‘Macron is right about pensions – but being right is rarely enough’

Reforming the retirement system is good for France, but Macron must watch out for the political backlash, warns commentator Simon Heffer

Simon Heffer believes Macron is an unashamed leader and member of the elite

To most rational people, President Macron’s decision to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 (remember that in Britain [and the US] it is moving in gradations to 67) is perfectly sensible.

Greater longevity and improved medical care have meant people can be economically productive far longer than their parents were, and early retirement is unnecessary and expensive.

And yet the response to this policy has been hysterical and violent.

M Macron may have asked for it: the old cliché de haut en bas might have been invented for him; or perhaps plus royaliste que le roi.

No president in the Fifth Republic has been so conscious of his dignity since de Gaulle, nor stood on it quite so grandly.

Macron member of the elite

M Macron is self-consciously a leader, a member of the elite, and unashamed to be so.

That is doubtless why his popularity is at a four-year low, and why the loathing in which he is held is getting out of control.

Read more: ‘Macron an easy scapegoat for France’s political and social unrest’

One of the biggest triggers for outrage was the use of Article 49.3 of the Fifth Republic’s constitution to force the hated pension reforms into law.

This provision, described as ‘dictatorial’, has been in the constitution since this republic was created in 1958.

Those, mostly on the left, who have complained about its use are being somewhat hypocritical: François Hollande, the last socialist president, used it on six occasions in the penultimate year of his presidency, and the country was not burned down.

M Macron is developing a sense of destiny, and is resolute that the best interests of France are served by this measure (and he is right about that).

Might the same result have been achieved by negotiation, by a less authoritarian president who was prepared to try and sit down and reason with his opponents a little more?

Probably not.

Don’t ask where the money comes from

Those fighting M Macron are not doing so because he is stealing their extra two years on the golf course, or on round-the-world cruises: they are doing so because of a deep ideological belief in state welfarism, which includes a determination not to ask where all the money is coming from.

M Macron is right to repudiate such sentiments, and to look askance at the growing rhetoric in France about the luxury in which the rich live compared with the struggles of the general public.

Welfare is paid for by taxation; taxes can only be levied on profits and not on losses; if there were no rich people and no successful businesses in France there would be no welfare state, for it could never be funded out of general taxation of the public alone.

The anarchists and Marxists leading recent protests do not confront that truth, or make that calculation.

Fantasy not reality

Their protests are about fantasy, not reality.

France simply cannot afford to go on like this, with a shrinking number of economically productive people being increasingly outnumbered by a growing number economically dependent on them.

The President seems unconcerned about his unpopularity.

He may reason that he is barred from another term in office, and can therefore act entirely out of French interests, not of self-interest.

Short of impeaching him, the standard means specified in Article 68 of the constitution of forcing him from office and which require evidence that he has violated that constitution, he can only go before 2027 by his own hand – and he has made it clear this is not an option.

His opponents may hope to drive him out by creating the idea that he has lost control of the government and the country and should resign – but we are nowhere near that stage.

Country could become toxic

Yet what the president must consider is that although his pensions policy, made law in the teeth of democratic opposition, was unquestionably for the good of France, the situation being created by the mood of rebellion in the legislature and in the country could become exceptionally toxic.

A recent poll* suggested that if last year’s presidential election were to be held now Marine Le Pen would win it, 55 to 45.

Macron’s divisiveness has driven away supporters of his own party, Renaissance.

It has also shattered such unity as there was among the right-wing Les Républicains and cast the mainstream Parti Socialiste more into the shadow of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his France Insoumise.

Win for Le Pen?

Some French politicians and pundits are predicting that the next election will end up as a contest between Marine Le Pen and M Mélenchon, and that the former will win**.

Read more: ‘Marine Le Pen will be the woman to beat in 2027 French election’

Where that would leave French civil society – divided along the sort of uncompromising lines that have become depressingly familiar between Democrats and Republicans in the United States – is salutary to consider.

Where it would leave France’s place in the European Union, or indeed in the world, is far more uncertain.

Now M Macron seems determined to put domestic matters behind him and to concentrate on his becoming the world statesman, with reports that he has concocted a plan with China’s President Xi for that country to come in and broker an end to the Russian war on Ukraine.

This initiative has upset some of his European neighbours, and indeed France’s American allies, who want the screws put on China rather than inviting that despotism into some sort of partnership.

On visits to French towns he is now receiving the concert de casseroles, where people bang saucepans in an act of protest and disrespect for him.

Margaret Thatcher played a major part in bringing down the Berlin Wall and a year later she was kicked out.

M Macron needs to be careful that a similar fate does not befall him, even if the Ukraine war ends and he manages to take some credit for it (which looks unlikely at the moment).

International statesmanship counts for little when you can’t give the voters what they want.

Until M Macron finds some means of calming down his people, France risks becoming ungovernable.

*The Elabe survey for BFM-TV was carried out between April 3 and 5 online and asked 1,808 people who they would vote for in a second round match-up

** On April 23 President Macron said in an interview to Le Parisien: “Marine Le Pen will get in if we are unable to address the country’s problems and if we become accustomed to lying and denying the reality of the situation.”

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