Pressure grows on Macron

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Emmanuel Macron's re-election nine months ago was too fair and did not give him enough authority to impose big decisions without consensus. That reality was again in evidence this Tuesday with the second day of strike and demonstrations throughout France against the pension reform.

The protest was a success – beyond the usual war of figures – and put more pressure on the president and his government. The challenge comes not only from the tight-knit trade unions and popular anger but also from Parliament. Since the legislative elections last June, Macron's supporters have been in the minority in the National Assembly. They have some 250 deputies out of a total of 577. The hectic atmosphere in the country is not conducive to maintaining discipline in their ranks. Nor to make allies. This parliamentary fragility and the discontent in the street form a dangerous clamp.

One of the barometers of the collective mood is the turnout at demonstrations outside of Paris, in large, medium and small cities. This Tuesday there was a special interest in this data. According to the police, there was more participation than on January 19 in Marseille, Rennes, Nantes, Béziers, Montpellier, Calais and other cities. That was the trend, with the exception of Toulouse, where a slight drop was recorded. The CGT union estimated the attendance at the Parisian march at 500,000 people, 100,000 more than the previous time. The police prefecture reduced it to 87,000 demonstrators. The Ministry of the Interior estimated that almost 1.3 million demonstrated in France as a whole (2.8 million according to the CGT).

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There were fewer strikers in the public sector and in education. The disruption to railways, public transport, refineries and electricity production remained strong, but France did not come to a standstill. This Tuesday two new days of struggle were called, on February 7 and 11.

The Ministry of the Interior estimates that almost 1.3 million people attended the demonstrations

As already happened during the long revolt of the vests yellows, in 2018 and 2019, protesters express highly personalized anger at Macron for a leadership style they view as authoritarian and arrogant. "Manu (short for Emmanuel, but derogatory in his case), the people are sovereign: this reform, no," read the small cardboard banner carried by a woman in Paris. Others were taking it out on Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, who is being adamant. A banner jokingly alluded to her age -62 years in April- and invited her to retire now, complying with the current norm and not the delay to 64 years that her reform seeks.

Another image of the protesters, this time in the Place d'Italia in Paris


The march from Paris this time passed along the left bank of the Seine. The incidents were limited. The avenues that converge in the Plaza de Italia were used to distribute the procession of the eight convening unions. The opinion of the militants of the French Democratic Confederation of Labor (CFDT), one of the unions traditionally more moderate and pactistas, was interesting. His secretary general, Laurent Berger, had a fluid relationship with Macron in the past. This time the CFDT is in solidarity combat. Berger believes that the demonstrations of force will end up breaking the government and the reform will be withdrawn.

“The Government has already decided to go forward, against all odds,” declared Xavier, 43, a public employee and member of the CFDT. He tries to subdue parliamentary power and the power of the street. He doesn't care about the 7,000 amendments that have been tabled. There is no dialogue in the country of human rights”. “The worst thing is that the people with the hardest jobs, the ones who were on the front lines during the pandemic, are the most affected. Two years ago they applauded them and now they massacre them”, added Xavier. “Macron looks down on people and is arrogant,” said Sylvia, 55. This accountant complained about the French media for “always setting the example of (later) retirement in other European countries to harm our cause”. "They do not say, for example, that here in France energy and food have risen more," she added.

The pension reform supposes, basically, a cultural battle in which guarantees that several generations had assumed as irremovable are questioned. They see in danger one of the symbols par excellence, if not the greatest, of the social protection system built since the end of World War II. Accepting a delay in the retirement age means admitting a loss of rights, hence the fierce resistance. According to polls, more than two thirds of the French oppose the reform.

Protesters clash with police at Place Vauban during a rally on the second day of nationwide strikes and protests over the government's proposed pension reform, in Paris.

Protesters clash with police in Paris on Tuesday

Alain Jocard/AFP

The president won the election by an insufficient margin to impose big decisions without consensus

The Government's arguments on demographic decline and financial imbalance. The unions and the left maintain that there are other ways to obtain money and to decide priorities. The only thing missing was for Macron, in the middle of the pension debate, to announce an increase in defense spending of 100,000 million euros in seven years, which is equal to or exceeds the deficit in pensions.

The Government knows that it is now impossible to reverse hostile public opinion, but even so, it is only willing to correct some details of the project and not its core. Thus, it is not certain that there will be a majority in the Assembly. Some Macronista deputies and allied groups plan to vote against it. Among the 62 deputies from Los Republicanos (LR, right), a third refuses to support the reform. Last minute maneuvering by a handful of votes will decide the fate of the initiative. Triumph or failure, the country will be very tense due to the lack of consensus on one of the most sensitive issues for the French republican, statist and egalitarian soul.

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