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OPINION: Macron may have won his pensions battle, but voters will punish him

It was a political milestone nearly drowned out by the coronavirus coverage, but the French government pushed through its pension reform this week. So is the Macron's troubles? Not by a long chalk says french political expert Bruno Cautres.

OPINION: Macron may have won his pensions battle, but voters will punish him
President Emmanuel Macron's decision to force through the pension reform could have him suffer a blow during the next presidential election, according to French political analyst Bruno Cautres. Photo:

French President Emmanuel Macron’s party this week won one of the last battles in the fight to push through controversial pension reform plan.

After weeks of strikes and protests the bill has finally been passed through parliament – although not before the government was forced to resort to Article 49.3 after opposition MPs attempted to force it out by tabling hundreds of amendments.

READ ALSO What is Article 49.3 and does it mean more strikes?

It was a huge political step towards implementing the pension reform and it seemed a victorious moment for Macron and his government, although the bill does still have to pass through the Senate.

But French political analyst Bruno Cautres said it was not quite an unequivocal victory for the embattled French president.

“Voters will not forget this,” he said. 

Cautres is a Sciences Po University lecturer and a researcher on French public opinion at the Cevipof institute.

“There’s a feeling in France that we are in crisis,” he said.

Less palpable today than during the height of the strike movement in December, France remains divided. The government's decision to strong-arm the pension reform through parliament will deepen this division further, predicted Cautres.

“Those who support Macron will say it’s good that he goes all the way to implement his policies. Those who oppose him will say it’s proof that there is no way to have a dialogue with this government.”

The pension reform sparked weeks of strikes and street protests. Photo: AFP 

Since the beginning of the protest movement in December, the number of people supporting the protesters and the number of people backing the government have both been relatively stable, at around 50 and 30 percent respectively.

At the same time, the actual physical proof of those numbers – the people taking to the streets – has dwindled.

As French MPs voted on the government’s use of the controversial constitutional weapon known as Article 49.3 (read about that here), the protest movement seemed reduced to a ghost of its former self.

Six thousand two hundred people took to the streets in Paris on Tuesday, according to the Préfecture (20,000 according to the unions) – a bleak number compared to the tens of thousands (hundreds of thousands according to unions) that came out during the height of the movement December. 

Public transport was the hardest hit by the strike movement in December and early January. Photo: AFP

But Cautres cautioned against drawing any conclusions based on the slump in turnout, as those who had borne the brunt of the strike movement – rail workers in particular – had suffered a heavy financial loss during their strike action, with many unable to lose any more than they already had.

“There is no broad support for the the reform in France today,” Cautres said.

“There is a consensus for doing away with the special regimes, but not on the rest of it.”

The government have said the reform is needed to simplify France's complicated and outdated pension system, with equal rules for everyone. But critics have said these rules are far from equal, with the opposition pointing to several gaps in the reform that have yet to be clarified. The opposition has also criticised the government for rushing the reform through and using Article 49.3 to quell the democratic debate.

The government could be punished heavily for this in future elections, Cautres said, as “people know that this reform will have them working longer for less.”

While the broad lines of the reform are clear, the details are not.

Cautres said the unions “needed a win” during the conference on how to finance the reform, which was ongoing, to prevent this from being a big blow to their already weak support.

“Only about 27 percent of French people have confidence in the unions,” Cautres said.

“That's not new, but it's very low.”

The pension reform bill has now been passed to the French senate and will then be voted on in late spring or early summer.

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Prosecutors: No new rape inquiry for France’s disabilities minister

France's disabilities minister will not face a new inquiry "as things stand" over a rape allegation that surfaced just after his nomination by President Emmanuel Macron last week, prosecutors have said, citing the anonymity of the alleged victim.

Prosecutors: No new rape inquiry for France's disabilities minister

Damien Abad has faced growing pressure to resign after the news website Mediapart reported the assault claims by two women dating from over a decade ago, which he has denied.

One of the women, identified only by her first name, Margaux, filed a rape complaint in 2017 that was later dismissed by prosecutors.

The other woman, known only as Chloe, told Mediapart that in 2010 she had blacked out after accepting a glass of champagne from Abad at a bar in Paris, and woke up in her underwear in pain with him in a hotel room. She believes she may have been drugged.

She did not file an official complaint, but the Paris prosecutors’ office said it was looking into the case after being informed by the Observatory of Sexist and Sexual Violence in Politics, a group formed by members of France’s MeToo movement.

“As things stand, the Paris prosecutors’ office is not following up on the letter” from the observatory, it said, citing “the inability to identify the victim of the alleged acts and therefore the impossibility of proceeding to a hearing.”

In cases of sexual assault against adults, Paris prosecutors can open an inquiry only if an official complaint is made, meaning the victim must give their identity.

Abad has rejected the calls to resign in order to ensure the new government’s “exemplarity,” saying that he is innocent and that his own condition of arthrogryposis, which limits the movement of his joints, means sexual relations can occur only with the help of a partner.

The appointment of Abad as minister for solidarities and people with disabilities in a reshuffle last Friday was seen as a major coup for Macron, as the 42-year-old had defected from the right-wing opposition.

The new prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, said she was unaware of the allegations before Abad’s nomination, but insisted that “If there is new information, if a new complaint is filed, we will draw all the consequences.”

The claims could loom large over parliamentary elections next month, when Macron is hoping to secure a solid majority for his reformist agenda. Abad will be standing for re-election in the Ain department north of Lyon.