PARIS — “We have a president who makes use of a permanent coup.” That was the verdict of Olivier Faure, the leader of the French Socialist Party, after President Emmanuel Macron approved a bill raising France’s retirement age from 62 to 64 without a full parliamentary vote last week.
In fact, Macron’s use of the “nuclear option,” as described by France 24 television, was entirely legal under the French Constitution, drafted in 1958 for Charles de Gaulle and reflecting the general’s strong view that the power should be centered in the office of the president, not between competing legislators.
But legality is one thing and legitimacy another. Macron may see his decision as necessary to cement his legacy as the leader who left France prepared to face the rest of the 21st century. But to many Frenchmen it seemed like a presidential diktat, a stain on his reputation and a blow to French democracy.
Parliament has responded with two motions of no confidence in the Macron government. They are unlikely to be confirmed when lawmakers vote on them next week due to political divisions in the opposition, but they are an expression of deep anger.
Six years into his presidency, surrounded by brilliant technocrats, Macron cuts a lonely figure, his lofty silence conspicuous in this moment of confusion.
“He has managed to antagonize everyone by occupying the entire center,” said Jacques Rupnik, a political scientist. “Macron’s attitude seems to be: after me, the deluge.”
This isolation was evident when two months of protests and strikes that left Paris strewn with rubbish culminated on Thursday in sudden panic from a government that believed voting on pensions was a piece of cake. Suddenly, the emperor’s doubts were exposed.
Macron thought he could count on center-right Republicans voting for his plan in the National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament. Two of the most powerful members of his government, Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire and Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, came from that party. Republicans had advocated retirement even later, at age 65.
Yet out of a mixture of political calculation in light of the waves of protest and spite for the man who had undermined their party by building a new centrist movement, they began to abandon Macron.
The failure of his retirement review was a risk that even Macron, the risk-taker, could not take. He opted for a measure, known as 49.3 for the relevant article of the Constitution, which allows certain bills to be approved without a vote. France’s retirement age will rise to 64, more in line with its European partners, unless a vote of no confidence is approved.
But what would have looked like a definitive victory for Macron, even if the parliamentary vote in favor had been narrow, now looks like a Pyrrhic victory.
Four more years in power stretch ahead of Macron, with “Mr. 49.3” stamped across the forehead of him. He made the French dream come true when he was elected at age 39 in 2017; how he can do it again is unclear.
“The idea that we are not in a democracy has grown. It’s there all the time on social media, part conspiracy theory, part expression of deep anxiety,” said Nicolas Tenzer, an author who teaches political science at Sciences Po. “And of course what Macron just did feeds that.”
The government spokesman is Olivier Véran, who is also the delegate minister for democratic renewal. There’s a reason for that august title: the widespread belief that over the six years of Macron’s presidency, French democracy has eroded.
After the yellow vest protest movement broke out in 2018 due to an increase in gasoline prices, but also because of an elitism that Macron seemed to personify, the president went on a “listening tour”. It was an attempt to get closer to the working people whom he seemed to despise.
Now, almost a year into his second term, that reach seems far off. Macron hardly laid the groundwork for his pension measure even though he well knew he would touch a deep French nerve at a time of economic hardship. His drive for a subsequent retirement was top-down, fast-paced throughout and, ultimately, ruthless.
The case for the review was strong. It was not just for Macron that retirement at 62 seemed untenable as lives grew longer. The math, at least in the long run, just doesn’t add up in a system where the ratio of active workers to retirees who are supported through their payroll taxes keeps falling.
But in an anxious France, with many people struggling to pay their bills and uncertain of their future, Macron was unable to argue. In fact, he hardly seemed to try.
Of course, the French attitude towards a powerful presidency is notoriously ambiguous. On the one hand, the quasi-monarchical office seems to satisfy the French longing for an all-powerful state: it was said to have been a French king, Louis XIV, who declared the state to be none other than himself. On the other hand, the presidency resents the extent of its authority.
Macron seemed to catch this when he told his cabinet on Thursday: “Among you, it is not me who is risking your place or your seat.” If the government falls into a vote of no confidence, Élisabeth Borne will no longer be prime minister, but Macron will remain president until 2027.
“A permanent coup,” Faure’s phrase, was also the title of a book François Mitterrand wrote to describe de Gaulle’s presidency. That was before Mitterrand became president and in time she came to enjoy all the pomp and power of his office. Macron has proven no more impervious to the temptations of the presidency than his predecessors.
But times are changing, social hierarchies are collapsing and Macron’s exercise of authority has aroused strong resentment in a flatter French society at a time of war-torn tension in Europe.
“There is a rejection of the person,” Tenzer said. The newspaper Le Monde noted in an editorial that Macron risked “fomenting lingering bitterness, or even igniting sparks of violence.”
In a way, Macron is a victim of his own remarkable success. Such are his political gifts that he has been elected to two terms (no French president had done so in two decades) and effectively destroyed the two political pillars of postwar France: the Socialist Party and the Gaullists.
So he’s resented by the center left and center right, even as the far left and far right hate him.
Now, in his final term, he must walk a lonely path. He has no obvious successor, and his Renaissance game is little more than a vehicle for his talents. This is the “deluge” Rupnik spoke of: a great political vacuum looming in 2027.
If far-right Marine Le Pen is not to fill it, Macron the reformer must deliver a resilient and vibrant France for which he believes his hotly contested reform was an essential foundation.