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
French President Emmanuel Macron is seen on screen as he speaks during a TV interview from the Elysee Palace. Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP

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.

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OPINION: Macron has largely solved French unemployment – so why does France give him no credit?

Soaring unemployment was one of France's biggest problems for decades - now the country could be on track for full employment, thanks in large part to the policies of Emmanuel Macron. So why does he get no credit?

OPINION: Macron has largely solved French unemployment - so why does France give him no credit?

French unemployment is the lowest for 40 years. The rate of employment – a figure less often quoted – is the highest for almost half a century.

A grateful nation rejoices. Er, no.

A decade ago unemployment, which was then around 13 percent, was the cause of national misery par excellence. President François Hollande’s five years in office were wrecked by his failure to keep his promise to “reverse the curve of unemployment”.  

Unemployment is now 7.1 percent and falling. There is a good chance that President Emmanuel Macron will keep his promise to restore “full employment” – defined as 5.5 percent of working age people officially without a job – by the time that he leaves office in 2027.

By that measure alone (other measures are available) Macron’s presidency has been an extraordinary success for which the French people give him no credit.

Unemployment was one of the noisiest issues in French politics in the four decades up to 2020. Now France has changed the question.

Only 12 percent of people tell pollsters that unemployment is their greatest concern. The pressing issues for the French people are; the cost of living, insecurity and health. (Immigration comes relatively low down the list despite the permanent nervous breakdown on the subject on the Right and Far Right).

Here is the first explanation for the curious absence of national rejoicing. Emmanuel Macron gets no credit for “solving” the unemployment problem because it is no longer a problem.    

If pressed on the subject, his critics and enemies downplay, or pour scorn, on his success.

 “Unemployment is falling throughout Europe”.

(True but France has not always followed a positive EU  pattern in the past.)

“They are all Uber-jobs or McJobs, precarious, part-time or poorly paid.”

(Untrue. According to the latest statistics from INSEE, France’s official statistics office, the number of permanent contracts has increased by 20 percent in the last three years. The number of full-time workers is the highest since records began in 1975.)

“Unemployment is falling for demographic reasons as the population ages.”

(Marginally true at best. The size of the active population in France is still growing, although its rate of increase has slowed.)

France is now actually creating jobs at a rate higher than its modest economic growth explains. There are also many tens of thousands of empty posts unfilled.


It used to be very expensive to hire people in France and very difficult to fire them. That has changed over the last decade, although the cost of labour (wages plus pay-roll taxes to fund social policies) is still higher in France than it is in Germany and all EU countries outside Scandinavia).

President Nicolas Sarkozy began to reduce payroll taxes in 2007-12. President Hollande, with Macron as his economy minister, continued the process in 2012-6.

He also began to make hiring and firing less complicated. He was detested for it by some in his own Socialist party and the wider Left.

Macron has accelerated the changes in the last six years, with changes in pay-roll and business taxes that are criticised by businesses as vastly complicated and by the Left as “a giant present to the bosses”. He has also simplified/reduced job protections and stiffened the rules for claiming unemployment pay.

Permanent contracts are no longer quite so unbreakable; as a result employers are more likely to sign them.

Does all that explain the fall in the number of unemployed? The Left and the unions say that the tax-breaks have mostly gone into the pockets of “les patrons” – as if paying a huge levy on jobs was somehow normal. The right and far right prefer to talk about immigration and crime – not the modest shift away from high taxes on employment and enterprise which they theoretically support.

All the credit for the fall in unemployment should perhaps not go to Macron. The fact that he is given no credit is perverse.

A problem solved is no longer a problem. No French president is ever popular while in office.

But there is something about Macron which the French particularly love to hate.

Recent insults include: he is a “contemptuous, little technocrat”. His “feet are permanently off the ground”.

Some of this exaggerated Macron-bashing can perhaps be explained by traits in Macron’s character.

The dominant tribes of Left and Right in France have splintered and moved further to the Left and the Right. Macron played his part in encouraging that process; he is now detested from both sides.

He has no natural media constituency of the kind that somewhat protected Sarkozy or Hollande in their darkest days.

About 30 percent of the country (centrist, pro-European, disproportionately old) sticks with Macron. The rest wallows in a near-hysterical hatred of the man who has presided over the solution of the country’s most tenacious problem of the last four decades.

That may something about Macron; it says more about France.