France is hurtling towards deadlier disruptions. Streets are awash with protesting workers, who are paralysing the nation with crippling strikes. The unions are continuing to hold France to ransom. They are up in arms against president Emmanuel Macron’s plan to raise the pension age from 62 to 64. They are threatening to hurl France into an abyss of absolute disarray. The unions are striking for the sixth time this year, with a larger turnout. Their threats sound ominous.

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Disruptions are Debilitating

On their first protest rally on 19 January, the turnout was around a million. On 7 March, the number was 1.28 million. The forever expanding protests are showing scary signs of taking uglier forms soon. As the implacable unions call for larger rolling and open-ended strikes, to replace the less-disruptive day-long walkouts, the snowballing unrest could paralyse the national rail and global routes, Eurostar included.

Local trains and buses too have been targets of the militant unions’ fury. Airlines have reported cancellations of more than 35 per cent of their flights. The national railway has cancelled 75 per cent of its trains. These disruptions are debilitating France’s distribution backbone, hitting the retailers and seriously disrupting supplies of essential goods and services, making normal life difficult. What has brought France to this state?

The Far Right Will Not Oblige

Raising the retirement age by two years to 64 and thus increasing the number of contribution-years needed for a full pension to 43, effective 2027, are at the heart of the fast-spreading protests.  These pension reforms are proposed to be gradually brought in by 2030. As the protests go from strength to strength, not knowing how to deal with the tragic turn of events, Mr Macron looks like a baffled Alice in political wonderland.,to%20draw%20a%20full%20pension.

With reason. Emaciated largely by his centrist alliance’s failure to muster an absolute majority in the June elections, Mr Macron does not seem to have the spine to act decisively. Caught between the crushing pincer-arms of the far right and the radical left, Mr Macron is now at the mercy of the right-wing Les Républicains (The Republicans) to get his pension reforms through. These right-wing Shylocks will not oblige without extracting their pounds of flesh.

Taking a Dismissive Stand

Yet, Mr Macron may facilitate debates and discussions on his pension reforms to go on till March 2023 and after. His pension reforms are being debated now in the French Senate, with both chambers of parliament set to wrap up the debate by the end of March. Mr Macron may even oversee a parliamentary committee to place its joint textual version for approval before the national assembly and the senate.

Sounds good, but how will Mr Macron get the backing he needs? He is sure to fail in his efforts to muster parliamentary support for his pension reforms. Thus, the paralysing protests are sure to continue tearing the French economy apart. Bad luck for Mr Macron, he is even losing popular support, if popularity ratings are to be believed. Much of this is his own making. His government has taken a dismissive stand on the raging protests.

Plundering a House on Fire

Which is why Mr Macron’s spokespersons have been saying the cost of living crisis is more serious and more attention-deserving than pension-reform protests. This insouciance has left France unhappy. Plus, popular support for pension reforms has dived to a low of 32 per cent. The implication: more than 60 per cent of the 67 million French people are backing the protests. As Mr Macron adds insulting silence to his insouciance, the unions are roiled more than ever. Even moderate unions are up in arms now.

Quick to plunder a house on fire, France’s left-wing politicians are lunging into the protests. Jean-Luc Melenchon of France Unbowed is entreating students to “block everything” they can, making the pension protests Mr Macron’s moment of reckoning. As France is close to grinding to a halt, Mr Macron is facing the severest test of his political career. The longer he keeps his lips sealed, the worse will the protests get. Seems his flagship pensions proposal may finally sound the death knell for his once-hailed centrist government.

Touchstones for his Political Plans

This is quite possible. During his presidential campaign, Mr Macron had promised he would rejig the pension system and align France’s state pensions system with Spain and Germany’s, where the retirement age is 65 to 67 years. His previous 2019 attempt to do this had to be aborted, thanks to Covid-19. However, a confident Mr Macron believes now the finances of the state pensions system are balanced in the short term, but will turn negative over the long haul.

Against this backdrop, Mr Macron views his pension proposals as touchstones for his political plans. Pension reforms are his idea of battling ballooning deficits, bolstering state finances and protecting pensions with higher contributions from the yet-to-retire workforce. Mr Macron is a populist. He is against raising taxes and reducing pensions. He places a premium on polls and popularity, not pragmatism. Two moot questions are here however.

May Try Drastic Alternatives

Will French voters approve Mr Macron’s cavalier attitude? Does he have the 289 votes needed to get his pension proposals through? With just 250 centrist alliance votes in his bag and protests snowballing by the day, the answers are a big no. He has two options before him now: convince a needed number of opponents to come over to his side, or persuade a required number of them to abstain to make his 250 a majority.

If push comes to shove, Mr Macron may try a couple of drastic alternatives. He may strike a cosy deal with the 61-seat-strong conservative Republicans, who are in favour of a raised retirement age. Mr Macron may get disappointed here, as these conservatives are good at extracting the most out of an individual, weak and vulnerable. Or, bypass the parliament and push his pension reforms through by decree or ordinance.

In Conclusion

Both the alternatives are fraught with risks. Analysts are surprised over Mr Macron placing much significance on his ‘unpopular’ pension reforms. They are puzzled by Mr Macron viewing the contentious reforms as his comeback vehicle. Worse, Mr Macron does not seem to be bothered over ending up as a failed president in the bargain. Sad, in the rising pandemonium of protests, the real task of blocking the far right has been pushed to the back burner. France is in labour and Mr Macron is in agony. Will he deliver at all?