FOS-SUR-MER, France — “This government just does not listen to us,” said Renald, a 50-year-old electrical mechanic at the Port of Marseille, as his co-workers assembled a barricade this week on the route leading to a fuel depot. “There’s a deep anger here.”
That anger is unlikely to have been assuaged by President Emmanuel Macron’s televised interview on Wednesday. Breaking his near-silence on the pension reform that has plunged France into strikes and protests, he defended the legislation as an economic necessity. The no-confidence vote he narrowly survived in the National Assembly on Monday has clearly done little to instill penitence. Against a majority of the population, who oppose the reform, which would raise the retirement age by two years to 64, the president is doubling down.
Some still hope the bill might be stopped. After all, there is a precedent for the French government retracting an unpopular law in the face of mass protests, as occurred in 2006. And the reform still needs to survive examination from France’s Constitutional Council, the country’s highest court, which may ask questions about the dubious way it was carried out.
Yet if the government gets its way, as seems probable, it will be a Pyrrhic victory. The damage of the past weeks can’t be undone. Mr. Macron has burned bridges with potential allies, poisoned relations with possible negotiating partners and rallied a majority of the French public against him. To judge from Thursday’s wave of strikes, which hit everything from oil refineries in Normandy to public buses in Nice, the discontent isn’t going anywhere.
Quite simply, it’s now going to be harder for Mr. Macron to govern. Without a majority in the National Assembly, his Renaissance party has relied heavily on support from the right-wing Republicans since the legislative elections last summer. But this week, 19 Republican deputies backed the motion of no confidence. After such an unmistakable act of defiance, it’s difficult to imagine the party teaming up with the Élysée Palace on major reforms in the immediate future.
More important, the president has lost the trust of the French public, exhausting whatever good will remained after his re-election by ignoring — once again — that millions voted for him out of a desire to prevent his far-right opponent from taking power. Thanks to his pension reform, Mr. Macron’s approval ratings have fallen to below 30 percent. Calls to clean up trash on the streets of the capital may fire up the president’s wealthy urban base, but they’ve fallen on deaf ears for most of the country, which has little in common with moneyed Parisians.
Today’s political moment feels very similar to the early phases of the Yellow Vest movement in 2018, where a proposed hike in the fuel tax unleashed weeks of demonstrations. Then too there was simmering anger from households struggling to make ends meet, widespread support for disruptive protest and a stunning aloofness from the people in charge. As in the early days of that conflict, Mr. Macron went weeks without publicly addressing the pension battle at length, forcing his prime minister to take the heat instead. His first major address on the topic since protests began was panned by critics as tone-deaf and condescending.
“There’s a form of disconnect,” Laurent Berger, the general secretary of the country’s largest labor confederation, the C.F.D.T., which prides itself on its ability to negotiate and compromise, told me. “There needs to be an end to this verticality where only a precious few are right and everybody else is wrong.” That obstinacy has pushed France into a political crisis — one that raises questions over the very architecture of the Fifth Republic and the extensive power it hands the head of state. How is it possible for a president without a parliamentary majority to ram through such an unpopular policy?
With Mr. Macron ignoring pleas to organize a referendum or hold new legislative elections, calls to reform France’s political institutions could grow louder. One remedy, as the historian and political scientist Patrick Weil has suggested, could be to increase the amount of time between the presidential and legislative elections. That would allow French voters — as they did before 2002 — to weigh in on the president’s tenure through de facto midterm elections. The demand from France Unbowed, the left-populist party, to create a Sixth Republic that would rein in the power of the presidency may begin to look more appealing.
In the meantime, protests are becoming more disruptive: Activists have blocked highway traffic, descended on rail yards and led nightly marches. Mr. Macron’s camp has complained about the confrontational tactics, while the president has even drawn parallels to the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. It’s a fanciful comparison. Demonstrators are responding to a government that has repeatedly ignored public opinion, pleas from moderate labor unions and large conventional street protests. And as the French know from their own history, from 1789 and 1968 to the Yellow Vests, direct action with a popular mandate often gets results — even if it’s loud and unruly.
Renald, the mechanic, put it best. “This government doesn’t want to negotiate,” he told me outside the fuel depot. “Well, at a certain point, they’re going to find themselves up against people that don’t want to negotiate either.”
Cole Stangler (@ColeStangler) is a journalist based in France who writes about labor, politics and culture.
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