Wherever he goes, he is followed by boos and heckles. French President Emmanuel Macron was expecting this response after he signed his controversial pension reform into law on Saturday. The law — which raises the retirement age from 62 to 64 — has sparked mass demonstrations across the country, and is opposed by seven out of 10 French people. The protests that met Macron provide some indication of how difficult it will be for him to meet his promise to soothe tensions within 100 days.
The first test came on Wednesday, when Macron traveled to Alsace — his first visit outside of Paris since signing the pension reform into law. In the rural region, he was met with hundreds of protesters, who called for him to resign. The response was just as negative during his Thursday visit to Occitania. But the Élysée Palace, the official residence of the French president, wanted to send a message: Macron does not intend to hide out in Paris and will try to reconnect with the French people.
As a first step in this plan, Macron announced on Thursday a pay rise for primary and high school teachers of between €100 and €230 a month. A day earlier, French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said that he wanted to “get rid of taking points away for speed infractions of less than 5km/h.” Both are popular measures. Unions have been repeatedly calling for salary hikes for teachers. And the 2018 Yellow Vest protest movement was partially triggered by the French government’s decision to limit the speed on two-lane highways to 80 kilometers per hour.
But easing the unrest in France will take a lot more. Hundreds of protesters came out to jeer Macron on Thursday, during his visit to Ganges. Ahead of the event, local authorities announced a ban on “portable sound equipment,” but officers from the French National Gendarmerie also turned away protesters carrying pots and pans — in France and other European countries, bashing pots is a common protest tactic. The Élysée told journalists that this was due to a misunderstanding and that the officers had misinterpreted the orders of the prefect, the representative of the state in the provinces.
Macron also had an exchange on Thursday with Sébastien Rome, a local lawmaker for the leftist party La France Insoumisa.
“The resistance is a bit far away, you can’t hear it, but it’s there,” he told Macron.
“We can go see it,” replied Macron.
“I think they are waiting for you,” said Rome.
“If it is only for the eggs and the pans, in my house they are used for cooking,” quipped Macron.
Macron was also confronted by a woman in the municipality of Perols, who called for him to resign.
“I’m not going to resign, I promise you. You will have to wait until 2027,” Macron replied, in reference to the year of the next presidential elections. Under French rules, the 45-year-old, who was re-elected a year ago, cannot run for a third term.
“The first time you were elected,” the woman replied, “I thought you were at least a bit democratic.”
Macron stated: “There is a lot of talk about democracy. Democracy is saying what is going to be done and doing what you said.”
This exchange summed up the divisions in France. Macron’s opponents believe he has acted undemocratically by passing the pension reform by decree — instead of submitting it to a vote in Parliament. This action was taken despite the mass demonstrations against the plan, and the fact that it is opposed by most French people. Some of these critics only voted for Macron in the runoff of the 2022 presidential elections to prevent far-right leader Marine Le Pen from coming to power.
Macron, on the other hand, argues that raising the retirement age was a campaign promise. And that, despite the fact that it was an unpopular measure, no other candidate obtained as many votes — not only in the runoff, where he secured leftist voters against Le Pen — but also in the first round, where voters are expected to express their first preference. The president argues that the law was passed through democratic means, even if he did need to resort to controversial article 49.3 of the Constitution, which allowed him to force the bill through parliament without a vote. His government has also survived two no-confidence votes, indicating that no other party has an alternative majority.
“Democracy does not only exist in the wording of the Constitution, but also in the spirit of its institutions. There is a spirit of democracy. The Constitution has been respected, but the spirit has been violated,” historian Pierre Rosanvallon, one of the most respected intellectual figures in France, told the popular TV program Le Quotidien. “I am angry, because I think, as a historian, that we are going through the most serious democratic crisis that France has known since the conflict of the Algerian war.”
Macron responded to his comments on Wednesday, saying: “I respect the intellectual, but I fear that sometimes he is becoming a militant.”
According to local lawmaker Patrick Vignal, although there were a lot of protesters at Macron’s appearance, “the president appeared comfortable.” He pointed out that there are a lot of grievances in France: “Not only over pensions, but also due to the loss of purchasing power. Added to this is the war in Ukraine and before that, it was Covid.” “We have to reinvent ourselves,” he added. “I trust the president. But there is still a long way to go. It is a challenge.”
The Élysée argues that anger over pension reform has coincided with social fatigue caused by the pandemic and rising inflation. Many French people feel that, unlike before, one crisis leads to another. In other words, that there is no respite. Macron, however, is confident that the anger over the pension reform will subside after the May Day demonstrations, and that unions will return to the negotiating table. But he knows it won’t be easy.
On Monday, in a televised address, Macron said: “We have ahead of us 100 days of appeasement, unity, ambition and action for France.” There is nothing casual about the deadline: it coincides with Bastille Day on July 14 — the French national holiday that marks the end of the political year, and the beginning of the summer break.
But 100 days is also a powerful symbol. It evokes Franklin D. Roosevelt’s swift action to ease the Great Depression in his first 100 days of office, as well as the 100 days between Napoleon’s return from exile on the island of Elba to the second restoration of King Louis XVIII in Paris. But in the case of France, it is also a portentous symbol: those 100 days culminated with Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo.
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