Macron, now what?

France’s president kept his promise by enacting the law raising the retirement age to 64, but he will have a hard time quelling discontent

Trash burned in Nantes after the French Constitutional Council announced on Friday, April 14, that it approved the pension reform.
Trash burned in Nantes after the French Constitutional Council announced on Friday, April 14, that it approved the pension reform.SEBASTIEN SALOM-GOMIS (AFP)
Marc Bassets

“Mission accomplished.” French President Emmanuel Macron could quote U.S. President George W. Bush’s speech on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln after the invasion of Iraq, 20 years ago. In his case, he would be right. Macron enacted early Saturday morning the unpopular law that will raise the retirement age from 62 to 64, the flagship project of his presidency. And so he fulfilled an electoral promise and vindicated his will to transform France, despite the high political and social cost.

An illegal war has nothing to do with a reform that has followed all democratic procedures and which on Friday received the final endorsement of the country’s Constitutional Council. But, like Bush in 2003, the idea of mission accomplished may end up being misleading. Macron has achieved his goal. The risk, for him, is that the crisis is not truly over. Because the rejection of the law has not diminished. Neither has social unrest. “The debates are in society,” the president admitted a few days ago, “and they will undoubtedly remain alive.”

The Social Security Rectifying Financing Act for 2023, its official name, has already been published in the Official Gazette. There is no turning back. Now what?

It’s Friday night at Le Marais district, right bank of the Seine, Paris. About thirty people, mostly young and dressed in dark clothes, some wearing masks, wonder through the streets of the old Jewish quarter. They put fences on the asphalt to form improvised barricades. They set fire to cardboard or containers. In the darkness of the night, the flames are fascinating. They do not take long to extinguish.

“Let him resign, because he governs without taking the people into account,” says one of the few women. Her name is Firouze, she is 37 years old. She explains that she is the mother of four children and that she educates them at home. Firouze assures that she does not miss a single protest. Her cause is ecology, but also pension reform. She wears a yellow vest, distinctive of the French who in 2018 rose up against the increase in fuel prices and put Macron in check. “We will not stop,” promises Firouze.

Demonstration in Paris, last Friday night.
Demonstration in Paris, last Friday night.DPA vía Europa Press (DPA vía Europa Press)

On the other bank of the Seine, sitting in her office in the National Assembly, the most powerful Macronist in the Chamber offered a few days ago another perspective for the day when the law would go into effect. Aurore Bergé presides over the Renaissance group, the first in number of deputies, and considered that the ruling of the Constitutional Court would put an end to the political process of the reform. A dialogue could then be opened with the unions and with the moderate opposition.

“The question is how to do it so that tensions and mobilization can stop and we can resume the dialogue,” Bergé said. “We will only move forward if there are reasonable people who agree to talk. It’s either this or the country is paralyzed, the Assembly paralyzed, the street paralyzed — and who wins in the end? The French?”

Turning the page

Macron will deliver a televised speech on Monday. He wants to turn the page, restart his presidency. Not even a year has passed since the French re-elected him for a second and final term.

The four years that remain until the next elections will be long. It remains to be seen whether the rest of the country wants to turn the page. The unions feel scorned, after successfully organizing 12 days of mass demonstrations over four months without Macron giving in on anything essential. The opposition — dominated on the left and right by the hardliners of both sides — has little incentive to help him. Without a majority in the Assembly, he will have a hard time governing. To make matters worse, he has lost the backing of his people, after months of tensions in the streets and in the hemicycle.

Dominique Moïsi — essayist, veteran political scientist, advisor to the think tank Institut Montaigne and author, among other books, of The Geopolitics of Emotions — points out with concern: “I don’t think I have ever felt so much uncertainty about the political future of my country”.

Moïsi drew this Saturday, in a telephone conversation, two possible scenarios. Scenario 1: “On May Day, there will be a big demonstration. But by spring and summer things will settle. In autumn the Rugby World Cup is held in France, and we are approaching the 2024 Olympic Games. The Notre Dame cathedral reopens triumphantly. And the French will resign themselves and Macron will win.” But the expert warns: “We should not prematurely bury the President of the Republic. He has a will to do things. The French can move on to another issue. This scenario, which is the one Macron expects, is accompanied by other things: he will try to balance this unpopular reform with popular reforms.” He adds, “This is not the most likely scenario, but I do not exclude it entirely. There is a lot of excitement, favored by the media, and it does not necessarily correspond to the reality in France.”

Scenario 2: “I will start with spectacular figures. On the eve of King Charles III’s visit to France, which did not take place [it was cancelled because of strikes, demonstrations and riots], a shocking poll came out: 70% of Britons had a positive view of the monarchy and 70% of French people had a negative view of Emmanuel Macron. There is something new in the resistance to Macron: this anger, this hatred. He is rejected like no other president before him. There is something deeply emotional: the president is too young, too handsome, too rich, too cultivated, too arrogant. He embodies everything that the vast majority of French people are not.” Moïsi reflects: “We are living a new situation: the president is protected by law, but for a majority of French people he is not legitimate”. And he sums up: “This second scenario seems to me more likely, or variations of this second one. Nothing has been resolved.”

In the immediate term, Macron could relieve his prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, whom he has charged with seeking ad hoc agreements with deputies of the right and the left willing to negotiate laws with the government. The success of the operation could determine his future. Another option would be a real coalition. Several people interviewed in recent weeks agree on this option: a formal alliance, for example, with The Republicans, the party of the moderate right.

“The only card he can play is that of a genuine coalition with the right, with an autonomous prime minister,” analyzed political scientist Chloé Morin. “As long as the French have the feeling that the prime minister is useless, because it is Macron who decides everything, I think things will remain blocked.”

The problem is that the concept of coalition is not in the president’s political DNA, according to consultant and essayist Alain Minc, who has known him since he was young. “Macron wants personal adhesions on the basis of his charm,” he said a few weeks ago in his Parisian office. “At the beginning it worked, but not anymore, first of all because he cannot be re-elected and his power will not stop falling.”

Lame duck syndrome

It is the lame duck syndrome: the president with neither capital nor political future surrounded by friends and rivals who want to take his chair away from him. Incapable of governing and influencing. Unable to seduce.

“Macron’s problem,” abounds the essayist and political scientist Moïsi, “is that he prefers to seduce than to convince.” Moïsi draws a parallel between French domestic policy and foreign policy, between the tribulations caused by the pension reform in France and the incomprehension caused by some of his statements in the international arena. The latest controversy, this week, erupted when he stated, after a trip to China, that Europe should distance itself from the United States in the crisis over Taiwan. A year ago controversy arose over Macron’s belief that he could dissuade Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine and later, for affirming that Russia should not be “humiliated” at the end of the war.

“He wanted to seduce Putin after having tried to seduce [Donald] Trump, and now he wants to seduce Xi Jinping. But not to convince Laurent Berger in France,” Moïsi says, alluding to the secretary general of the moderate CFDT union, who could have been his ally in the pension reform. “He seeks unattainable objectives with respect to authoritarian regimes, and, on the other hand, he has not equipped himself with the means to reach achievable objectives in negotiating with the unions, in particular with the CFDT.”

Does his proverbial ability to seduce no longer work for him? “Seducing the French and seducing foreign powers is no longer possible... The allies are suspicious and the rivals are cynical,” Moïsi answers.

In 2017, when that bold and free young man conquered power, he did seduce the French, but it is now evident that he did not convince them to accept the reforms with which he intended to transform France. Moïsi summarizes: “From the success of seduction to the failure of conviction.”

But in the end, without seducing or convincing, Macron has kept his promise. “We will adopt this reform,” promised one of his advisors at the beginning of the year. And on Friday, while visiting the works of Notre Dame, burned in 2019 and almost rebuilt, the president declared, “When you set a course, you move forward (...) Not giving up is my motto.” Mission accomplished?

Macron will be able to say that he will not have been like other predecessors of his, who let themselves be intimidated by the streets or the polls. He will not be a new Jacques Chirac, whom his minister and successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, called “the lazy king” for his reluctance to reform. Whether the anger will die down is another matter.

“Even if in the worst case we stop demonstrating, because we are tired, in six months we will start again,” promised Friday night Firouze, the yellow vester protesting in the backstreets of Le Marais. “Macron will again do nonsense, he will again make a law that will make people go out on the streets. I trust him to play us again!”

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