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PARIS—Since he took office six years ago, French President Emmanuel Macron has hardly had a moment of plain sailing. First came the so-called yellow vests, whose often violent protests against taxes and economic inequality rocked France for months between 2018 and 2019. A destructive pandemic followed. As soon as that began to abate, Russia started the largest European war in decades right on the European Union’s doorstep.

Yet, Macron has never been in as much trouble as in recent days. His decision on March 16 to force through his wildly unpopular pension reform bill without a final vote by the National Assembly by invoking a controversial article of the constitution has infuriated opponents and sparked one of the most serious crises in the history of France’s Fifth Republic. 

Mobilization against the reform, which raises the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 to make the French pension system more financially sustainable, began in January and drew hundreds of thousands of people to the streets again and again. But over the last week, protests have broken out every day, with clashes between demonstrators and the police growing more frequent and violent. Thursday saw one of the largest turnouts yet, with somewhere between 1 and 3.5 million people rallying across France. Strikers are disrupting public transport and road traffic in parts of the country on a daily basis as well as blockading several oil refineries and depots, causing fuel shortages at gas stations and airports. Meanwhile, thousands of tons of trash continue to pile up in the streets of Paris and other cities, as a result of rolling walkouts by garbage collectors.

“There is a feeling that the president isn’t listening to his people at the moment,” said Célia Belin, who runs the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank. “The political legitimacy of Macron’s second mandate is being called into question.”

His legitimacy outside France might suffer too. Macron has always aspired to play a large role in Europe and beyond, and observers expect him to focus even more on international issues in the coming years in a bid to seek respite from his troubles at home. But the crisis at home is already undermining him elsewhere. On Friday, a long-planned state visit to France by Britain’s King Charles III, which was supposed to celebrate cross-English Channel relations and included a dinner in the splendor of the Palace of Versailles, was postponed amid security and public relations concerns by the Élysée, with French media speaking of “humiliation” for Macron.

By potentially turbocharging more extremist views—far-right leader Marine Le Pen is the biggest political beneficiary of the popular fury at Macron—the pension fight might also undermine centrist parties like Macron’s in the European Parliament, which is due to hold elections next year.

Macron insists that the reform was part of the program that got him reelected last year and was passed with a perfectly legitimate procedure, following lengthy debates in parliament and with trade unions. With two-thirds of the French opposing the law and his approval rating at a dismal 28 percent, Macron said he is willing to make unpopular choices for “the general interest of the country.”

“He intends to go down in history as the big reformer, who was able to change French society even against the will of the French themselves,” said Luc Rouban, a political scientist at Sciences Po university in Paris. With his time in office going by fast, “he is trying to push through at all costs a number of reforms that he considers essential.”

Gone are the days when Macron sought to appease the yellow vests by backtracking on the fuel price hike that sparked their revolt and launching a “grand national debate” with civil society. “He is a far cry from his talk, typical of his first term, about a more horizontal, consensual decision-making,” Rouban said. “What we are seeing now is unilateral action.” (French presidents are limited to a maximum of two five-year terms, so Macron’s legacy is in the balance.)

Article 49.3 of the French Constitution, the lever Macron used to get his reform approved, allows a bill to be pushed through parliament without a vote. Opposition parties can launch no-confidence motions against the government in response—and they did against Macron, twice, but both failed. The article is a key provision of a constitution largely shaped by former French President Charles de Gaulle’s desire to have a stable political system as he established the Fifth Republic in 1958, after a decade of short-lived, inefficient cabinets. 

The special powers have been used generously ever since, an average of 1.5 times per year. But Macron, who lost his absolute majority in parliament last summer, has instructed his prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, to invoke the procedure a whopping 11 times in less than a year—making her the prime minister who has triggered it the most after socialist Michel Rocard, who relied on it 28 times between 1988 and 1991.

To critics, this amounts to authoritarianism. “They want to govern by decree, without the National Assembly,” said Raquel Garrido, a parliamentarian with La France Insoumise left-wing party. 

Borne’s government has survived, so far, thanks to divisions in the opposition camp, with the conservatives, the far right, and the left all reluctant to form a common front. But the margins are getting wafer-thin. This week, one of the no-confidence motions failed by just nine votes.

The question is whether Macron’s tough approach hasn’t turned him into a lame duck. With the exception of budget bills, the 49.3 procedure can only be invoked once per parliamentary term, and Macron, who still has four years in the top job, will need to reach out to the opposition to get things done. Given his treatment of the legislative body, lawmakers across the aisle will hardly be in the mood for cross-party cooperation. 

Macron is not completely cornered—yet. In a sign that despite the tensions it’s still possible to find some common ground, text that facilitates the construction of new nuclear reactors was approved with a large majority by the National Assembly this week. “We managed to find compromises, reach deals, convince MPs who are not part of our camp to vote with us and allow France to move forward,” said Violette Spillebout, a parliamentarian with Macron’s Renaissance party. 

At the same time though, the government had to pull a divisive immigration bill from the Senate’s agenda, reportedly after the French president was warned that it faced too bumpy a road. “Macron will have to adopt a case-by-case approach, without embarking on any long-term grand projects,” Rouban said.

Beyond Macron’s political woes, there are fears that recent events will further alienate France from the democratic process—and it was already distrustful. In 2021, only around 30 percent of the French said they had confidence in the government, more than 10 points lower than the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development average. Now, 7 out of 10 people say the way the pension reform was approved was undemocratic, and the same percentage feel “anger” about it. 

This kind of situation “can produce a rejection of the political class as a whole, which translates into abstentionism as well as an attraction to the extremes, particularly the extreme right,” said Michel Wieviorka, director of research at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences in Paris. According to polls, Le Pen is the public figure that best embodies the opposition to Macron’s pension reform, closely followed by radical left-wing firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon. More than 60 percent of respondents believe Le Pen is emerging from this crisis stronger than before. 

Both Le Pen and Mélenchon hold deeply Eurosceptic views, and their surge in popularity as a result of the current crisis may well have consequences for the balance of power in Brussels. France has the second-largest delegation of representatives in the European Parliament after Germany’s. “We can expect [Macron’s] Renaissance party to struggle in the European elections,” Belin said.

Meanwhile, the pension reform battle is anything but over. The law is already facing legal challenges, and opposition deputies are seeking a referendum against it. Trade unions are keeping the pressure up, calling for another day of mass rallies early next week. 

“The mobilization and the strikes are becoming generalized, and the government won’t be able to respond simply with police crackdowns. There isn’t enough room in prisons,” said Garrido, the left-leaning deputy.

Recent history provides several examples of French governments forced to cave to protests. In 2006, then-conservative Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin sought to boost youth employment by introducing a new contract that allowed young employees to be laid off at will within two years of starting. The bill became law, but it was ultimately repealed after millions of people took to the streets for three months in a row. That measure, too, was jammed through using de Gaulle’s—and Macron’s—now infamous 49.3.

To Save His Pension Reform Bill, Macron Has Lost France

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