Macron faces an angry France all alone
Boston Sunday Globe19 Mar 2023 By Roger Cohen
President Emmanuel Macron raised the retirement age in France to 64 from 62 without a full parliamentary vote.
PARIS — “We have a president who makes use of a permanent coup d’état.” That was the verdict of Olivier Faure, the leader of the French Socialist Party, after President Emmanuel Macron rammed through a bill raising the retirement age in France to 64 from 62 without a full parliamentary vote this past week.
In fact, Macron’s use of the “nuclear option,” as the France 24 TV network described it, was entirely legal under the French Constitution, crafted in 1958 for Charles de Gaulle and reflecting the general’s strong view that power should be centered in the president’s office, not among feuding lawmakers.
But legality is one thing and legitimacy another. Macron may see his decision as necessary to cement his legacy as the leader who left France prepared to face the rest of the 21st century. But to many French people it looked like presidential diktat, a blot on his reputation and a blow to French democracy.
Parliament has responded with two motions of no confidence in Macron’s government. They are unlikely to be upheld when lawmakers vote on them next week because of political divisions in the opposition, but are the expression of deep anger.
Six years into his presidency, surrounded by brilliant technocrats, Macron cuts a lonely figure, his lofty silence conspicuous at this moment of turmoil.
“He has managed to antagonize everyone by occupying the whole of the center,” said Jacques Rupnik, a political scientist. “Macron’s attitude seems to be: After me, the deluge.”
This isolation was evident as two months of protests and strikes that left Paris strewn with garbage culminated on Thursday in the sudden panic of a government that had believed the pension vote was a slam dunk. Suddenly, the emperor’s doubts were exposed.
Macron thought he could count on center-right Republicans to vote for his plan in the National Assembly, parliament’s lower house. Two of the most powerful members of his government — Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire and Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin — came from that party. Republicans had advocated retirement even later, at 65.
Yet out of some mixture of political calculation in light of the waves of protest and spite toward the man who had undermined their party by building a new movement of the center, they began to desert Macron.
Having his retirement overhaul fail was one risk that even Macron the risk taker could not take. He opted for a measure, known as the 49.3 after the relevant article of the Constitution, that allows certain bills to be passed without a vote. France’s retirement age will rise to 64, more in line with its European partners, unless the no-confidence motion passes.
But what would have looked like a defining victory for Macron, even if the parliamentary vote in favor had been narrow, now appears to be a Pyrrhic victory.
Four more years in power stretch ahead of Macron, with “Mr. 49.3” stamped on his forehead. He made the French dream when he was elected at age 39 in 2017; how he can do so again is unclear.
“The idea that we are not in a democracy has grown. It’s out there all the time on social media, part conspiracy theory, part expression of a deep anxiety,” said Nicolas Tenzer, an author who teaches political science at Sciences Po university. “And, of course, what Macron just did feeds that.”
The case for the overhaul was strong. It was not only to Macron that retirement at 62 looked untenable as lives grew longer. The math, over the longer term at least, simply does not add up in a system where the ratio of active workers to the retirees they are supporting through their payroll taxes keeps dropping.
But in an anxious France, with many people struggling to pay their bills and unsure of their futures, Macron could not make the argument. In fact, he hardly seemed to try.
Of course, the French attitude to a mighty presidency is notoriously ambiguous. On the one hand, the near-monarchical office seems to satisfy some French yearning for an allpowerful state — it was a French king, Louis XIV, who is said to have declared that the state was none other than himself. On the other, the presidency is resented for the extent of its authority.
Macron seemed to capture this when he told his Cabinet on Thursday, “Among you, I am not the one who risks his place or his seat.” If the government does fall in a vote of censure, Élisabeth Borne will no longer be prime minister, but Macron will still be president until 2027.
Now in his final term, he must walk a lonely road. He has no obvious successor, and his Renaissance party is little more than a vehicle for his talents. This is the “deluge” of which Rupnik spoke: a vast political void looming in 2027.
If Marine Le Pen of the far right is not to fill it, Macron the reformist must deliver the resilient, vibrant France for which he believes his much-contested reform was an essential foundation.