Afew months before sweeping to power in the 2017 presidential election, Emmanuel Macron published a memoir-cum-personal manifesto, Revolution. In it, he made the case for rebellion against allegedly outmoded institutions and ideas that were holding back France. Six years on, it is the popular revolts against Mr Macron’s own policies which have taken centre-stage.
Recent months have seen some of the largest protests in the history of the Fifth Republic, as Mr Macron has sought to push through a deeply unpopular plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. On Monday, his government survived a related parliamentary motion of no confidence by the skin of its teeth. This followed the president’s controversial – though constitutional – decision to use executive powers to get his way, bypassing a vote in the national assembly that he thought he might lose.
Among his own MPs, the manoeuvre provoked public misgivings. Elsewhere, even allowing for the usual political game-playing, the response was authentically furious. One MP from the centre-right party Les Républicains – which Mr Macron’s minority government needs onside to achieve majorities – accused the president of acting in an “isolated, narcissistic way, impervious to French people’s lives”.
President Macron’s decision to force through his pension reforms without a vote damages French democracy
In this respect, the president could be said to have form. In 2018, his high-handed approach helped transform provincial protests against a fuel tax into the wider gilets jaunes revolt against elites. A penitent Mr Macron embarked on a nationwide “listening tour”. Then, when his Renaissance party lost its majority last June, he again promised a more consensual approach. But less than a year into his second term – amid widespread anxiety about falling living standards – he has reverted to Jupiterean type, defying the wishes of the two-thirds of the French population who oppose his reforms, and circumventing the democratic niceties of winning a debate in parliament.
For a smart president, this seems like strangely dumb politics. The protests and strikes may eventually fade, although more are planned and the sense of popular outrage is real. But Mr Macron’s reputation as an arrogant technocrat with little regard for social movements or civic sentiment is surely sealed. His prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, now appears to be a busted flush along with her government, but seems determined to stay in post. The president’s second term risks becoming a long and acrimonious goodbye, with little achieved.
An independent government body has judged that the pension system’s deficits are manageable for the foreseeable future, making it hard to understand why Mr Macron decided to take such a confrontational approach. Amid record levels of abstention at elections, the rise of online conspiracy theories and the all but accomplished normalisation of the far right, Mr Macron’s resort to government by decree has done nothing to ease the trust deficit in French politics. Marine Le Pen and the far right may well be the principal beneficiaries of that. Having presented himself as the right man to modernise the country, Mr Macron increasingly looks like a politician out of touch with the needs of the times.
World Opinions – The Guardian view