Wednesday, 19 Jun 2024

Macron’s Government Survives but Faces Wrath of France Over Pension Overhaul

PARIS — The French National Assembly rejected a no-confidence motion against the government of President Emmanuel Macron on Monday, ensuring that a fiercely contested bill raising the retirement age to 64 from 62 becomes the law of the land.

The first of two motions received 278 votes, nine short of the 287 needed to pass. The close result reflected widespread anger at the pension overhaul, at Mr. Macron for his apparent aloofness and at the way the measure was rammed through Parliament last week without a full vote on the bill itself. The Senate, France’s upper house of Parliament, passed the pension bill this month.

A second no-confidence motion, filed by the far-right National Rally, failed on Monday, as well, with only 94 lawmakers voting in favor.

The change, which Mr. Macron has sought since the beginning of his first term in 2017, has provoked two months of demonstrations, intermittent strikes and occasional violence. It has split France, with polls consistently showing two-thirds of the population opposing the overhaul.

After the votes on Monday, there was no indication that the protests would abate or that the restive mood that brought about this crisis would fade anytime soon. A period of deep uncertainty lies before France, and it is unclear how Mr. Macron, who has remained largely silent, will be able to reassert his authority.

“Through strikes and demonstrations, we must force the withdrawal of the bill,” Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left leader, said after the vote. After night fell, sporadic violent clashes erupted between crowds of protesters and the police in cities around the country, including Strasbourg, Rennes and Lyon. In Paris, small groups of protesters played a game of cat and mouse with the police, knocking over trash cans and setting fire to uncollected garbage. Riot police responded with tear gas, pepper spray and batons.

Labor unions have called for a day of strikes and demonstrations on Thursday, and Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Rally party, declared, “I believe it is difficult to govern in these circumstances.”

But for now, the center has held and the fall of the government has been averted.

Before the vote, in a speech of fierce indignation, Élisabeth Borne, the prime minister, denounced those lawmakers who “deny the role of Parliament and affirm that the street is more legitimate than our institutions.” Clearly addressing both the extreme right and the far left, which have led opposition to the pension overhaul, she accused them of a “paroxysm” of anti-parliamentary and anti-democratic behavior.

Just who may be undermining French democracy is now fiercely contested.

Last week, rather than putting the overhaul to a vote in the National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament, as he had said he wanted to do, Mr. Macron opted for a measure, known as Article 49.3 of the Constitution, that allows certain bills to be passed without a vote. But it exposes the government to censure motions, such as the ones offered on Monday.

This was the 11th time in less than a year that the French government has resorted to using the 49.3. clause, prompting a growing feeling among opponents of Mr. Macron that the country’s democratic process was being circumvented, even if the measure is legal under the Constitution of the Fifth Republic, fashioned to create the all-powerful presidency sought by Charles de Gaulle.

Charles de Courson, an independent lawmaker from the group that filed the first no-confidence motion, told Ms. Borne before the vote, “You failed to unite; you failed to convince.” Pushing the bill through last week without a full parliamentary vote contravened “the spirit of the Constitution,” he added.

In fact, Mr. Macron’s maneuver was entirely constitutional.

But some lawmakers have vowed to challenge the new law with France’s Constitutional Council, which reviews legislation to ensure it complies with the Constitution. It is unclear how the council would ultimately rule, or which parts of the law it might strike down, if any. So far, the government has expressed confidence that the core of the law will stand.

In the end, there were just enough votes from the center-right Republicans — who last year had proposed raising the retirement age even higher, to 65 — to salvage the law and the government of Ms. Borne. With 61 seats, the party held the balance in the National Assembly. But 19 of its lawmakers, more than expected, voted in favor of the censure motion, rejecting the instructions of their party leader.

As they spoke to their constituents over the weekend, some Republicans started to defect. One lawmaker, Maxime Minot, said he had to vote in a way that “retained the confidence of the people I administer.” Another, Aurélien Pradié, spoke of the “contempt” shown by the government.

Such decisions from moderate conservatives made the result uncomfortably close for Mr. Macron. But he was adamant: For him, disrespect for the French people lay in perpetuating, at the cost of growing debt, a system that was untenable.

He argued that retirement at 62 could not be sustained as life spans lengthened. The math, over the longer term at least, simply did not add up as the ratio of active workers to the retirees they were supporting through payroll taxes kept dropping.

“If we do not solve the problem of our retirees, we cannot invest in all the rest,” Mr. Macron said last year. “It’s nothing less than a choice of the society we want.”

Now, Mr. Macron, who has more than four years of his term remaining and cannot run for re-election in 2027, believes he has laid the foundation for the huge investments in defense, green energy, schools and technology essential to France’s future. But he faces a country more hostile to his rule than ever before.

The protests appear certain to mark Mr. Macron’s second term, just as the Yellow Vest protest movement did his first. Behind both movements lurks a resentment of the president’s perceived elitism, compounding the anger at the specific measures that prompted the protests.

Mr. Macron’s decision not to put the bill to a full vote in Parliament reinforced an impression of top-down rule. He had declined to meet with labor union leaders in recent weeks, leaving them incensed.

Before the vote, Ms. Le Pen, who has twice run against Mr. Macron in a presidential election and lost, told the television network BFMTV, “For months now, the government has been playing with matches in a gas station.” After the vote, she told reporters that the government had “dodged a bullet.”

The logic of the pension change, at a time when people are living longer and most European states have raised the retirement age to 65 or higher, was unpersuasive to many French people fiercely attached to the country’s cherished work-life balance.

They could not see the urgency of the measure at a time of rising inflation and multiple economic pressure stemming from the war in Ukraine. The pension system is not on the brink of bankruptcy, even if its finances over the medium term look parlous.

Many people in France perceive the imposition of a longer working life as an attack on the social solidarity at the heart of the French model and a maneuver by the rich to move France closer to the unbridled capitalism they associate with the United States.

But another, quieter France saw things differently. Aurore Bergé, the leader of Mr. Macron’s Renaissance party, told the National Assembly that Mr. Macron’s pension overhaul “required courage” because asking the French to work longer is “always harder” than making promises “with money that we don’t have.”

As a result of Mr. Macron’s virtually unlimited spending on helping French people through the Covid-19 pandemic, the French government debt that stood at 98.1 percent of gross domestic product in 2017 rose to 113.4 percent in the third quarter of 2022.

The president became doubly convinced, in these circumstances, that retirement at 62 was an unsustainable hangover from another era.

Mr. Macron is likely to address the nation in the next several days in an attempt to promote reconciliation. He is a persuasive speaker, but as he cannot run again, the succession maneuvering has clearly begun, not least by Ms. Le Pen, the nationalist and anti-immigrant party leader ever awaiting her moment.

“Mr. Macron is very little concerned with the democratic functioning of the country,” she said on Monday. But it is precisely because so many French people see her as a danger to democratic stability and the rule of law that Mr. Macron has twice defeated her.

Two electoral victories have shown that writing off Mr. Macron tends to be a fool’s errand. Both the 2024 Paris Olympics and the scheduled reopening of Notre Dame Cathedral next year after the devastating fire in 2019 could provide occasions for him to revive his battered fortunes.

Reporting was contributed by Aurelien Breeden, Catherine Porter, Constant Méheut and Tom Nouvian from Paris.

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