The escalation of violence in cities across France is spreading alarm through President Emmanuel Macron’s coalition, with some leading supporters fretting that the situation is spinning out of control.
Macron’s allies in the National Assembly are still backing his controversial pension reform but several of them are urging the president to find a way to take the heat out of demonstrations. With increasing numbers of police confronting protesters on the streets, they are worried that someone could be killed, unleashing a new wave of anger.
“We’re heading into unknown territory and each step brings us closer to a disaster and a possible deadly incident,” said Eric Bothorel, a lawmaker in Macron’s Renaissance party from Brittany. “The most urgent priority is de-escalating violence.”
One option would be to hit pause on the pension legislation, giving Macron the opportunity to re-start discussions with moderate unions on labor conditions, and broaden the focus to education and health issues, in line with demonstrators’ demands, said economist Philippe Aghion, who has been a driving force behind Macron’s policies including his pensions overhaul.
“I’m in favor of putting the reform on hold — that would clear the air,” said Aghion, a former Harvard University professor. “Letting things rot is not a good strategy.”
Bothorel said that pausing the reform would allow both Macron and unions to save face. “Emmanuel Macron cannot come out of this humiliated, abandoning his reform, and unions cannot be humiliated either, we can’t give the impression that we despise them,” said Bothorel, who as a former Socialist embodies Macron’s attempt to govern beyond party lines.
Hundreds of people have been arrested since the beginning of March. Human rights NGOs like Amnesty International have accused the government of excessive use of force and abusive arrests. Images of special brigades hitting peaceful demonstrators with clubs have become viral, along with images of protesters setting garbage on fire, looting supermarkets, throwing Molotov cocktails at the police and storming banks.
The level of violence has gained momentum since Macron’s government used a constitutional provision to bypass a parliament vote that he was set to lose earlier this month.
So far, Macron is standing firm. For the president, putting the reform on hold for a couple of months would amount to killing it, according to a government adviser. Given the number of youths joining the street protests, he is considering new proposals on issues involving young people, climate change and purchasing power, the adviser said.
Awaiting a verdict
Macron is ready to speak directly to labor representatives once the Constitutional Council has ruled on the conformity of the bill, government spokesman Olivier Veran said Tuesday. The Council has until April 20 to reach its verdict. Macron has so far ruled out any concessions to unions.
Macron said last week he hoped that calm would return by the summer. He’s ignoring a call from the moderate CFDT union to drop, at least temporarily, the retirement age measure.
Backing down would raise questions over Macron’s pledge to balance the books and spur the labor market with pro-business reforms. The French Pension Advisory Council estimated the current system could cost the public finances at least 0.5% of GDP annually over the coming decade.
Meanwhile, lawmakers are increasingly being targeted. Bothorel’s office was tagged with threats. Protesters broke the windows of the office of Eric Ciotti, the head of the conservative Republicans, in Nice. He’d urged his party members to back the pension reform.
Guillaume Gouffier-Cha, another lawmaker from Macron’s party, filed a complaint after his office was tagged with the drawing of a hanged man. Back in 2020, he saw Macron’s initial pension reform project—which Gouffier-Cha himself was shepherding through the lower house—abandoned after months of protests. At the time, Macron cited the need to focus on the Covid-19 pandemic.
‘Deaf and blind’
Today, Gouffier-Cha wants the country to reform its institutions to allow more dialogs, and urges the government to hear the discontent. “We can’t remain deaf and blind,” he said. Government spokesman Veran has acknowledged that bypassing parliament, where Macron lost his absolute majority in elections last year, has irked many demonstrators, especially younger ones.
During a party meeting in Paris on Saturday, former premier Edouard Philippe said Macron’s coalition should “not just inform others of what we must do, but also come together to think things through.”
While Philippe and his team back the reform, they find Macron’s unapologetic strategy fraught with the risk of fueling violence, according to a participant in the party meeting. Philippe’s party, Horizons, is a key ally for Macron in parliament.
Jean-Bernard Gaillot-Renucci, a member of The Right With Macron, a group that backed Macron’s candidacy in 2017, said the president is “isolated in his ivory tower.” Macron’s recent statements have “added salt to the wounds,” Gaillot-Renucci said.
Macron doesn’t have many options: wait for the protests to die off and risk spiraling violence, put the reform on hold or call for snap elections. A vote is a risky option. According to an opinion poll published by Le Journal du Dimanche on Sunday, Macron’s party would lose 5 points of support compared with last June’s election if he dissolved the lower house now and held a new vote. Recent polls show most people oppose the pension reform.
“If the country ends up in a bloody battlefield, you can’t get anything done anymore, there’s no consensus possible,” said Aghion, the economist. “Macron needs to back off a little bit. It’s like in chess: sometimes you need to sacrifice a piece to move forward.” (Bloomberg)