Monday, 27 March 2023

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Macron’s risky move on pensions: a gambit too far?

Protesters hold placards as they gather for a march in Paris

Emmanuel Macron has a catchphrase he often uses with ministers and political allies as they plot a course of action: “You have to take your risk.”

The French president did just that on Thursday as he staked the future of his second term on ramming through his unpopular plan to raise the retirement age without a vote in parliament. When his prime minister failed to secure a majority for the reform, Macron chose to invoke a special constitutional power, known as article 49.3, to effectively override lawmakers.

Now Macron’s government faces the risk of a brewing political crisis spilling on to the streets, with a no-confidence vote likely next week and another nationwide protest planned by unions on Thursday.

But the 45-year-old president, who sees himself as a reformer on a mission to make France more competitive and dynamic, appears to be betting that he can weather the storm and perhaps even emerge stronger by reasserting presidential power over a restive parliament where he no longer commands a majority.

“Macron does not take risks just for the sake of it, but he will do so out of determination to transform France,” said a person who has worked closely with him. “He genuinely thinks that people need to work longer given the ageing of the population and the state of public finances, so he is determined to finish this.”

Macron has cast raising the retirement age by two years to 64 as a necessity both to get rid of deficits in the pension system by 2030 and as a symbol that France can thrive in a global economy if it adapts its generous social welfare system.

Unions held a nationwide day of strikes and protests against the proposed pensions overhaul earlier in March © Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

He told ministers on Thursday that the pensions bill could not be allowed to fail because “the financial and economic risks are too great,” a government source said, adding that “one cannot play with the future of the country”.

Whether Macron’s bet pays off will depend on how the pensions battle plays out.

Opposition parties are expected to file a no-confidence motion on Friday, and Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally and the far-left France Unbowed have indicated their willingness to back one.

If the no-confidence motion is rejected, the pensions bill becomes law. The Macron ally said this was the most probable outcome: “I think this will actually show the impotence of parliament and reaffirm presidential power.” 

But if a…

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