Bitter pension battle turns into democratic crisis as Macron bypasses French parliament

At the height of Thursday’s extraordinary political drama, shortly after the government announced it would pass its controversial pension reform amid a huge fracas in parliament, protesters began to converge on the sprawling Place de la Concorde in central Paris , just a bridge away from the heavily guarded National Assembly.

For a moment, the old cradle of revolutions seemed to roll back the years, shaken by a spontaneous outpouring of indignation and anger – even though there were only a few thousand demonstrators.

There were the usual suspects, such as left-wing agitator Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who railed against a reform he said “had no legitimacy – neither in parliament nor on the streets”. Unionists were also strong, cheering a moral victory while denouncing Macron’s “violation of democracy”.

Many more were ordinary protesters who had flocked to the Concorde after class or work. One of them waved a giant cardboard fork as the crowd shouted, “Macron’s resignation(Macron resigns). Another painted an ominous message on a metal barrier – “The shadow of the guillotine approaches” – right on the spot where Louis XVI was executed 230 years ago.

Protesters gathered at Place de la Concorde to express their outrage at the government’s use of Article 49.3 to push through its pension reforms. © Alain Jocard, AFP

“It’s a powerful image, the people taking over this symbol of Paris, at the heart of French institutions,” said George, 65, a retired librarian who rushed to the square after he left the National Library earlier in the day. Library had been temporarily blocked.

“When millions of people protest in the streets for weeks, it is inconceivable that a government feels entitled to use the 49.3,” he said, referring to the special measure the government used to bypass parliament, named after Article 49.3 of the law . the French constitution.

“It’s a coup,” George added. “It can’t pass, it can’t pass!”

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As night fell, police attacked the demonstrators and used tear gas to clear the square, located a stone’s throw from the Élysée presidential palace. Small groups of protesters marched through nearby streets and set fires, in scenes repeated in other cities across France. More than 250 arrests were made in the French capital alone.

‘Democratic break’

The government’s brutal move was the straw that broke the camel’s back, said Anna Neiva Cardante, a 23-year-old student who skipped the recent street protests against Macron’s reform but felt compelled to express her outrage at this “denial of the democracy”.

“A vote in the National Assembly was the government’s only chance to secure some degree of legitimacy for its reform,” she said as police began clearing Place de la Concorde. “Now it has a downright crisis on its hands.”

Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne’s minority government is not the first to use Article 49.3, which has been activated 100 times since 1962. Rarely, however, has it been used to push through reform of such magnitude and be so vehemently rejected by the public.

At the heart of the pension overhaul is a controversial plan to raise the country’s minimum retirement age from 62 to 64 and tighten requirements for a full pension, which the government says is necessary to balance the books amid shifting demographic developments.

However, trade unions say the proposed measures are highly unfair and mainly affect low-skilled workers who start their careers early and work physically exhausting jobs, as well as women with interrupted careers. They have called for a ninth day of mass strikes and protests next Thursday, amplified by the widespread shock and anger that followed the government’s decision to bypass parliament.

“This reform is outrageous, punishes women and the working class and denies the hardships of those in the toughest jobs,” said Neiva Cardante, whose parents – a bricklayer and a cleaner – are “among those who have the most to lose”.

The perceived inequality of Macron’s pension reform has struck a chord in a country that has enshrined the word ‘égalité’ (equality) in its motto. Talk about its unfairness has been a major driver of the massive protests that have brought millions to the streets in cities, towns and villages across the country, coming from far beyond the ranks of the left.

>> ‘Not just about pensions’: French protesters see a threat to social justice in Macron’s reform

Polls consistently show that more than two-thirds of the country oppose the government’s plans. A large majority of French people have also expressed their support for strikes that have disrupted schools, public transport and waste collection, leaving the streets of Paris – the world’s most visited city – with stinking heaps of rubbish.

Piles of rubbish have formed all over the French capital, sometimes echoing the barricades of previous revolutions. © Benoît Tessier, Reuters

Thursday’s use of Article 49.3 amounted to an admission that the controversial reform also lacked a majority in the National Assembly, amid reluctance by many right-wing opposition MPs to bail out Macron’s minority government and draw the wrath of their voters. defy.

It was greeted with a deafening chorus of boos and jeers in the House of Representatives, where left-wing lawmakers Marseillaisethe national anthem of France, as Prime Minister Borne struggled to raise her voice above the noise.

Conservative MPs, whom Macron had counted on to back his reforms, were also quick to reprimand the government, warning that its action would radicalize opponents and undermine the law’s democratic legitimacy.

“We have a democratic problem,” right-wing lawmaker Aurélien Pradié told BFM TV. “This law – which will change the lives of the French – was passed without the slightest vote in the National Assembly,” he added, pointing to the fact that not even a preliminary vote could be held in the lower chamber amid of obstruction from the left. He signaled the risk of a “democratic break” in the country following the government’s decision.

A legitimacy crisis

The lack of a mandate to “change the lives of the French” has been a recurring theme at recent mass rallies against pension reform, with protesters highlighting their support for Macron last year in a presidential runoff to imprison far-right leader Marine Le Pen. to hold. from power – and not because they supported his political platform.

While Macron defeated Le Pen in the April 24 vote, he later failed to secure a majority in parliamentary elections — becoming the first president to fall short since presidential and parliamentary polls aligned more than two decades ago were brought. As his own candidates acknowledged at the time, the public rejection of his planned pension review was a key factor in the party’s poor showing at the polls.

Political analyst Chloé Morin pointed to a continuing “misunderstanding” between Macron and many voters about the nature of his mandate. She quoted his victory speech last April when the newly re-elected president recognized voters who supported him “not out of support for[his] ideas, but to block those of the extreme right”.

“At the time, Macron said he had ‘a duty to’ those voters,” Morin told French daily Ouest France. “Now they feel betrayed and despised.”

Antoine Bristielle, a public opinion expert at the Fondation Jean-Jaures think tank, said passing such an important law without a parliamentary vote would further antagonize the country and deepen anti-Macron sentiment, recalling to the yellow vest revolt is still alive. He pointed to an Ifop poll this week that showed about eight in 10 people opposed this way of legislation, including a majority of voters who supported Macron in the first round of last year’s presidential election.

“The 49.3 is seen as a symbol of brutality, with the potential to erode support for both the government and democratic institutions,” he said, adding that surveys had shown growing resentment from governments seen as the ignoring the public.

“People can’t understand why a bill that is so massively rejected by voters is enforced anyway,” Bristielle explained. “This disconnect between lawmakers and the will of the people is no longer acceptable. Voters are no longer satisfied with delegating powers for five years.”

Anger over the use of Article 49.3 will also further poison debates and result in more stalemate at the already turbulent National Assembly, where opposition parties tabled a vote of no confidence in Borne’s government on Friday, which will be voted on next week.

Macron has failed to garner enough support for his controversial law and now counts on the opposition also failing to garner enough votes to overthrow his government. The tactic could win him a win by default, but could also jeopardize the chances of building parliamentary consensus.

“The risk for Macron now is that he will become powerless to get anything important done in the next four years,” said Bristielle, for whom the president’s top-down approach to government “doesn’t fit” in the context of a deadlocked government. parliament where compromise and coalition building are essential.

His ruling renaissance party had so far had some degree of success in navigating the challenges of the minority regime, relying on the support of opposition legislators – sometimes on the left, more often on the right – to pass legislation in a deeply divided National Assembly with large delegations. of parliamentarians from the far right and the far left. But such cooperation is certainly not possible, at least in the coming weeks or months.

French editors were undaunted in their assessment of Macron’s gamble, which conservative daily Le Figaro branded a “defeat” for the president and compared Le Monde to “playing with fire”.

“A climate of political crisis hangs over the country,” read the daily Le Monde column on Friday, warning that Macron risked “durably alienating parts of the country, harboring persistent resentment and even sparking to incite violence”.

The regional daily La Voix du Nord scolded the president for avoiding a vote, arguing that “risking an honorable defeat” was preferable to “fomenting social unrest”.

“On this day, March 16, ‘Macronism’ ordered its own death,” the left-wing Libération added, endorsing the “personal failure” of a president “who came to power with a promise to restore French democracy.” rejuvenate’, but only ‘raised the defects which he had promised to remedy’.

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