5 million. It was the sixth day of strikes and demonstrations since Macron’s administration presented the project back in January. Strikes by workers in the transportation and refinery sectors continued on Wednesday.

The legislative calendar sets the end of March as the deadline for adopting the law. Macron has the largest parliamentary group in the National Assembly, but his party doesn’t have an absolute majority. He needs the center-right Republicans to back him. If Macron is unable to get the votes, he could resort to article 49.3 of the French Constitution, which would allow for parliamentary debate to end and for the law to be adopted without a vote.

Such an avenue, in any case, is risky. By imposing the reform with 70% of the French population against it – and with a meager parliamentary majority – the French president risks creating a “democratic problem,” as the main French union leaders warned this week in statements made to EL PAÍS.

“I find it hard to believe that, if this [reform] is adopted under current conditions, there won’t be resentment among the population, and especially in the world of labor,” says Berger, head of the CFDT, the country’s largest union. “It’s starting to show. And we all know that resentment is not good for democracy.”

Philippe Martinez – the outgoing general secretary of the CGT union – agrees. “In all European countries, when there are mobilizations like these, the government says: ‘We must dialogue.’ Here, it’s as if nothing had happened.”

“If the reform is adopted in parliament, it’s a problem, taking into account the millions of people in the demonstrations and 92% of the workers [who are] against it. Who do the lawmakers represent? Themselves? Or the people? It’s a democratic problem. And when there’s a democratic problem, we must continue with the demonstrations, until we are heard.”

Macron and his supporters risk getting hit hard by this reform. But the left – which has championed opposition to the legislation in parliament – doesn’t seem to be benefiting from the chaos. Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise – a coalition of socialists, ecologists and communists – has flooded the National Assembly with thousands of amendments that have prevented a vote on the reform within the established deadline. This, however, has irritated his allies. “Jean-Luc Mélenchon doesn’t favor the clarity of debates and positions,” Martinez, from the CGT, snapped in February.

According to an Ifop survey, the unions embody opposition to the pension reform better than the country’s political parties. But, if you ask about the leaders, 46% of the population believe that it is Le Pen who best represents the no side of the debate, followed by Mélenchon, with 43%. When asked which opposition politician is closest to their overall concerns, Le Pen beats Mélenchon by 34% to 23%.

Le Pen reached the runoff of the presidential elections in 2022. While she ultimately lost to Macron, she garnered 13 million votes. Abstention reached its highest level in half a century: 28%, evidence of the disinterest felt by a large part of the electorate.

Macron’s willingness to impose reform against all odds can be understood as a matter of conviction and responsibility: he knows that he is unpopular, but he believes that it is necessary for France and, therefore, he is willing to bear the costs. But, as the trade unionists point out, this position can be interpreted in another way: as a question of democratic consent. Can you govern with the country against you? And what risks does this entail?

For Frédéric Souillot – secretary general of the Workers’ Force confederation – if Macron opts for an executive decree, “it will [result in] chaos and revolution.” He specifies: “All the people who are demonstrating, if they are told tomorrow that this reform [will be] imposed on them without voting for it in the National Assembly, they are going to [be] radicalized. You cannot administer a country if all the trade union organizations and a majority of the French are against [the reform]. It’s dangerous for the country and for social cohesion.”

When faced with questions about the democratic legitimacy of his legislation, Macron can argue that, less than a year ago, he was re-elected after comfortably defeating Le Pen by 17 points. And he won without hiding his cards: on the campaign trail, he promised to raise the retirement age. Back then, he said he would increase it to the age of 65. The current proposal has reduced this to 64.

“There are two legitimacies here,” says Dabi, from Ifop. “There is the legitimacy of the polls – and it must be said that Macron got five million more votes than Le Pen. And then there is the vaguer (…) legitimacy of the social movement.”

Dabi points out that “rarely” has such a broad rejection of a government initiative been seen. The number of protesters is unprecedented in recent decades. The demonstrations also bring together people from different social classes and ideologies. At the same time, the polling expert specifies, a majority of French people have resigned themselves: they believe that the reform will end up being approved. This is an advantage for the president. The “democratic red line,” he adds, would be for Macron to resort to article 49.3 and evade the vote entirely.

Macron is beginning to experience what in the United States is referred to as lame duck syndrome: a president who cannot be re-elected, subsequently losing authority. In 2027, Macron’s second five-year term comes to an end. He is prohibited from running again.

“If the reform is adopted, there will be a lot of resentment, which will add to the anger,” Dabi analyzes. “And it will pay off: on the streets, perhaps, with a movement like that of the yellow vests, in the 2024 European elections, in the Senate elections.”

And in the presidential elections? “There are four years left; nobody knows what can happen,” he notes. “Let’s be prudent.”

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

Exclusive content for subscribers

Read without limits

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS