When confronted with domestic stalemate and strife, French presidents have tended to take refuge in foreign affairs. It is certainly open to Emmanuel Macron to continue that tradition. His international stature – and, consequently, that of his country – has been enhanced by a confluence of factors, including Brexit, Angela Merkel's slow departure from office and the inward turn of the US under Donald Trump. On issues ranging from the climate crisis to European defence, Macron has used his personal charisma and ambition to assume a position of global leadership.
Yet a man whose electoral success was built on the claim that France must not merely be "reformed" but "transformed" has a great deal riding on his latest domestic challenge – a standoff with trade unions over sweeping changes to the pensions system. Macron's plan would replace a sprawling system of 42 regimes – including one that allows train drivers to retire by 52 – and result in public-sector pensions being calculated according to the same, less favourable, rules as private ones. A new points system would benefit those, including many women, who have had gaps in their working lives, while the highest earners would pay more towards the pensions of others. Although the retirement age would remain at 62, a new "equilibrium age" would give people an incentive to continue at work beyond that.
Macron's government has aggravated the situation by over-emphasising the later retirement age and not sufficiently stressing the plan's progressive elements
Unions are resisting. Transport strikes have brought chaos to French cities in recent weeks, and teachers have staged walk-outs every few days. It's a tactic that has worked in the past. Under Jacques Chirac in 1995, then prime minister Alain Juppé famously gave in on a less ambitious pension reform after a few weeks of transport disruption. But the unions are also wary of overplaying their hand: they recall that in 2010, after another industrial relations dispute, then president Nicolas Sarkozy diluted his own pension reform plan but still managed to push through an increase in the retirement age from 60 to 62.
Macron’s government has aggravated the situation by over-emphasising the later retirement age and not sufficiently stressing the plan’s progressive elements, such as a proposed minimum monthly pension for those who earn very little. Prime minister Édouard Philippe inexplicably referred to a “malus” – the opposite of a bonus – for people who stop working before 64.
For Macron, now just over half-way through his term, this is a battle he cannot lose. Opinion polls show that a majority of French people continue to support or sympathise with the strikers, which will encourage the unions. But they know they must tread carefully: attendance at mass rallies have halved since the protests began, while severe disruption over Christmas could provoke a backlash in a population where trade union membership is low by European standards.