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The Case of Macron's Tough Luck

Protests aren't new to France's Emmanuel Macron. But the latest outrage against pension reforms hangs the government by a serious thread.

Photo by ev / Unsplash

In November of 2018, Champs Elysees was a sight that shook Emmanuel Macron's relatively new presidency — protestors donning 'yellow vests' sparked up demonstrations against the government's decision to hike diesel prices. While the movement was initially observed only in the remote, rural regions of France, it soon grew in reach. That Macron had a perceived air of the 'rich' did not make things easy for the outsider who was feeling the presidential seat sink a beat. Macron ended up rolling back the policy — there was too much at stake for the 'novice', if he could be called one.

A year later, Macron was at it again. The government decided to introduce a universal pension system that would be points-based. This would put an end to all the variations in schemes across 42 states. Macron believed this to be the safest for France's economy. Without such stabilization of the economy — in keeping with a growing lifespan and aging population — he felt that the country would fall behind its contemporaries. After the announcement, the public sector virtually shut down with strikes. Transportation, education, and health — all sectors chose to disrupt. Macron, yet again, rolled the policy back. There was still a lot at stake and it was only his first term.

Fast forward to 2023, Emmanuel Macron is embracing risks. His government tapped into Article 49 of the French Constitution to pass a new pension reform that will increase the retirement age from 62 to 64. For a president who has no parliamentary majority, this appeared to be the only option left — especially when he's hell-bent on 'rescuing' the nation's economy. Protestors are out in the streets and this might just become another 'yellow vest' moment for the country's politique. An entire nation is scrambling for whatever is left of social welfare in France.

The Reform

Elisabeth Borne, the French Prime Minister, announced to the parliament, "We cannot bet on the future of our pensions. This reform is necessary." But the public, in numbers close to 70%, does not think so. For a country that has vividly loved a post-retirement culture, this is especially unimaginable. But to reduce it to culture alone would mean making it highly diminutive — which it's not.

The French government said that there were no alternatives open to them. They cannot increase taxes (which are already high) or reduce the pension amount. But, the deficit is climbing, slated to reach a whopping €21.2 billion before 2040 if expenses go at this pace. For France, part of cutting costs is dealing with the pension problem — 15% of its expenses go into this and the number is double that spent by the US. From a purely financial lens, the fact that people spend nearly three decades in retirement, makes the expenditure taxing for the government. Macron was an investment banker — he would then surely know where to make his investments reap better profits. And with the crazed self-projecting path that he's often taken with his policies, people will not find any welfare working behind this new reform.

The Ground for Macron

Macron came to power as an “outsider”, but this often became a bane for his presidency — people found it hard to relate to him, thus bringing in disconnection, as Sophie Pedder points out. He's neither been here nor there. While the second term may have given him more confidence and removed the tag of a 'novice', without a parliamentary majority, he is still walking a tightrope. His unpredictability or impulsiveness cannot always work. The shine has worn off.

Opposition parties have rallied behind the possibility of a no-confidence motion. If they do succeed in their efforts, Macron's government may have to step down. The protests have given these parties enough reason to cement him as the authoritarian that they've been crying out in allegations about. It's a game that they can set out to win.

The Economist feature also details how the hyper-centralized nature of Macron’s presidency and his tendency to take everything into his own hands — fed up with others’ failure to meet his expectations — leaves him with fewer aides. It makes one think: how good is it to pass legislation without support?

But as with anybody running on a second, confirmed term, irrespective of the risks, they'd be willing to take it to the very end. For Macron, his promise to militarily expand and make the economy boom — thus positing France as the EU's frontrunner for power — can only thrive if he tweaks the finances internally. Whether this is actual confidence or apocalyptic power greed is a more complicated question.

Macron knows that he will be served protests no matter what. And he's willing to shoot his ideas across with full cognizance of this pit. What this leads to is a picture that will soon unfold.

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