The Brief — The French impasse
France is at an impasse – and the problem goes deeper than President Emmanuel Macron’s controversial pension reform plan. In the absence of a viable political compromise, the only solution seems to be a change in the country’s political culture.
First of all, there is a standstill on the pension reform itself. It has been rejected by the trade unions, as it raises the legal retirement age from 62 to 64 years, and by public opinion, as evidenced by the weeks of strikes and protests.
There is also the impasse in the government, where Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne and President Macron are determined to see the reform through, adopted but not yet promulgated.
If Macron backs down at this point, the credibility of his mandate would be lost. His political capital would collapse and he would become a caretaker manager of current affairs at worst, and a French diplomat roaming the world until the end of his mandate at best.
For someone who has dreamed of – and described himself as – a great reformer, this is obviously not an option.
So, what to do?
The government and the president have decided to avoid controversial subjects for a while – and especially those that would not win a majority, like the global immigration bill, initially planned for the end of March.
Neither the left nor the right would vote for it, and the relative presidential majority would be insufficient for its adoption in the National Assembly. A new setback for the executive is thus avoided.
The time has now come for more consensual subjects, supposed to give a “perspective”, a “direction”, for the country.
One such approach – and one that could have saved Macron much grief over the pensions reform – is his text on the country’s relationship to work.
The text, which has yet to be tabled, seeks to improve the quality of life for French workers by considering the hardship of work and long careers, facilitating retraining, training and transition periods in life. A four-day week could even be tested locally.
One mistake made by Macron was not to include his reflections on pensions in this text. With more patience and a better explanation, this may have provoked much less opposition and carried the day.
His second mistake was to scorn the unions. They are usually consulted at length in such cases, and can be useful to convince the public of the need for and benefits of reform – but none were convinced, and all are still calling to strike.
The third, almost a character trait, is his bad sense of timing.
On several occasions, the president has tripped over himself with little odd phrases, the last of which he uttered on Tuesday evening at the Elysée Palace, in front of his own parliamentarians: “The crowd” has “no legitimacy”, he said, explaining that “the people express themselves through their elected representatives”.
Macron then clarified that by the word “crowd” he meant the “factious”, in other words, those who cause disorder in the street as opposed to the peaceful demonstrators.
The “people” vote, choose their representatives and sometimes – or, often in the case of France – they demonstrate, while the “crowd” brings chaos, perhaps even questioning the democratic institutions. This can lead, the president recalled, to situations like the storming of the Capitol in the US, or the invasion of parliament seen in Brazil.
While that is a valid point, Macron’s timing in making this distinction was less than ideal.
How to get out of this impasse, then?
Dissolving parliament, reshuffling government or holding a referendum on pension reform all seem unworkable.
Perhaps institutional reform is the least bad idea – a way out of the hyper-presidential culture, of the existence of a providential man who holds in his hands the key to the success of France.
Because inevitably, the more we repeat this, the more “the people” are disappointed once “the man” is in power.
Before such a reform can see the light of day, it is probably the president himself who should change his mode of governance. And certainly not just to change the prime minister, as many would like, because that would solve nothing.
What is really needed is a change in political culture. The presidentialist obsession that reigns in France will not disappear by giving a few more powers to the Parliament.
President, government, parliamentarians, majority and opposition parties must change their software – which in France is only too often conducive to direct confrontation that yields nothing.
Most importantly, however, this change must also be brought about by “the people”, the French, who must refuse to be transformed into a “crowd”.
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Look out for…
- Commission President Ursula von der Leyen participates in EPP Summit.
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