President Emmanuel Macron has finally made the case for pension reform – six days after his government used special powers to ram it through the National Assembly.
His appearance on the 1pm TV news on Wednesday was both a typical Macron performance and rather strange.
Strange, first of all, because he chose to speak to the lunchtime news bulletins, which are traditionally dominated by old ways making lace or new ways of making cheese.
Strange also because Macron made a rather good case for his pension reform – and it is largely “his” reform – after choosing to evade the debate for months.
There have been six days of sometimes violent protest since the pension bill – gradually increasing France’s official retirement age from 62 to 64 – was pushed through the Assembly without a “normal” vote. There will be a ninth day of nationwide strikes and marches on Thursday.
Macron’s 40-minute interview was not pitched at the strikers or violent protesters. Short of a capitulation, he knew that they had no interest in what he might say.
The interview was pitched at a notional silent majority of French people who detest pension reform but also now want to go on with their lives. Hence the choice of the 1pm TV news bulletins. They are watched by an elderly, provincial audience. The presenters mostly skirt controversy (and the news) to celebrate a universal and eternal France.
In other words, Macron is trying to play a long game. He is waiting for the storm to pass. He is counting on a public backlash to gather against the disruption of the strikes and the violence of a minority of protesters.
The President offered – again somewhat belatedly – a list of the more agreeable reforms which might be completed in the final four years of his mandate if normal political life resumes.
There could, he said, be new legislation to force large companies to share “exceptional profits” with their workers rather than increase their bosses’ salaries or buy back company shares.
He invited the unions to put the toys back into the pram and start a new “dialogue” with the government on ways of easing the final working years of people in physically demanding jobs. He did not mention that similar measures once existed but were dismantled during his first term.
His defence of the pension reform was drawn from the “blood, sweat and tears” school of political rhetoric (but accurate enough). France could not preserve its posterity and social model if it persisted in working less than its partners and competitors, he said.
What did people expect of him, he asked ? That he should “do as my predecessors did and sweep the dirt under the carpet?”
It is a pity, and a mystery, that Macron not make this case weeks ago. Instead, he chose to leave the selling of the reform to the Prime Minister, Elisabeth Borne, and her ministers, who alternated between describing it as “tough but fair” and a “left-wing” social advance.
On Borne’s future, Macron was not entirely convincing. Many people, including myself, have predicted that she will pay the traditional price of French prime ministers and will be dumped by Macron within a month or so to try to clear the air or give a new sense of direction to the government.
Macron said, rather curtly, that Borne had his “confidence”, But he also said that he expected her to enlarge her centrist minority government by finding new parliamentary allies from the centre-right or centre-left.
She has tried that before and failed. My interpretation of Macron’s words is that, if she fails again, he will appoint a new prime minister who may be able to lasso a few of the 30 or so centre-right Les Républicains (LR) deputies who supported the reform and then helped to defeat opposition censure motions on Monday.
Les Républicains, the rump of the once-great Gaullist movement, have been shattered by the pensions reform crisis. That may eventually be good news for Macron or his would-be centrist successors. It may, however, also be good news for Marine Le Pen.
So what now?
Macron seemed to say at one point that he was anticipating another two to three weeks of demonstrations and strikes before the protests subsided. He may be right. It is worth recalling, however, that the Giles Jaune (yellow vest) rebellion lasted for six months in 2018-9 before it petered out.
The problem facing the trades unions is to keep the protests going. There will be a huge turn-out for the marches on Thursday but the bigger the numbers, the harder they will be to sustain in the days and weeks ahead.
The open-ended oil refinery and rubbish-collection strikes are beginning to cause real problems – and also real annoyance. It is that swing in the public mood that Macron is relying on.
The pension reform law is being studied by the Constitutional Council. The great and good members of the Council must pronounce within three weeks. If they reject the law (possible but unlikely), Macron will be humiliated and the protests will have no reason to continue.
If they approve the law, the protests may subside.
Either way, I see little chance of Macron getting much domestic business done in his final four years. The pension law was supposed to be the gateway to other reforms.
Despite the would-be, feel-good agenda that the President offered, despite the inevitable decline in protests, there is no obvious way forward.
Pensions may end up, not as the gateway to further reform, but as a flaming barricade.