OPINION: Macron, the government and France itself all lose from the pensions debacle

After a tumultuous 24 hours in the French parliament and on the streets, John Lichfield looks at what happens next for Emmanuel Macron, for his embattled prime minister and for the strike-weary country.

OPINION: Macron, the government and France itself all lose from the pensions debacle
Burning barriers during a demonstration on Place de la Concorde, after the French government pushed a pensions reform through parliament without a vote. Photo by Alain JOCARD / AFP

Emmanuel Macron likes to take risks. To insist on a hated but necessary pension reform at a time of crisis abroad and dissension at home was, from the beginning, a calculated risk.  

On Thursday afternoon afternoon the President found himself confronted, like one of the priggish heroes of classic French tragedy, with a choice between two great risks. 

He could allow the pension reform to go to a vote in the National Assembly which he would probably lose – with potentially calamitous results for France’s standing in world financial markets.

Or he could impose the reform by the special powers given to French governments under Article 49.3 of the constitution. Three of his most senior ministers pleaded with him not to do so, according to Le Monde. They warned of a conflagration of popular anger which might eclipse the worst moments of the Gilets Jaunes movement in 2018-9.

Better, they said, to lose the vote democratically and move on with the remaining four years of his second term. But move on to what?

Pension reform, Macron had edicted last year, was the key to all other reforms: a first, indispensable step towards taming budget deficits and increasing France’s capacity to generate wealth for all.

The riots overnight in Paris and several other French cities suggest that the ministers were right to warn of the dark public mood.

There had been an atmosphere of public insurrection for several days, with militant union branches cutting off power to whole neighbourhoods of provincial towns, including, in two cases, hospitals. Mountains of uncollected rubbish had piled up in |Paris, providing ready-made bonfires for Thursday night’s rioters.

It is important, however, to look at who last night’s rioters were. They were mostly the young, black clad, self-pleased urban, middle-class, anti-system revolutionaries who attach themselves to all street protests in France. It is difficult to believe that they were sincerely outraged by the possibility that they might have to work until they are 64 instead of 62.

Unlike the Yellow Vest movement, this was not – or not yet – a spontaneous outbreak of genuine popular anger. It remains to be seen what happens on the following nights.

It also remains to be seen how much support there will be for the ninth union “day of action” against pension reform and Article 49.3 which has been called next Thursday. Opposition to a later retirement age is deep and sincere in France but there is also much strike fatigue after two months of on-off protests.

Is this the beginning of a new May 1968 or July 1789? I doubt it.

Pension reform can still be stopped if a majority of the National Assembly votes for a motion to censure the government. The Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne and her government would then also be forced to resign.

A censure motion must attract an absolute majority of votes – 287. To succeed, it would need the support of around 40 of the 61 centre-right Les Républicains (LR) deputies.  

Since a successful censure vote might force an early parliamentary election which would devastate the centre-right, that seems highly improbable.

Macron and Borne had hoped for – and been promised on several occasions – the backing of at least 35 of the LR deputies in yesterday’s vote on pension reform. When it came to the final muster, the LR leadership – which had supported and largely shaped the legislation – could guarantee only 28.

It was that bleak news, in a phone call to Borne from LR leaders, that persuaded Macron to impose the law by means of Article  49.3. He waited until ten minutes before the Assembly vote was due to start in the desperate hope that the votes could be found.

Why such a fuss, you might ask, about the fact that Macron has used a constitutional weapon thoughtfully provided by President Charles de Gaulle 65 years ago? Article 49.3 has been used 100 times since then by all presidents and by governments of all persuasions – including ten times by Elisabeth Borne to unblock the 2023 state budget last autumn and winter.

What is Article 49.3 and how often do French governments use it?

There is a difference – as Macron knew, hence his dilemma yesterday – between using A.49.3 to keep the state machinery going and using it to impose a pension reform which is opposed by 70 percent of French adults.

Beyond that, there has been a “hystericizing” of all politics in France since the old left-right system fell apart (something Macron himself encouraged and benefited from).  There has been a hsytericizing of the use of Article 49.3 (which is perfectly legal after all).

There has especially been a hystericizing of the pensions’ debate. It is reasonable and respectable to question the need for this reform and the need for it to happen now. It is not reasonable or respectable to describe it as “brutal” and “violent” as the unions and opposition have done.

If the reform goes ahead – as it almost certainly will – French people will still have a lower official retirement age in 2030 than most European countries do already.

The perennial losses of the supposedly self-financing pension system are a serious burden on French state finances. When Macron referred to his fear of the reaction of world financial markets, as he did on Thursday, this is treated in the French media as a kind of “gotcha” moment. “See, this was all about pleasing the  bankers.”

Reality checkpoint. A country whose accumulated debt amounts to 114 percent of its national annual income – and a country which has not balanced its state budget for half a century – cannot afford to annoy its bankers too much for too long.

No one emerges from the pension saga with credit. Macron has been largely absent from an argument which he started. Elisabeth Borne has presented a complicated plan in a muddled and unconvincing way.

The Left has been hysterical. The Far Right has smiled smugly, hoping to profit but contributing nothing sensible.

The centre-right, remnant of the great Gaullist movement, have demanded and promised much but their lies, selfishness and internal quarrels led the government into an elephant trap. They appear, more than ever, doomed as a serious political movement.

All are to blame but only one person will pay with her job.

Elisabeth Borne will survive the censure motion but she will be replaced by Macron within a month or so. It is an iron rule of French politics that the PM suffers for failure, not the President.

A new prime minister will be appointed to deliver the rest of Macron’s agenda. Good luck with that.

Pension reform was supposed to be the key to other reforms but the manner in which it was achieved will make any other reform or initiatives hard to deliver.

And the French will still have to work a little longer, whether they like it or not.

It is lose-lose all round.

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OPINION: Despite pension reform passing, Macron faces four years as a ‘blocked’ president

The president on Wednesday tried to sell the French people on his new ideas for the next four years of his term in office, but John Lichfield sees little chance of him being able to progress his agenda, even after pension protests have subsided.

OPINION: Despite pension reform passing, Macron faces four years as a 'blocked' president

President Emmanuel Macron has finally made the case for pension reform – six days after his government used special powers to ram it through the National Assembly.

His appearance on the 1pm TV news on Wednesday was both a typical Macron performance and rather strange.

Strange, first of all, because he chose to speak to the lunchtime news bulletins, which are traditionally dominated by old ways making lace or new ways of making cheese.

Strange also because Macron made a rather good case for his pension reform – and it is largely “his” reform – after choosing to evade the debate for months.

There have been six days of sometimes violent protest since the pension bill – gradually increasing France’s official retirement age from 62 to 64 – was pushed through the Assembly without a “normal” vote. There will be a ninth day of nationwide strikes and marches on Thursday.

Macron’s 40-minute interview was not pitched at the strikers or violent protesters. Short of a capitulation, he knew that they had no interest in what he might say.

The interview was pitched at a notional silent majority of French people who detest pension reform but also now want to go on with their lives. Hence the choice of the 1pm TV news bulletins. They are watched by an elderly, provincial audience. The presenters mostly skirt controversy (and the news) to celebrate a universal and eternal France.

In other words, Macron is trying to play a long game. He is waiting for the storm to pass. He is counting on a public backlash to gather against the disruption of the strikes and the violence of a minority of protesters.

The President offered – again somewhat belatedly – a list of the more agreeable reforms which might be completed in the final four years of his mandate if normal political life resumes.

There could, he said, be new legislation to force large companies to share “exceptional profits” with their workers rather than increase their bosses’ salaries or buy back company shares.

You can listen to John Lichfield talk about the political crisis engulfing France in our new Talking France podcast on Spotify, Apple or Google podcasts. Download it HERE or listen on the link below.


He invited the unions to put the toys back into the pram and start a new “dialogue” with the government on ways of easing the final working years of people in physically demanding jobs. He did not mention that similar measures once existed but were dismantled during his first term.

His defence of the pension reform was drawn from the “blood, sweat and tears” school of political rhetoric (but accurate enough). France could not preserve its posterity and social model if it persisted in working less than its partners and competitors, he said.

What did people expect of him, he asked ? That he should “do as my predecessors did and sweep the dirt under the carpet?”

It is a pity, and a mystery, that Macron not make this case weeks ago. Instead, he chose to leave the selling of the reform to the Prime Minister, Elisabeth Borne, and her ministers, who alternated between describing it as “tough but fair” and a “left-wing” social advance.

On Borne’s future, Macron was not entirely convincing. Many people, including myself, have predicted that she will pay the traditional price of French prime ministers  and will be dumped by Macron within a month or so to try to clear the air or give a new sense of direction to the government.

Macron said, rather curtly, that Borne had his “confidence”, But he also said that he expected her to enlarge her centrist minority government by finding new parliamentary allies from the centre-right or centre-left.

She has tried that before and failed. My interpretation of Macron’s words is that, if she fails again, he will appoint a new prime minister who may be able to lasso a few of the 30 or so centre-right Les Républicains (LR) deputies who supported the reform and then helped to defeat opposition censure motions on Monday.

Les Républicains, the rump of the once-great Gaullist movement, have been shattered by the pensions reform crisis. That may eventually be good news for Macron or his would-be centrist successors. It may, however, also be good news for Marine Le Pen.

So what now?

Macron seemed to say at one point that he was anticipating another two to three weeks of demonstrations and strikes before the protests subsided. He may be right. It is worth recalling, however, that the Giles Jaune (yellow vest) rebellion lasted for six months in 2018-9 before it petered out.

The problem facing the trades unions is to keep the protests going. There will be a huge turn-out for the marches on Thursday but the bigger the numbers, the harder they will be to sustain in the days and weeks ahead.

The open-ended oil refinery and rubbish-collection strikes are beginning to cause real problems – and also real annoyance. It is that swing in the public mood that Macron is relying on.

The pension reform law is being studied by the Constitutional Council. The great and good members of the Council must pronounce within three weeks. If they reject the law (possible but unlikely), Macron will be humiliated and the protests will have no reason to continue.

If they approve the law, the protests may subside.

Either way, I see little chance of Macron getting much domestic business done in his final four years. The pension law was supposed to be the gateway to other reforms.

Despite the would-be, feel-good agenda that the President offered, despite the inevitable decline in protests, there is no obvious way forward.

Pensions may end up, not as the gateway to further reform, but as a flaming barricade.