Hundreds of thousands of people filled the streets of France on the 11th day of nationwide resistance to a government proposal to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. The furious public reaction to the plan has left French President Emmanuel Macron cornered and weakened.
France’s highest council on constitutional affairs is examining the bill to see if it’s constitutional. It will issue a ruling next week and Macron’s opponents hope the council will severely limit his proposal.
In many countries, raising the retirement age by two years wouldn’t throw the nation into such disarray. But the French public is overwhelmingly against pension reform, and unrelenting demonstrations against it have morphed into wider anger against Macron’s perceived top-down style of leadership.
How angry are people?
Mounds of up to 10,000 tonnes of trash piled up on the streets of Paris during a weekslong strike by sanitation workers over a plan that would push their retirement age from 57 to 59 — lower than the national age because their jobs are physically harder.
“People are angry,” said Jerome Villier, a 43-year-old doctoral researcher in Paris. “It’s obvious.”
Many governments in the developed world are in similar situations. Population growth is down, people are living longer, medicine is better and benefits cost more. Democracies’ attempts to balance budgets by cutting benefits, particularly in countries with generous plans like France’s, put administrations at risk. Many agree that Macron has made some fundamental missteps.
The nuclear option
Fearing he might not get enough votes in parliament to pass the bill, Macron resorted to the “ nuclear option ” by using a special article of the French constitution allowing the government to force the bill through without a vote. That prompted outrage across France that further fueled discontent, diminished his popularity, and galvanised his critics’ image of him as a monarchical leader.
Macron lost his majority in parliament last year and his government survived two no-confidence votes last month, one by only a razor-thin nine votes after he angered the nation by ramming the reform through parliament.
Experts say the protests show that Macron was re-elected because of antipathy for far-right contender Marine Le Pen more than enthusiasm for him. And even if the protests die down, the French president will still have sustained a political bloody nose and a permanent stain on his authority.
“I’m worried for France. Because people really hate Macron — we hate him — and we’re only at the beginning, we have four more years,” said insurance salesman Mohamed Belmoud, 28. “He continued being top-down. The French need to see more compromise.”
What happens now?
The pensions law needs a green light from the Constitutional Council on April 14. The Paris trash collectors’ union has called for fresh strikes on April 13, with other unions pledging to keep resisting until the controversial law is cancelled. Some predict the French public’s enthusiasm and resources for protests and strikes are dwindling.
“Going on strike is an expensive affair so you can’t do it forever,” said Jean-Daniel Levy, deputy director of Harris Interactive polling. And diminished spending power is a real issue, leaving many unable to afford to strike more, he said.
Others say violence seen in the nationwide protests, with dozens of demonstrators and police hurt, has turned off regular people.
“The demonstrations have become more violent as they’ve gone on. That means many in France are now staying away,” Luc Rouban, research director of the CNRS at Sciences Po.
How important are these protests?
France’s highest constitutional court is made up of judges called “the wise ones” and presided over by former Socialist Prime Minister Laurent Fabius. If it decides that part or all of the law is out of step with the constitution, or the scope of the law’s intentions, the council can strike it down.
The “wise ones” will also rule on whether the law’s critics can move ahead with their attempts to force a nationwide referendum on the pension change.
While the council is meant to rule on purely constitutional grounds, experts say it tends to take public opinion into account.
“Polls still show that an overwhelming majority of the French are against the pension reforms, so one likely scenario is that the council could scrap parts of the bill,” said Dominique Andolfatto, professor of political sciences at the University of Burgundy.
“There’s a certain hatred in the air that we’ve rarely seen against a French leader,” he said. “This is uncharted water.”