One way to understand the current crisis in France is to know that the country has never had a lame-duck president. Emmanuel Macron is the first head of state to win reelection since the country barred serving three consecutive terms in 2008. In 2027, he’s out.
Not having to face the voters again can imply a kind of political incapacity, and that is where Macron found himself last week, as his bill to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 appeared uncertain of passing the country’s splintered National Assembly. Spirited and disruptive demonstrators around the country protested the measure. The left-wing alliance refused to work with him; far-right leader Marine Le Pen promised to undo the law if elected president in four years. Even Macron’s natural allies, the right-wing Republicains, were abandoning ship—despite supporting a similar proposal during last year’s elections. What was Macron’s favor worth? Not much, apparently.
Then again, being free from electoral politics can also liberate a man to make unpopular decisions, which is exactly what Macron did next. His own party, Renaissance, does not have a majority in the assembly, so he directed Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne to ram the bill through without a vote last Friday, under a Gaullist loophole known as 49.3. The pension reform, which bumps up the age to receive social security from 62 to 64, is opposed by almost 3 in 4 French people. But now, barring court intervention, it is law.
And yet things hardly seem settled. French labor unions have staged a series of strikes and peaceful demonstrations since January, but the tone of last weekend’s protests—mostly, cops cracking heads during small standoffs in major cities—felt a little more ominous. Targeted strikes by workers at oil refineries and trash haulers in cities are beginning to have an effect, with some drivers waiting as long as an hour to fill up, and black plastic icebergs of garbage blocking sidewalks around Paris. On Thursday, another national mobilization is scheduled, even as the government says it will force workers back on the job. Already, the French are bracing for a repeat of 2018’s “yellow vest” movement, a violent, leaderless series of protests that rocked French cities in 2018.
If the pension law itself is unloved, the method of passing it—using the 49.3 procedure to bypass a vote—has generated almost universal disgust and risks turning a large but peaceful protest movement into something more disruptive. Macron’s allies have tried, unconvincingly, to defend this choice, arguing that opponents made debate impossible, that the bill was a compromise, and that it passed the French Senate, so that’s good enough, right? On Monday, after the 49.3 was met with two no-confidence measures with the power to bring down the government, Borne tried to frame those votes as the assembly’s chance to vote on pension reform. The government survived, narrowly.
It’s not hard to understand the anger on the left. After begging for left-wing votes to squeeze past Marine Le Pen in last year’s presidential runoff, Macron and his top aides have routinely painted the left and the far right as equivalent threats to the republic. After a campaign slogan of togetherness—“All of Us”—and a pledge to reinvigorate French democracy, Macron was afraid to even bring his flagship reform to a vote. Mathilde Panot, the president of the left-wing France Unbowed group in the assembly, compared Macron with Albert Camus’ Caligula on Monday: “The people are watching you. They’re looking at you like someone who has betrayed them, with a mix of anger and disgust.”
Nor is it hard to grasp the giddy opportunism on the far right, where Marine Le Pen has successfully transcended her family’s fascist history and her own anti-immigrant rhetoric. She has lost to Macron twice, but her share of the vote jumped by 8 percentage points between 2017 and 2022 as more and more disillusioned workers joined her coalition of hardcore reactionaries.* Macron once promised to “hold back” the extreme right; now he has given them two big gifts at once—passing a hated reform, and diminishing confidence in the democratic system. Le Pen’s National Rally party voted against the measure, but she will be happy to see it become law.
Somewhat more mysterious is the behavior of the right-wing party, or what remains of it. The Gaullists have several members in Macron’s cabinet and little daylight between the president’s priorities and their own—they have consistently agitated for raising the retirement age, for example. Macron saw them as obvious partners of his own centrist party, but they wilted as the reform got hot. Uncertainty about their intentions compelled Borne to skip the vote entirely, and members barely came through for the government in Monday’s no-confidence vote, which failed by just nine votes in a body with 577 members.
Finally, there is the great enigma, Macron himself. He has been almost absent from the debate these past months, focused on other matters as if to reinforce the perception that pension reform is not the day’s most important subject. Indeed: Climate change, the cost of living, the energy crisis, and the war in Ukraine are the top issues in France right now. So why did the president burn so much political capital on a measure that seems to please only future paper-pushers at the country’s social security administration, while chaining the country’s working class to their jobs for two more years?
Macron’s party has tried, unsuccessfully, to convince lawmakers, the press, and the public that the pension system is on the verge of collapse, that this is the only way to fix it, and that it must be fixed to permit big investments in clean energy and other public spending. Few are buying it. The most likely explanation for Macron’s pursuit of this pyrrhic victory is probably some combination of hubris and miscalculation. The miscalculation: He believed that the law could pass with a healthy majority, undermining protesters’ claims to represent popular authority. The hubris: He believed he had a mandate, after winning 59 percent of the vote last year, when in reality millions of left-wing voters held their noses and supported him just to stop Marine Le Pen.
Over the weekend, the head of Macron’s party in the National Assembly, Aurore Bergé, said on the radio: “On Monday, we’re moving on to something new.” Unlikely.
Correction, March 21, 2023: This article originally misstated that Le Pen’s share of the presidential vote jumped by 8 percent from 2017 to 2022. It jumped by 8 percentage points.