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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Macron faces pivotal week in his attempt to change France at its core

By Roger Cohen

A favorite phrase of Emmanuel Macron, the French president, is that in life, “you have to take your risks.” He did, and rose from nowhere to lead France at the age of 39. Now, six years later, he has decided to risk his political future on reshaping France at the very point where it is most resistant to change.

Macron’s battle with the French street over his plan to raise the legal age of retirement to 64 from 62 is expected to culminate this week in a decisive vote in both houses of Parliament on Thursday. Before then, if the last several weeks are any guide, the president can expect more than 1 million French citizens to rally in protests around the country, hoping to beat back the change. In Paris, they will demonstrate in streets piled high with trash, uncollected because of strikes.

With his attempt to overhaul France’s pension system, Macron has taken on the fierce French resistance to a world of unbridled capitalism, the nation’s deep attachment to social solidarity and the pervasive view that a long and painful sentence of work is offset only by the liberating rewards of a pensioner’s life. It is an enormous gamble.

“Every country has a soul, and the soul of France is equality,” François Hollande, Macron’s predecessor as president, famously said. Profit remains suspicious to many French people, who view it as a subterfuge of the rich. The 1.28 million protesters in the streets of France last week — 3.5 million, according to labor unions — had an unequivocal message for Macron: “Work less to live more,” as one slogan put it.

Macron, 45, appears unmoved, resolute in his conviction that the change is essential to France’s economic health because today’s workers pay the pensions of a growing number of retirees who live longer. If France is to invest in the transition to a green economy and in defense at a time of war in Europe, it cannot, in Macron’s view, pile up deficits financing a retirement age that reflects the shorter life spans of a bygone era.

“It’s simple,” Macron said last year. “If we do not solve the problem of our retirees, we cannot invest in all the rest. It’s nothing less than a choice of the society we want.”

That may be logical, but the reservoir of sympathy on which Macron could once depend has evaporated. The pivot point of his second term, still less than a year old and accompanied until now by sense of drift, appears imminent.

He won reelection last year more as a bulwark against Marine Le Pen, the extreme right candidate, than anything else. Europe’s wunderkind is wounded. To some degree, he is vulnerable. Yet he insists, in the quixotic style he has often demonstrated, on the most difficult of changes at a time when 40% of French families say they struggle to make ends meet.

“It’s a question of his DNA,” said Clément Beaune, a government minister who knows Macron well. “As a former economy minister, he wants a solid, growing France at the core of Europe. When asked about the most important legacy of his first term, he always says slashing unemployment.”

The jobless rate has fallen to just over 7%, low for France, from 9.5% when Macron took office in 2017, a reflection of his sweeping changes to free up the labor market, which has helped lure increased foreign investment.

Expanding the workforce, however, does not make French hearts beat faster. They do skip a beat to six days of strikes and demonstrations over the past two months. The protests have been accompanied by an outpouring of sympathy. Polls suggest that at least two-thirds of French people do not want the retirement age raised.

Solidarity funds support strikers losing pay. Labor unions from the far-left to the center have acted in unusual unison. They have attacked Macron’s relative silence as “a grave democratic problem that leads inevitably to a situation that could become explosive,” as they put it in a letter to Macron last week.

Just how explosive will be revealed in the next several days.

Macron’s hodgepodge centrist political party, Renaissance — formerly known as La République en Marche — with the backing of the center-right Republicans, should prevail, but support seems to be wavering, and the outcome is unclear. Renaissance holds 260 seats and the Republicans 61, with 289 votes needed for a majority.

“It’s not a given that the reform passes,” said Alain Duhamel, an author and political commentator. “A month ago, I would have said 80% it goes through; now I would say 60%. Macron has taken a risky gamble. The logic of it is evident, but not the urgency.”

For Macron, inclined to sweeping ideas, the urgency appears to lie precisely in the logic. France is an extreme outlier. The age of retirement in Europe has generally risen to over 65. In Germany, it is 65 years and 7 months. In Italy, it is 67. In the Netherlands, it will rise to 67 next year. And in Spain, it will reach 67 in 2027. Yet because France sees itself as a model apart, it tends to be unimpressed by these comparisons.

For Macron, France must compete; it cannot, he believes, be hobbled by outdated regulations. “His core value, or conviction, is work,” Duhamel said. “Working more to grow more.”

But Macron’s message, or narrative, on pension reform has been hard for many French to follow. At different times, it had been about justice, about parlous public finances, even about fulfilling a left-wing program.

Short of parliamentary approval, the government could resort to Article 49.3 of the French Constitution, which has been used to pass laws without a vote. But on a question of such magnitude and contentiousness, this would almost certainly smack of contempt for democratic process and could cement accusations against Macron of aloof, top-down rule.

“Today, what is happening is massive,” Marylise Léon, the deputy leader of the French Democratic Confederation of Labor, the largest and most moderate union in France, told the daily Le Monde. “Mr. Macron cannot behave as if the movement did not exist. That would be crazy.”

Macron has declined to meet with union leaders, while saying the government is open to dialogue.

He appears to be adopting a position not uncommon among presidents under the Fifth Republic: setting the broad lines of policy while leaving it to Élisabeth Borne, the prime minister, to lead the tough slog of getting the legislation passed.

If anything, however, this policy has left the president looking more isolated. His inner circle is tight, dominated by his wife, Brigitte, who is intensely protective, and by Alexis Kohler, the general secretary of the Élysée Palace and a strong supporter of the overhaul, who has been at the president’s side since Macron became minister of the economy in 2014.

Inevitably, with Macron limited to two terms, his legacy has begun to loom large.

His commitment to a strong Europe of greater “strategic autonomy” remains central, and he clearly believes that only a modernized France with a balanced budget able to invest deeply in education, technological innovation, industrial independence, renewable energy, the armed forces and nuclear power can lead that push.

In this sense, the pension change is part of Macron’s wider European ambition.

If he can push the reform through, Macron will certainly follow up with offsetting social measures, including attempts to improve working conditions and broaden on-the-job training. Beaune, the minister delegate for transport, described the core idea as “work more, but work better.”

Whether this will be enough, should the legislation pass, to heal the rift that has opened up in France over pension reform is unclear. Much will hinge on such healing, because a France at war with itself is likely to benefit the political extremes of the left and right.

“Macron’s obsession is that Ms. Le Pen not succeed him,” Beaune said. “Because if she does, that is what people will remember.”

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