Hundreds of thousands of French citizens, possibly millions, will go on strike and demonstrate on Thursday for the ninth time in two months in the hope of forcing President Emmanuel Macron to abandon a law raising the legal retirement age to 64.
Nothing Macron said in a 35-minute television interview on Wednesday, his first public appearance since prime minister Élisabeth Borne rammed the legislation through the National Assembly without a vote on March 16th, was likely to calm the fury of the protesters.
Macron was combative, determined and unrepentant in the face of continuing unrest. The reform must enter into force “before the end of the year”, he said. “This reform is necessary. I’m not doing this for pleasure; I would have preferred not to do it, but that is also why I committed myself to doing it.”
The president’s only regret was “not having succeeded in convincing [the French] of the necessity of the reform”. He said he was “prepared to be unpopular”. Macron’s 28 per cent approval rating is the lowest since the yellow vest crisis which marred his first term in office.
Macron cannot stand for a third term. “I am not trying to be re-elected … but between short-term opinion polls and the general interest of the country, I chose the interest of the country,” he said, vowing “tenacity” and “commitment”.
For three months, pension reform has monopolised attention in France, superseding the war in Ukraine, inflation and the energy crisis. It has unleashed what Françoise Fressoz of Le Monde called “the regicidal impulses” of a segment of the French population.
[ Video: Protests take place across France as government survives two no-confidence votes ]
On March 16th, the day prime minister Borne used article 49.3 of the constitution to pass the law without a vote, the far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon orchestrated a 6,000-strong demonstration on the Place de la Concorde, where Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were guillotined. Protesters placed a mannequin resembling Macron in front of an oncoming train, and he is again being burned in effigy in French towns.
Demonstrations are organised like flash mobs via social media and occur daily in Paris and other cities. The crowds tend to be young, and often set fire to mountains of rotting garbage caused by a rubbish collectors strike. Trade unionists block petroleum storage sites with burning tyres. Ports, highways, electric plants and universities have been blocked. More than 14 per cent of petrol stations report shortages.
Many of Macron’s supporters regret that he did not have the political courage to put the pension reform law to a vote which he feared losing. He and Borne both proclaim the procedure, known simply as “le 49.3″ to have been perfectly democratic. Borne has used it 11 times in one year.
The law had been “enriched by parliamentarians”, Macron said, “voted by the Senate” and “adopted by the Assembly following the use of the article called 49.3, so by a vote of a no-confidence motion against the government which failed”, he explained.
According to this sinuous logic, the law is legitimate because a majority of deputies did not vote for a no-confidence motion on Monday. One of two no-confidence motions fell only nine votes short of the 287 it would have taken to bring down the government.
Trade unionists and leftists, the most vocal opponents to the law, were scathing in their criticism of Macron’s television interview. The president “is completely cut off from reality”, Mélenchon said, accusing Macron of proffering “his traditional forms of contempt”.
Olivier Faure, the leader of the now tiny Socialist party, said Macron’s “disconnection” was “more and more visible. He doesn’t listen anymore. He’s in his world, in his bunker”.
Philippe Martinez, the head of the communist trade union CGT, called Macron’s interview outlandish. “It was, ‘Everything is fine. I’m doing everything right. Nothing is going on in the street’.”
Even Cécile Cornudet, the editorialist for the economic daily Les Échos, hardly a mouthpiece for the left, wrote this week that Macron is in denial and is attempting to resume his term in office as if nothing has happened.
Macron summoned parliamentary deputies from his Renaissance group to the Élysée on Tuesday night. His remark that “The crowd has no legitimacy compared to the sovereign people who express themselves through elected representatives” was widely reported and construed as provocative.
Asked about the statement, Macron said on Wednesday that he was referring to elected officials who have been attacked for supporting the pension reform, and that he had the invasion of the US Capitol by Donald Trump’s supporters and similar actions by Jair Bolsonaro’s followers in Brasília in mind.
For all Macron’s determination, his reform is not certain to take effect. Reforms passed without votes were withdrawn at least twice in the past after they became law, under pressure from the street. The Constitutional Council may pronounce the pension reform law unconstitutional, and left-wing deputies dream of reversing the reform through a “referendum of shared initiative”, a complex process which has until now never been seen through.
Macron renewed his confidence in Borne. He has ruled out measures suggested to defuse the political crisis: a cabinet reshuffle with the creation of a coalition government, dissolving the legislature or calling a referendum himself. He has no majority to govern for the next four years, but as he said on Wednesday, there is no alternative majority either.