Macron’s leadership at risk amid pension tensions

PARIS (AP) — A spoof photo that appeared on protest signs and online in France shows President Emmanuel Macron sitting on piles of garbage. It’s both a reference to the rubbish not being collected with Paris’ health workers on strike, and to what many French people think of their leader.

Macron had hoped his push to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 would cement his legacy as the president who transformed the French economy for the 21st century. Instead, he finds his leadership contested, both in parliament and on the streets of major cities.

His brazen move to force passage of a pension reform bill without a vote has infuriated the political opposition and could hamper his government’s ability to pass legislation for the remaining four years of his term.

Protesters hoisted the parody photo of the protests after Macron chose at the last minute on Thursday to invoke the government’s constitutional power to pass the bill without a vote in the National Assembly.

In his first public comment on the issue since then, the 45-year-old leader expressed his desire for the bill “to reach the end of its democratic path in an atmosphere of respect for all,” according to a statement Sunday from his office provided to the Associated Press.

Since becoming president in 2017, Macron has often been accused of arrogance and lack of contact. Perceived as “the president of the rich”, he sparked resentment for telling an unemployed man that he only needed to “cross the street” to find work and by suggesting that some French workers were “lazy”.

Now, Macron’s government has been alienating citizens “for a long time” to come by using the special authority it has under Article 49.3 of the French constitution to force a largely unpopular change, said Brice Teinturier, deputy director general of the institute Ipsos constituency.

He said the only winners of the situation were far-right leader Marine Le Pen and her National Rally party, “which continues its strategy of both ‘getting respectable’ and oppose Macron,” and French trade unions. Le Pen finished second to Macron in the country’s last two presidential elections.

As the piles of garbage get bigger and their smell gets worse, many people in Paris blame Macron, not the striking workers.

Macron has repeatedly said he believes France’s pension system needs to be changed to keep it funded. He says other proposed options, such as raising the already heavy tax burden, would alienate investors and that reducing the pensions of current retirees was not a realistic alternative.

Public displays of displeasure can weigh heavily on your future decisions. Spontaneous, sometimes violent protests that have erupted in Paris and across the country in recent days have contrasted with the largely peaceful demonstrations and strikes previously organized by major French unions.

Macron’s re-election for a second term last April strengthened his position as a senior player in Europe. He has campaigned on a pro-business agenda, pledging to tackle pensions and saying the French need to “work longer”.

In June, Macron’s centrist alliance lost its majority in the lower house of parliament, although it still holds more seats than other political parties. At the time, he said his government wanted to “legislate differently,” based on compromises with a number of political groups.

Since then, Conservative lawmakers have agreed to back a few bills that fit their policies. But tensions over pensions and a widespread lack of trust between ideologically different parties could put an end to attempts to seek a compromise.

Macron’s political opponents in the National Assembly tabled two no-confidence motions against Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne’s government on Friday. Government officials are hoping to survive a vote on motions set for Monday because the opposition is divided, with many Republicans expected not to support it.

If a motion passes, however, it would be a blow to Macron: the pensions bill would be rejected and his cabinet would have to resign. If so, the president would have to appoint a new cabinet and find that his ability to pass legislation is weakened.

Macron especially hopes to propose new measures aimed at reducing the French unemployment rate to 5%, from the current 7.2%, by the end of his second and final mandate.

If no-confidence motions fail, Macron could impose a higher retirement age but try to appease his critics with a cabinet reshuffle.

In any case, Macron would keep his post until his mandate expires in 2027 and would retain substantial powers over foreign policy, European affairs and defence. As commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he can make decisions on France’s support for Ukraine and other global issues without parliamentary approval.

France’s strong presidential powers are a legacy of General Charles de Gaulle’s desire for a stable political system for the Fifth Republic he founded in 1958.

Another option in the hands of the president is to dissolve the National Assembly and call for early parliamentary elections.

That scenario seems unlikely for now, since the unpopularity of the pension plan means Macron’s alliance is unlikely to secure a majority of seats. And if he wins another party, he would have to appoint a prime minister from the majority faction, giving the government the power to implement policies that diverge from the president’s priorities.

Le Pen said he would welcome a dissolution.

And Mathilde Panot, a lawmaker for the left-wing Nupes coalition, sarcastically said on Thursday that it was a “very good” idea for Macron to dissolve the Assembly and trigger elections.

“I think it would be a good opportunity for the country to reaffirm that yes, they want the retirement age to go down to 60,” Panot said. “The Nupes are always available to govern.”


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