President Emmanuel Macron saw his decision to push through a change in the retirement age as necessary, but the price may be high.
March 18, 2023Updated 5:33 a.m. ET
PARIS — “We have a president who makes use of a permanent coup d’état.” That was the verdict of Olivier Faure, the leader of the French Socialist Party, after President Emmanuel Macron rammed through a bill raising the retirement age in France to 64 from 62 without a full parliamentary vote this past week.
In fact, Mr. Macron’s use of the “nuclear option,” as the France 24 TV network described it, was entirely legal under the French Constitution, crafted in 1958 for Charles de Gaulle and reflecting the general’s strong view that power should be centered in the president’s office, not among feuding lawmakers.
But legality is one thing and legitimacy another. Mr. Macron may see his decision as necessary to cement his legacy as the leader who left France prepared to face the rest of the 21st century. But to many French people it looked like presidential diktat, a blot on his reputation and a blow to French democracy.
Parliament has responded with two motions of no confidence in Mr. Macron’s government. They are unlikely to be upheld when the lawmakers vote on them next week because of political divisions in the opposition, but are the expression of a deep anger.
Six years into his presidency, surrounded by brilliant technocrats, Mr. Macron cuts a lonely figure, his lofty silence conspicuous at this moment of turmoil.
“He has managed to antagonize everyone by occupying the whole of the center,” said Jacques Rupnik, a political scientist. “Macron’s attitude seems to be: After me, the deluge.”
This isolation was evident as two months of protests and strikes that left Paris strewn with garbage culminated on Thursday in the sudden panic of a government that had believed the pension vote was a slam dunk. Suddenly, the emperor’s doubts were exposed.
Mr. Macron thought he could count on the center-right Republicans to vote for his plan in the National Assembly, Parliament’s lower house. Two of the most powerful members of his government — Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire and Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin — came from that party. The Republicans had advocated retirement even later, at 65.
Yet out of some mixture of political calculation in light of the waves of protest and spite toward the man who had undermined their party by building a new movement of the center, they began to desert Mr. Macron.
Having his retirement overhaul fail was one risk that even Macron the risk taker could not take. He opted for a measure, known as the 49.3 after the relevant article of the Constitution, that allows certain bills to be passed without a vote. France’s retirement age will rise to 64, more in line with its European partners, unless the no-confidence motion passes.
But what would have looked like a defining victory for Mr. Macron, even if the parliamentary vote in favor had been narrow, now looks like a Pyrrhic victory.
Four more years in power stretch ahead of Mr. Macron, with “Mr. 49.3” stamped on his forehead. He made the French dream when he was elected at age 39 in 2017; how he can do so again is unclear.
“The idea that we are not in a democracy has grown. It’s out there all the time on social media, part conspiracy theory, part expression of a deep anxiety,” said Nicolas Tenzer, an author who teaches political science at Sciences Po university. “And, of course, what Macron just did feeds that.”
The government’s spokesman is Olivier Véran, who is also minister delegate for democratic renewal. There is a reason for that august title: a widespread belief that over the six years of the Macron presidency, French democracy has eroded.
After the Yellow Vest protest movement erupted in 2018 over an increase in gas prices but also an elitism that Mr. Macron seemed to personify, the president went on a “listening tour.” It was an attempt to get closer to working people of whom he had seemed dismissive.
Now, almost one year into his second term, that outreach seems distant. Mr. Macron scarcely laid the groundwork for his pension measure even though he knew well that it would touch a deep French nerve at a time of economic hardship. His push for later retirement was top-down, expedited at every turn and, in the end, ruthless.
The case for the overhaul was strong. It was not only to Mr. Macron that retirement at 62 looked untenable as lives grew longer. The math, over the longer term at least, simply does not add up in a system where the ratio of active workers to the retirees they are supporting through their payroll taxes keeps dropping.
But in an anxious France, with many people struggling to pay their bills and unsure of their futures, Mr. Macron could not make the argument. In fact, he hardly seemed to try.
Of course, the French attitude to a mighty presidency is notoriously ambiguous. On the one hand, the near-monarchical office seems to satisfy some French yearning for an all-powerful state — it was a French king, Louis XIV, who is said to have declared that the state was none other than himself. On the other, the presidency is resented for the extent of its authority.
Mr. Macron seemed to capture this when he told his cabinet on Thursday, “Among you, I am not the one who risks his place or his seat.” If the government does fall in a vote of censure, Élisabeth Borne will no longer be prime minister, but Mr. Macron will still be president until 2027.
“A permanent coup d’état,” Mr. Faure’s phrase, was also the title of a book that François Mitterrand wrote to describe the presidency of de Gaulle. That was before Mr. Mitterrand became president himself and in time came to enjoy all the pomp and power of his office. Mr. Macron has proved no more impervious to the temptations of the presidency than his predecessors.
But times change, social hierarchies fall, and Mr. Macron’s exercise of his authority has stirred a strong resentment in a flatter French society at a moment of war-induced tension in Europe.
“There is a rejection of the person,” Mr. Tenzer said. The daily newspaper Le Monde noted in an editorial that Mr. Macron ran the risk of “fostering a persistent bitterness, or even igniting sparks of violence.”
In a way, Mr. Macron is the victim of his own remarkable success. Such are his political gifts that he has been elected to two terms in office — no French president had done this in two decades — and effectively destroyed the two political pillars of postwar France: the Socialist Party and the Gaullists.
So he is resented by the center left and center right, even as he is loathed by the far left and the far right.
Now in his final term, he must walk a lonely road. He has no obvious successor, and his Renaissance party is little more than a vehicle for his talents. This is the “deluge” of which Mr. Rupnik spoke: a vast political void looming in 2027.
If Marine Le Pen of the far right is not to fill it, Mr. Macron the reformist must deliver the resilient, vibrant France for which he believes his much-contested reform was an essential foundation.