Macron’s pensions move could define his remaining four years in office

When furious demonstrators in Dijon set fire to a stuffed dummy of Emmanuel Macron, and thousands of people took to the streets in cities such as Paris, Rennes and Marseille this week to protest against the government raising the pension age without a parliamentary vote, the French interior minister said the chaos “brought back bad memories”.

Indeed, four years after the gilets jaunes anti-government movement in which people in small towns and the countryside rose up, Macron was once again accused by many working-class voters of disdain for the public mood. Politicians from his party were yet again asking for police protection for fear of violent reprisals.

On Tuesday, Macron chose to use executive powers contained in article 49.3 of the French constitution to bypass parliament and push through his plan to raise the pension age from 62 to 64 without a vote.

He argued there was no choice, saying that losing a vote would have spooked the markets and damaged the economy. France’s 65-year-old constitution concentrates power in the hands of the president at the expense of MPs, allowing him to override a divided parliament in certain circumstances.

But the move could define his domestic programme and his remaining four years in office. The former banker who once promised to reconcile the French people with their increasingly distrusted political class, overhaul the welfare state and stop voters heading to the far right was accused by critics of worsening the disillusionment with politics, and potentially giving the far right a future election boost.

The question is what happens next. The government may survive the vote of no confidence it faces in parliament on Monday. It will be hard for opposition parties to get the absolute majority required without the right’s Les Républicains, whose leadership refuses to support it. But analysts say there are no certainties.

Even if the government survives, Macron’s ability to put in place his domestic programme will be weakened. He has been severely undermined in the national assembly since his centrist grouping failed to win an absolute majority in parliamentary elections last June amid gains for the far right and radical left. The pensions row showed how the right cannot be depended upon to help Macron get legislation through.

It was “the day Macronism died”, said the political journalist Thomas Legrand in the leftwing daily Libération, suggesting the president would struggle to pass other domestic policy.

When Macron beat the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen to win a second term in office last spring, he promised more consensus-building, saying French people were “tired of reforms that come from the top down”. Trade unions see that as hollow.

Changes to the pension system have been a political flashpoint for every French president, because they are seen as the cornerstone of France’s cherished model of social protection. But Macron’s changes were seen as unfair in part because of a muddled communications drive by ministers to explain them to the public.

Trade unions said lower-income, manual workers would suffer the most from the pension age rising from 62 to 64, because they begin their working life earlier. Higher earners, who start paying into the system later because of university studies, will feel less of an impact as many retire at 67 to get a full pension.

While the gilets jaunes numbered 200,000 at their first street demonstrations in November 2018, in the past two months trade unions have organised up to 1.28 million people in marches across France during two months of on-off strikes. More strikes are planned in the coming days and anger remains high.

Philippe Martinez, the head of the leftwing CGT trade union, had said that if Macron used executive powers to force through pension change without a parliamentary vote, he would be giving “the keys of the presidency” to Le Pen in 2027.

While the radical left has been vocal in parliament and at protests, Le Pen’s National Rally party has been quiet, hoping to gain capital, while accusing Macron this week of taking an “unhealthy pleasure” in sparking chaos in the country.