Unbowed, Macron Appears Ready to Tough Out Pension Crisis

PARIS — President Emmanuel Macron’s re-election program last year was short on detail. His mind seemed elsewhere, chiefly on the war in Ukraine. But on one thing he was clear: He would raise the retirement age in France to 65 from 62.

“You will have to work progressively more,” he said during a debate in April 2022 with the extreme-right candidate, Marine Le Pen. She attacked the idea as “an absolutely unbearable injustice” that would condemn French people to retirement “when they are no longer able to enjoy it.”

France heard both candidates. Soon after, Mr. Macron was re-elected with 58.55 percent of the vote to Ms. Le Pen’s 41.45 percent. It was a clear victory, and it was clear what Mr. Macron would do on the question of pensions.

Yet, his ramming the overhaul through Parliament last week without a full vote on the bill itself culminated in turmoil, mayhem on the streets and two failed no-confidence votes against his government on Monday, even as polls have consistently shown about 65 percent of French people are opposed to raising the retirement age.

Had they not heard him? Had they changed their minds? Had circumstances changed? Perhaps the answer lies, above all, in the nature of Mr. Macron’s victory, as he himself acknowledged on election night last year.

Looking somber, speaking in an uncharacteristically flat monotone, Mr. Macron told a crowd of supporters in Paris: “I also know that a number of our compatriots voted for me today not to support the ideas that I uphold, but to block the extreme right. I want to thank them and say that I am aware that I have obligations toward them in the years to come.”

“Those ‘obligations’ could only be a promise to negotiate on major reforms,” Nicole Bacharan, a social scientist, said on Tuesday. “He did not negotiate, even with moderate union leaders. What I see now is Macron’s complete disconnection from the country.”

Opposition parties on both the left and the right have vowed to file challenges against the pension law before the Constitutional Council, which reviews legislation to ensure it complies with the French Constitution.

“The goal,” said Thomas Ménagé of Ms. Le Pen’s National Rally party, “is to ensure that this text falls into the dustbin of history.”

But the chances of that appear remote.

After a long silence, Mr. Macron is set to address the turmoil on Wednesday. He will try to conciliate; he will, according to officials close to him, portray the current standoff as a battle between democratic institutions and the chaos of the street, orchestrated by the extreme left and slyly encouraged by the extreme right. He has decided to stick with his current government, led by Élisabeth Borne, the prime minister, and he will not dissolve Parliament or call new elections, they say.

In short, it seems Mr. Macron has decided to tough out the crisis, perhaps offering some blandishments on improving vocational high schools and broader on-the-job training. But certainly no apology appears to be forthcoming for using a legal tool, Article 49.3 of the Constitution, to avoid a full parliamentary vote on a change that has split the country. (Only the Senate, the upper house, voted to pass the bill this month.)

This approach appears consistent with Mr. Macron’s chosen tactics on the pension overhaul. Since the debate with Ms. Le Pen 11 months ago, inflation has risen, energy prices have gone up, and the pressures, particularly on the poorer sectors of French society, have grown.

Yet, while he has made some concessions, including setting the new retirement age at 64 rather than 65, Mr. Macron has remained remote from the rolling anger. Most conspicuously, and to many inexplicably, after the government consulted extensively with unions in the run-up to January, Mr. Macron has refused to negotiate with the powerful moderate union leader Laurent Berger, who had supported Mr. Macron’s earlier attempt at pension changes in 2019 but opposes him now.

“Macron knows the economy better than he knows political psychology,” said Alain Duhamel, a political scientist. “And today, what you have is a generalized fury.”

A large number of Macron voters, it is now clear, never wanted the retirement age raised. They heard Mr. Macron during the debate with Ms. Le Pen. They just did not loathe his idea enough to vote for a nationalist, anti-immigrant ideologue whose party was financed in part by Russian loans.

Mr. Macron is adept at playing on such contradictions and divisions. Because his presidential term is limited, he is freer to do as he pleases. He knows three things: He will not be a candidate for re-election in 2027 because a third consecutive term is not permitted; the opposition in Parliament is strong but irreconcilably divided between the far left and extreme right; and there is a large, silent slice of French society that supports his pension overhaul.

All this gives him room to maneuver even in his current difficult situation.

When Mr. Macron opted last week for the 49.3 and the avoidance of a parliamentary vote, he explained his decision this way: “I consider that in the current state of affairs the financial and economic risks are too great.”

On the face of it, speaking about risks to financial markets while pushing through an overhaul deeply resented by blue-collar and working-class French people seemed politically gauche. It appeared especially so at a moment when Mr. Macron was turning away from the full parliamentary vote his government had unanimously said it wanted.

“Saying what he said about finance at that moment, in that context, was just dynamite,” said Ms. Bacharan.

It was also an unmistakable wink to the powerful French private sector — with its world-class companies like LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton — and to the many affluent and middle-class French people who do not like the growing piles of uncollected garbage or the protests in the streets, and who view retirement at 62 as an unsustainable anomaly in a Europe where the retirement age has generally risen to 65 or higher.

If Mr. Macron has cards to play, and perhaps broader support than is evident as protesters hurl insults at him day after day, his very disconnection may make it hard for him to judge the country’s mood.

Last week, Aurore Bergé, the leader of Mr. Macron’s Renaissance party in Parliament, wrote to Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister, to request police protection for lawmakers.

“I refuse to see representatives from my group, or any national lawmaker, afraid to express themselves, or to vote freely, because they are afraid of reprisals,” she said.

It was a measure of the violent mood in France.

“If we have had 15 Constitutions over the past two centuries, that means there have been 14 revolutions of various kinds,” Mr. Duhamel said. “There is an eruptive side to France that one should not ignore.”

Aurelien Breeden and Tom Nouvian contributed reporting.

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