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Pension reform in France: How can President Macron get out of the crisis?

French President Emmanuel Macron arrives to deliver a speech in Sainte-Savine-Le-Lac, southeastern France, Thursday, March 30, 2023.
French President Emmanuel Macron arrives to deliver a speech in Sainte-Savine-Le-Lac, southeastern France, Thursday, March 30, 2023. Copyright Sebastien Nogier/AP
Copyright Sebastien Nogier/AP
By Anne Devineaux
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Political scientist Bruno Palier underlines that the president's inflexibility on pension reform risks boosting the vote in favour of the far-right National Rally.

After more than two months of nationwide protests, French President Emmanuel Macron faces backlash from voters for his inflexibility on pension reforms.

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Nearly all of France's trade unions have agreed to meet the country's prime minister, Elizabeth Borne, this week as they prepare for an eleventh day of strike action on Thursday. But according to political scientist Bruno Palier, author of the book 'Reforming pensions', the government needs a "change in strategy".

"This meeting is very important", he told Euronews. "It is for the government to show that it is once again opening the door to exchanges with its social partners". 

The unions have not been received by the government since the legislation was presented to the National Assembly in January.

Is it possible for talks to resume? And can the angry public be appeased? Macron's administration has maintained it will not backtrack on its plan to increase the retirement age from 62 to 64 years.

A dialogue of the deaf?

"There is a misunderstanding ahead of this meeting since Emmanuel Macron and the government are letting it be known that the decision on pensions has been taken and will not be discussed", Palier said. "Meanwhile, the unions are going there to talk about this issue and in particular the age of retirement at 64".

President Macron is hoping that protesters will lose momentum as they enter their third month of demonstrations. But according to Palier the government's persistence is only aggravating the opposition: "Polls show there is still massive support for the unions and mobilisation, opposition to the pension reform has increased, it was up 5% in the latest polls. So there is no slowing down."

The Constitutional Council as arbiter

All eyes are now on the Constitutional Council, France's legislative watchdog which will decide, first, if the legislation is in line with the Constitution and, secondly, if a proposed referendum on the changes is admissible. The Council has the power to reject some or even all of the proposed changes and will announce its decision on April 14.

Palier said this announcement could further stoke tensions: "Every time things have gone against the public, 70% of whom are opposed to this reform, there has been an even stronger reaction than before. So we can imagine that partial censorship of this reform or even no censorship at all might reactivate the opposition much more than exhaust it.

"If everything goes to the government's plan, that is to say, if the reform passes, it will be very clear that during the next elections, the National Rally will win a lot of votes. These are political mechanisms that we know well at the European level and it is evident in the polls".

The far-right is on the rise in the polls

According to the Ifop-Fiducial opinion poll carried out a week after the final bill was approved by the Senate, in the event of legislative elections, voters will sway towards Marine Le Pen's far-right National Rally, while Macron's Renaissance party will record an equivalent decline.

As for Emmanuel Macron's approval rating, it is at its lowest since his re-election last year. According to the results of an Epoka poll, in one month it fell by 4 points to 26%.

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