Macron vs the unions: What happens next in France?

French President Emmanuel Macron is facing his biggest standoff with France's trade unions since coming to power in 2017, with the outcome of a series of strikes and protests seen as decisive for both sides.

Macron vs the unions: What happens next in France?
Demonstrators hold a banner reading 'Macron, contemptuous of the Republic' with a portrait of the French President on it, during a rally called by French trade unions in Paris on January 19, 2023. (Photo by Christophe ARCHAMBAULT / AFP)

The 45-year-old leader has made raising the retirement age a signature domestic policy of his second term in office — something the unions and millions of protesters are determined to block.

After two days of nationwide strikes and demonstrations, AFP looks at what is likely to happen next on the streets, in parliament, inside the government, and in wider French public opinion.

On the streets

Labour leaders were delighted with their second day of protests on Tuesday, which they claimed had seen around 2.5 million people hit the streets, including in many small and medium-sized towns.

Official estimates put the figure at 1.27 million, compared to 1.1 million people during round one on January 19th, according to the interior ministry.

READ MORE: Calendar: The latest French pension strike dates to remember

Momentum is clearly with the unions who announced two further days of protests and strikes next week, on Tuesday and Saturday.

“The movement is growing and spread across the whole country,” the head of the hard-left CGT union, Philippe Martinez, said on Wednesday.

Nevertheless, unions no longer have the ability to paralyse the country and working-from-home practices mean most white-collar workers can easily adjust to transport stoppages.

The biggest fear of authorities is a repeat of the 2018 so-called “Yellow Vest” protests — a spontaneous movement drawn mostly from the countryside and small-town France that led to shockingly violent clashes with police. 

“The trauma was so big and the violence so great, I don’t see it happening again for the moment,” Bruno Cautres from Sciences Po university in Paris told AFP earlier this month. 

In government 

The government was expecting a rough ride — few major policy changes happen in France without protests, and former president Nicolas Sarkozy faced similar resistance with his pension reform in 2010.

Macron has faced numerous challenges from the unions in the past and has always succeeded in pushing through his pro business agenda and social security reforms.

The only exception was his first attempt at pension reform — also highly contested — which he withdrew in 2020 during the Covid 19 pandemic.

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has been the public face of the latest proposals, while Macron has kept his statements and appearances to a minimum, as is his habit.

But with the battle lines hardening and protests growing, the president might be forced to enter the fray. 

“I think the president will speak, but not right now,” a minister told AFP on condition of anonymity. “If he did it now, it would look like we’re panicking.”

In parliament

The draft legislation will be debated for the first time in the 577-seat National Assembly from Monday.

Macron’s allies are the largest group with 170 seats, but they do not hold a majority after a weaker-than-expected showing in June elections.

Support from the 62 rightwing Republicans (LR) party MPs will be essential.

LR has long supported raising the retirement age, but there are doubts over how many of their MPs will give the government their backing.

“I’m not asking the government to give in to the protests. This reform needs to be done,” LR parliamentary party chief Olivier Marleix said on Wednesday.

The lower house debate will finish on February 17th at the latest when a vote can be called — or the government could transfer it to the Senate or ram it through with controversial executive powers that dispense with the need for a ballot.

The bill is expected to pass the conservative-dominated Senate, where a vote is to take place by mid-March.

Public opinion

The latest polling figures show a growing majority opposes the reform and supports the protests, with roughly two in three people against the proposals.

Ministers have struggled to find winning arguments, at times arguing the changes are needed to reduce government spending, at others insisting they will make the pension system fairer.

“The government has not won with the argument that it is necessary,” Bernard Sananes, the head of the Elabe polling group, told AFP. “And it is fighting on another, more intense front which is that the reform is seen as unfair.”

In private, Macron’s allies insist their best hope is for parliament to quickly approve the legislation that will never be popular but might grudgingly be accepted as necessary.

“The question is how big the protest movement will be and how long it will last,” the minister told AFP.

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French MPs vote to reject government’s immigration bill

Lawmakers in France's Assemblée Nationale voted in favour of a motion to reject the government's immigration bill on Monday. The surprise move came before debates had begun and prompted calls for the Interior Minister to resign.

French MPs vote to reject government's immigration bill

French MPs did not even debate the highly contested immigration bill, after a majority of deputés voted for a motion de rejet (motion of rejection) on Monday evening.

In total, 270 MPs supported the motion, submitted by Green party MPs, and 265 voted against it. The lower house of parliament had been set to begin debating the bill – and its nearly 2,600 amendments – on Monday.

The motion by the Greens passed after it won cross-party support from left-wing MPs as well as the centre right Republicans party and members of Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National.

After the bill was thrown out MPs and the leaders of several opposition parties called for the resignation of France’s under-fire Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin.

Hard left Jean Luc Mélenchon said: “It feels like the end of the road for the bill and for him.”

Far-right figurehead Marine Le Pen said she was “delighted” with the result, saying it had “protected the French from a migratory tidal wave”.

Prior to the vote Darmanin had told Europe 1 radio that “it would be a denial of democracy not to debate”.

Meanwhile, the National Assembly speaker, Yaėl Braun-Pivet, speaking on RTL, added: “It would be incomprehensible (if they didn’t debate it). The Assembly would shoot itself in the foot.”

The bill aimed to speed up asylum application procedures, facilitate the expulsion of foreigners deemed dangerous and regularise the status of undocumented workers in sectors with labour shortages.

It also would have introduced an annual quota for the number of migrant arrivals to be set by parliament, and removed all but emergency medical coverage for undocumented people.

READ MORE: What’s the latest on France’s new immigration law?

What is next?

According to reporting by French daily Le Parisien, there are a few possible scenarios. 

The government could choose to withdraw the text entirely or it could be sent back to the Senate (where right-wing lawmakers have a majority).

The bill could also be sent back to the joint committee (the ‘CMP’) which is made up of seven National Assembly MPs and seven senators, where it would to be re-examined to try to find some compromise on the basis of the bill that was adopted by the Senate in mid-November.

The former head of the Constitutional Council, Jean-Éric Schoettl, told Le Point magazine that if the bill goes back to the CMP, the resulting text could end up closer to that which was originally passed by the senate, as it “the CMP is more right-wing than the Assemblée”.

Reactions from the opposition

Following the vote, the head of LFI in the Assemblée, Mathilde Panot, said “we are going to spare the country two weeks of xenophobic and racist speech.”

Panot also called on the interior minister to “leave with his law under his arm”.

Green party MP, Marine Tondelier, tweeted “In any case, the government must draw all the consequences and has no other political choice than to abandon this text.”