Analysis: Macron wins Pyrrhic victory on pension bill, risks fuelling anger
President Emmanuel Macron’s move to shun the National Assembly and push through an unpopular pension system overhaul without a vote in the lower house may secure a reform he says is needed for France’s finances. But it may end up a Pyrrhic victory.
By using special constitutional powers instead of risking lawmakers rejecting the reform, Macron has given ammunition to the opposition and to trade union leaders who cast the reform as undemocratic.
It could also play into the far right’s hands.
“It’s a democratic coup,” far-right leader Marine Le Pen told reporters after a chaotic session in parliament on Thursday (16 March), where Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne was booed as she announced that the government would invoke article 49.3 of the constitution allowing it to pass the legislation without a vote.
Despite a series of costly sweeteners, the government concluded it had failed to garner enough votes from conservative lawmakers in the lower house to ensure passage for its plan to raise the minimum retirement age to 64 from 62.
Once known as a high-stakes political gambler, Macron chose to play it safe.
He was too concerned about the broader financial implications to risk jeopardising a reform meant to reassure investors and ratings agencies about French debt sustainability, a government source said.
However, weeks of heated debates in parliament and street protests drawing over 1 million people risked leaving a toxic legacy that could boost far-right populists, analysts said.
“This reform has all the ingredients to boost votes for parties on the radical right,” said Bruno Palier, a political scientist at French university Sciences-Po.
Palier said bearing the brunt of the reform would be the lower middle-class, a segment of the population that already felt like it was the loser of globalisation, as it did in Britain before Brexit and in the United States before Donald Trump’s election.
“This resentment is not going to disappear, it’s going to morph into something different, it’ll just wait for voting ballots to manifest itself again,” he added.
Past leaders who have meddled with the retirement age have done so to their cost, Palier said, pointing to Nicolas Sarkozy’s failure to win re-election in 2012 after he pushed the retirement age to 62 from 60 in 2010.
Le Pen ambush
To be sure, claims of authoritarianism by the pension bill’s critics are far-fetched.
Article 49.3 of the constitution, which Macron invoked to pass the reform, has been used by governments of the left, right and centre in the past. Former Socialist prime minister Michel Rocard resorted to the special powers it entails 28 times in the 1980s and 1990s.
However, from the outset Macron’s government failed to make the case for reform.
Ministers initially sold the changes as necessary to save the pension system from collapse. They then explained that the changes were a “left-wing reform”.
Political observers say Le Pen played her hand well.
She is well-placed to benefit from the way the debate unfolded, political sources and disillusioned voters have told Reuters, with Macron being barred from running for a third term in 2027 and no clear successor in sight.
“Mrs Le Pen is ready for the ambush,” Laurent Berger, the head of the moderate CFDT union said on Thursday, hours before the vote. “The resentment, the social debt that’s building, is going to be exploited by the populists and the far-right. It’s scary,” he said.
Le Pen has repeatedly stated her opposition to the reform but has instructed her colleagues in parliament to refrain from using obstructionist tactics like those of the radical left bloc, in line with her long-term goal of winning respectability.
At one point in the debates she even asked her lawmakers to stand and applaud the minister in charge of defending the reform, who had been called a “murderer” by one left-wing lawmaker.
A government source told Reuters Le Pen had appeared the respectable opponent in parliament as the left sought to block the bill with thousands of amendments and the centre-right bickered over whether to support the legislation.
“She even managed to look like the arbiter of debates, which is incredible,” the source said.
Macron will want to turn the page quickly, with government officials already preparing more socially minded reforms.
But the end of debates in parliament may do little to quell anger on the streets. An Odoxa poll showed 62% of the French think protests should continue even once the bill is adopted.
Within moments of the government bypassing parliament, an impromptu demonstration took place on Paris’ Place de la Concorde opposite the National Assembly.
The symbolism was powerful: It was there where Louis XVI was guillotined 230 years ago.