How France’s pension revolt could wreck his presidency – POLITICO

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PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron faces a moment of reckoning on Thursday as lawmakers prepare for a final vote on the government’s deeply unpopular pension reform.

The controversial bill, a key part of Macron’s second term, has sparked weeks of nationwide union-led protests and faced intense criticism from both the far-left and far-right in the National Assembly.

The French president wants to raise the statutory retirement age from 62 to 64 and increase contributions towards a full pension in an effort to balance the bills of France’s state pension system – one of the most generous in the world. According to projections by the French Council for Retirement Planning, the finances of the pension system are balanced in the short term, but will fall short in the long term.

Despite the government’s concessions on various aspects of the bill in recent weeks, opposition to the reform remains very high. Polls show that two-thirds of French citizens are against it.

Speculations are running high that Macron may not have enough support in the National Assembly and could choose a constitutional maneuver to bypass parliament – in a move that could unleash a political storm in France.

On Thursday, the French Senate and National Assembly are expected to cast a crucial vote on the second reading of the bill, after the Senate voted in favor last week. The outcome will shape Macron’s second term in office and weigh heavily on his legacy.

Worst case scenario: Macron loses the vote in parliamentsT

Losing the vote in parliament would be a stunning defeat for the French president, whose bid for a second term hinged on his promises to reform France’s pension system. But political commentators have speculated in recent days that Macron’s Renaissance Party does not have enough votes to pass the bill.

The French president lost his absolute majority in the National Assembly in the parliamentary elections last June. He has since been forced to make ad hoc deals with MPs from the French conservative party Les Républicains. But the once-powerful Conservatives seem divided on the reform, despite assurances this week from their leader Olivier Marleix that there was “a clear majority” in support of the bill.

Defeat in parliament would have seismic and long-lasting implications for Macron’s second term in office and it is likely that the president’s trusted lieutenant prime minister, Elizabeth Borne, would have to resign in such a scenario. Party heavyweights, however, say they will not shy away from seeking a vote.

“There will be a vote, we want a vote, everyone must take responsibility,” said Aurore Bergé, leader of the Renaissance group in the National Assembly.

“An accident may happen… we will sort it out as best we can,” Jean-Paul Mattei, a centrist MP belonging to Macron’s coalition, admitted in reference to a defeat in parliament.

However, this is the most unlikely scenario, as the government is expected to bypass a vote if it feels it is short of votes.

Protesters hold an effigy of French President Emmanuel Macron during a demonstration on the 8th day of strikes and protests across the country against the government’s proposed revision of pensions in Paris on March 15, 2023 | Alain Jocard/AFP via Getty Images

Pretty bad: Macron bypasses parliament and loses credibilityj

Facing a possible defeat in the National Assembly, Macron has a nuclear option: to invoke Article 49.3 of the French Constitution. This mechanism allows the government to push through legislation without putting it to a vote.

While the constitutional maneuver may seem like an easy way out, it’s a very risky move because it allows lawmakers to file a no-confidence motion within 24 hours. Macron’s government has rejected no-confidence motions in the past, but this time the stakes are much higher.

In addition to surviving a vote of no confidence, Macron and Borne will also come under fire for refusing to submit to the democratic process.

According to Frédéric Dabi, general manager of the IFOP polling station, the impact on public opinion would be “radically different” if the government used Article 49.3 instead of a tight vote in parliament.

“Public opinion on the 49.3 article has changed… it is considered a tool to brutalize the National Assembly: it is now seen as authoritarian rather than merely authoritative. People today want more transparency, more democracy,” he said.

France’s hardline unions would no doubt use this to foment unrest and call for further strike action.

Union leader Laurent Berger has warned the government not to use Article 49.3, saying it would be “incredible and dangerous”.

“No one can predict what will happen, the protest movement seems to be gaining steam, but if the government invokes Article 49.3, it can be read as a matter of forcing and relaunching the protest movement,” Dabi said.

Still not great: Macron wins the vote, but faces massive protests

If the French president wins the vote in parliament, it will be seen as a victory, but one that could completely drain his political capital and spark protests in the streets.

“It will be a victory for Macron, but it will only pay off in the long run. In the short term, he will have to deal with a tense country where relations have become very tense,” said Chloé Morin, a writer and political analyst.

Union leader Berger has said he would “take over” the result of Thursday’s vote in parliament. But the protests, which have been almost weekly since January, may nevertheless continue across the country in an attempt to force the government to back down and withdraw the text.

Morin thinks it’s unlikely there will be “an explosion of protests” after the vote, as people are resigned to it being passed.

French police officers intervene during a protest by municipal officials against the government’s pension reform for the prefecture in Seine Saint-Denis, in Bobigny, a suburb of Paris on March 14, 2023 | Thomas Samson/AFP via Getty Images

“However, the protest movement could become more radical with lightning protests or sabotages, led by a minority in the civil movement,” Morin said.

In October last year, industrial action in France’s refineries led to gas station shortages nationwide, forcing the government to intervene in what was seen as Macron’s biggest challenge since his re-election last year.

There are also dangerous precedents for Macron. In December 2019, the government was forced to waive a new green tax when faced with the explosive Yellow Vest protests that shocked the political establishment.

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