Mar 27, 2023

Macron’s One Way Out of the Pension Crisis

The French president’s current troubles can be traced back to 2005, when the French rejected a Constitution for Europe only for Paris to then ratify the Lisbon Treaty two years later. A return to parliamentarism is the only solution.

An illustration of Emmanuel Macron at the Arc de Triomphe
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In his essay for the International Exposition of 1867, which took place in Paris, the writer and part-time politician Victor Hugo wrote, “Rome is more majestic, Trieste more ancient, Venice more beautiful, Naples more graceful, and London richer. What has Paris to offer? The revolution … Athens has built the Parthenon, but Paris demolished the Bastille.”

156 years after Hugo’s observation, it is still one of the defining qualities of France that its citizens have the vitality and self-confidence to take to the street every once in a while, and defy the mix of technocratic and populist policymaking that is the norm across the world.

“What their first communion is to a Catholic, their first demonstration is to a French person,” goes the old joke. In the country that celebrates the revolutionary myth like no other, saying no to authority is often as much a cultural practice as a political act. And some degree of brutality is unfortunately part of it. From 1789 to today, France’s history is littered with violent protests and state repression.

So, are we currently caught in a media frenzy and are making the classic mistake of thinking that “this time it’s different” even though there is actually nothing particularly unique about the current protests against President Emmanuel Macron’s pension reform?

Nothing to See Here

It’s an argument that is easy to make. Today, just as many people are taking to the streets as they did in 2010 when then President Nicolas Sarkozy raised the pension age from 60 to 62.

As for the strikes, they remain half-hearted. At Macron’s first attempt at pension reform in 2020, trade unions brought the country to a halt for two months straight. Today, there is a strike day roughly once a week and even then participation is comparatively weak.

Twitter videos of burning cars get a lot of attention, but as Parisian nighthawks living north of the Seine know, you can get that visually intriguing spectacle of an urban bonfire also on a regular Thursday night or when Paris Saint-Germain plays. No matter whether the Paris football club loses against Bayern Munich or wins the national league, cars go up in flames.

Yes, Macron’s approval rating has dropped to 28 precent, but that is still not as bad as during the Yellow Vest movement when he bottomed out at 23 percent. And the president can also tell himself that he can bounce back. Indeed, a year after the Yellow Vests protests Macron’s approval was back at 40 percent—a high number by French standards—and stayed there for the rest of his first term.

Everything Goes Back to 2005

These arguments are all valid. But it is not what is happening on the streets, but much more what is happening in the minds and the collective memory of the French these days that is worrying.

By extending the retirement age from 62 to 64 without a parliamentary majority on March 16, Macron has rebroken an old fracture that is at the heart of all political malaise that France has grappled with more and more frantically since the early 2000s.

Perhaps the most important date in France’s recent history is May 29, 2005.

It was then that the French rejected the treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe in a referendum. A stunning 69.3 percent of the French went to the ballot box to vote on this issue, and their message was clear: 54.7 percent said “non.” But France’s politicians, pressured by their European colleagues, didn’t take that as an answer. Right after his election in 2007, President Sarkozy ratified the EU’s Lisbon Treaty, which essentially rehashed the constitutional treaty.

That episode is the one issue every political discussion at the bar counter in France naturally gravitates to at some point. And it is the starting point of the drama that is playing out in France right now. Disregarding the result of the EU vote, Sarkozy demonstrated to everyone in plain sight that France’s technocratic elite does what it thinks is right—and not what the French have told them to do so.

It is from that moment on that the far-right camp around the Le Pen family manages to grow beyond its traditional voter pool, which had been around 15 percent for decades. It is then that the far-left around Jean-Luc Mélenchon starts to take off. Both promise to take back democratic, sovereign control on behalf of “the people” in a republic captured by the elites.

2005 is when the implicit social contract that bound the people and the elites in the Fifth Republic— we give enormous power to the president, but when we take to the streets en masse or say “no” in a vote, you listen to your master—was broken. In short, 2005 is the corpus delicti of the assassination of the Fifth Republic that was founded by Charles de Gaulle in 1958.

No Means No

Spring 2023 is a rerun of 2005, but under far worse conditions. In 2005, roughly 55 percent voted “no.” Today, 68 percent oppose pension reform, according to polls. If you count all the candidates that were in favor of extending retirement age to 64 and their electoral support in the 2022 presidential election, you get to a mere 40 percent of the vote. It is as simple as that: Macron has no democratic mandate for his pension reform.

Once again for France’s ruling elite, “no” doesn’t mean “no.” This is even more difficult to take for the French who learn in school the difference between the monarchy and the republic roughly at the age when German children learn to ride a three wheel bike. And as Georgina Wright of the Institut Montaigne put it, retirement is to the French what the National Health Services is to the British—a national treasure. This makes the backlash to Macron all the bigger.

Where to go from here? France’s pessimist-in-chief Emil Cioran once wrote, “Before France will have fully exhausted its potential for societal renewal, the populace will triumph, must have its big day.” Is France finally ripe for a takeover by Marine Le Pen, whose party has been rising high in the polls?

2027, the year of the next presidential election, is still very far away. But following six years of Macronist top-down reform politics it is certainly true that France is economically more successful, yet more ready for a President Le Pen than ever before.

When Macron came to power in 2017, his stated goals were to reform and pacify France. He did reform the country. But to pacify it, he now needs to dismantle the powers that allowed him to govern as an enlightened king and push through his reform agenda.

In short, by sounding the death knell to the Fifth Republic, he must now return the country to the parliamentarism of the, in many aspects, very successful Fourth Republic.

Macron can do it. In the 2017 campaign, Macron promised to introduce proportionality in legislative elections and thereby strengthen parliament. At the time, it was the right-wing Les Républicains (Sarkozy’s old party) that killed that project. Now, Macron must relaunch his electoral reform agenda and call snap legislative elections once the new rules are in place.

It is the single measure that would offer the country a new chapter in the roman national and allow him to start healing the traumas caused by 2005 and this year’s pension reform. It would weaken his powers, but also make his arch-rivals Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon look passé. It is his best chance to ensure that France’s future government will be led from the center, regardless of who will one day follow him in the Élysée.

Joseph de Weck is INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY’s Paris columnist and author of Emmanuel Macron. The revolutionary president.

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