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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

French march in new pension protests, but are they a final stand?

Riot police used a water cannon on Tuesday to disperse demonstrators rallying in Rennes, in northwestern France, against government changes to pensions.

By Constant Meheut

Street demonstrations and transport strikes disrupted France again earlier this week as another day of protests against a widely unpopular pension overhaul took place, in what appeared to be a last-ditch effort to pressure authorities into scrapping the changes.

Tuesday’s protest, the 14th day of nationwide demonstrations since January, reflected the lingering anger at the government’s decision to raise the legal retirement age to 64 from 62 — a move that put France on edge and led to the biggest political threat in President Emmanuel Macron’s second term.

But after months of exceptionally large protests that have failed to budge Macron, and with key parts of the overhaul already enshrined in law, opponents of the reform acknowledge that the chances of turning the tide now are slim and that Tuesday’s actions may be a last stand.

“The game is about to end whether we like it or not,” Laurent Berger, the leader of the French Democratic Confederation of Labor, the largest union in France, said Tuesday as he was getting ready for the march in Paris.

Still, Berger added that the persistence of the protests, even after the overhaul became law, was a sign of lingering “anger and resentment” that may have lasting consequences for Macron’s political fortunes.

What happened Tuesday?

From Calais in the north to Nice in the south, some 280,000 demonstrators marched Tuesday to protest against the pension changes, according to French authorities, while strikes forced Paris Orly Airport to cancel one-third of its flights and slightly disrupted the Paris subway network.

In Paris and other cities, protesters briefly clashed with riot police who fired tear gas, but the number of incidents was far below previous days.

The number of demonstrators was the smallest since the start of the protest movement and a sharp drop from the million who took to the streets in March, a sign that the protest movement, exhausted by weeks of unsuccessful marches, is now running out of steam. In Paris, a fairly sparse and calm crowd snaked along the Left Bank, in stark contrast to the raucous parade that shook the capital just a month ago.

“Clearly, there’s some exhaustion,” said Éric Agrikoliansky, a 56-year-old teacher who was browsing at a bookstall while waiting to join the march as small groups of protesters walked past him, chatting but hardly chanting any slogans. “Everybody seems to think that it’s the end.”

Marches blocking entire avenues of Paris, to the bemusement of tourists sipping cocktails in nearby cafes, have been a fixture of the capital since the beginning of the year.

But on Tuesday, crowds made it through the Boulevard du Montparnasse quickly. “Finished already?” said a cafe server as the music of the procession faded into the distance.

What is the dispute over pensions?

Macron has argued that France’s pension system, which is based on payroll taxes, is financially unsustainable because retirees supported by active workers are living longer. To balance the system, his government decided to make people work longer by raising the legal age when they can start collecting a pension.

“We have a deficit problem, and we have to plug it,” Macron said in a televised interview last month. “I stand by this reform.”

But opponents say that Macron has exaggerated the threat of projected deficits and has refused to consider other ways to balance the system, such as increasing worker payroll taxes.

Faced with widespread opposition in the streets and in parliament, the government pushed through the overhaul using a constitutional provision that avoided a full parliamentary vote.

The move angered opponents who felt that they were not being listened to. What began with peaceful marches that drew millions into the streets spawned some “wild protests” marked by heavy vandalism and pan-beating demonstrations meant to express people’s discontent and frustration.

Is Macron in political trouble?

The upheaval over the changes to pensions has presented Macron with a harsh political reality.

Having lost his absolute majority in the National Assembly, the lower and more powerful house of parliament, he cannot push through contested reforms as easily as before. In the Senate, he has no majority at all, making him dependent on the goodwill of the dominant center-right Republicans party with which he has sought, so far unsuccessfully, to forge an alliance.

In March, Macron’s government narrowly survived a no-confidence vote over the pension overhaul after several Republican lawmakers unexpectedly decided to turn against it.

Seeking to move past the troubles, Macron has embarked on countless visits to French cities and towns to announce measures ranging from raising teachers’ salaries to fighting forest fires.

He also gave himself until mid-July to deliver a handful of crucial measures to improve the working conditions of the French and to tackle illegal immigration. A long-awaited immigration bill has been repeatedly postponed, as it remains unclear whether the government can secure a majority to pass it.

Still, Macron’s efforts seem to be paying off.

His popularity, which had plummeted as a result of the pension changes, has risen by 4 percentage points over the past month, according to a recent survey conducted by the Elabe polling firm. The figure has now stabilized at around 30%, slightly below his popularity level in January, before the pension protests started.

What happens now?

Having exhausted most of their options to block the pension changes, including an attempt to allow a referendum on the issue, left-wing forces and labor unions are now pinning their hopes on a provision put forward by a small parliamentary faction to repeal the pension law.

The provision was removed at commission level, but left-wing parties are hoping to put it back on the agenda via an amendment that they would discuss in the National Assembly on Thursday. But the move is expected to be rejected by the house’s speaker, a member of Macron’s party.

Agrikoliansky, the Paris demonstrator, said he no longer believed the pension changes could be reversed. But he added that the way the overhaul had been pushed through had “crystallized a lot of anger, a strong resentment.”

“It’s a victory for the government, but one with mixed results,” he said. “They won, but they also lost a lot in terms of political credit.”

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