French pension reform resentment seen boosting Le Pen
By Elizabeth Pineau
PARIS (Reuters) - There is growing concern in the corridors of power in France that a fractious parliamentary debate over pension reform plans is playing into the hands of far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who is eyeing the 2027 presidential election, sources say.
Faced with a growing debt pile swollen further by the COVID pandemic, French President Emmanuel Macron is trying to push through changes he says are vital to plugging a projected deficit in the pension system and saving it from collapse.
But after more than a month of heated debate on the bill in the lower house, which failed to review all of the legislation before a Friday deadline, polls suggest Le Pen's strategy of non-obstructive opposition is winning over public opinion.
Unlike the left-wing opposition bloc which went to war over the reforms, filing thousands of amendments to slow down their passage in parliament and trading barbs with Macron's party, Le Pen's 68 besuited lawmakers chose a more discreet approach.
They said they opposed the changes in media interviews and understated speeches, and consistently voted against them when they came up in motions, saying the plans imposed an unfair burden on people.
But they steered clear of obstructive amendments, provocations and heated rhetoric - a demonstration of Le Pen's plan to "de-demonise" her party and distance it from the more inflammatory policies and tactics it was known for in the past.
According to an IFOP poll published on Monday, Le Pen was the public figure who best "embodied" opposition to the reform, with 46% of respondents saying she embodied opposition well, compared with 43% for left-wing firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon and 41% for CGT union leader Philippe Martinez.
The poll also showed Le Pen's Rassemblement National (National Rally) movement was now the most popular party in France, with 35% saying they had a "good opinion" of it, ahead of 28% for Macron's Renaissance party and 34% for the Greens.
"They're winning the battle of respectability and Marine Le Pen is on course to win the battle of credibility," one French minister told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
"We're not throwing enough punches," the minister added.
One particular segment of voters could be pushed into the hands of the far-right by the reform, political expert Bruno Cautres said: working-class women, who may have to work longer because they had to stop work to raise children.
"That's the right profile for the RN, that's for sure," Cautres said. "The RN feeds on the feeling of a power that doesn't listen to the people and the feeling that it's always the same ones that are being asked to make efforts."
SWERVE TO THE LEFT?
Huge crowds took to the streets to oppose the reforms whose main plank is to raise the minimum legal age to draw a full pension to 64 from 62. Keeping with her strategy, Le Pen stayed away from the rallies and demonstrations.
It is still unclear whether the changes will be approved by parliament, where Macron has no outright majority, or if the government will have to ram them through by decree using special constitutional powers. The upper house will review the reforms in coming weeks.
Le Pen's lawmakers think that if they play things right, their support will rise if the unpopular reforms go through.
"There will be political benefits for the RN if the bill passes," Jean-Philippe Tanguy, a RN lawmaker told reporters. "But if it passes without a vote, it will be bad for everybody because it will feed the idea that voting (for MPs) is useless."
For Macron, who cannot run for a third term in 2027, the battle could make or break his reformist legacy. His advisers say the reforms are crucial to maintain France's financial credibility with ratings agencies and euro zone partners.
But having failed to make the case for the changes, the government is calculating that a swerve to the left might be needed once the reforms are on the books to prevent widespread resentment from paving the way to a Le Pen victory in 2027.
"Macron is already thinking of his next move," a close ally of the president told Reuters.
"If the reform passes with votes from the conservative right, we will need a more socially-minded agenda afterwards, or else we'll have a problem," the source said.
(Writing by Michel Rose; Editing by Andrew Heavens)