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POLITICS

Macron restarts reform drive as opponents prepare for battle

French President Emmanuel Macron will get a taste of public resistance to his second-term reform agenda this week during the first nationwide strike called since his re-election in April.

Macron restarts reform drive as opponents prepare for battle
French President Emmanuel Macron. Photo: STEPHANE MAHE/POOL /AFP

The 44-year-old head of state has pledged to push ahead with raising the retirement age having backed away from the explosive issue during his first five years in power.

But having lost his parliamentary majority in June, the pro-business centrist faces severe difficulties passing legislation, while galloping inflation is souring the national mood.

Despite warnings from allies about the risk of failure, Macron has tasked his government with hiking the retirement age to 64 or 65 from 62 currently, with changes to start taking effect next year.

“I’m not pre-empting what the government and the parliament will do, but I’m convinced it’s a necessity,” Macron told the BFM news channel last Thursday.

With deficits spiralling and public debt at historic highs, the former investment banker argues that raising the retirement age and getting more people into jobs are the only ways the state can raise revenue without
increasing taxes.

On Thursday, France’s far-left CGT union, backed by left-wing political parties, has organised a national day of strikes, the opening shot in what is expected to be a months-long tussle.

Though the protests were originally planned to demand wage increases, they are now intended to signal broad opposition to the government’s plans.

“We’re against the raising of the retirement age,” Philippe Martinez, the head of the CGT, told the LCI broadcaster last week. “The government’s arguments don’t stack up.”   

Unpopular

Public opinion towards pension reform and the strikes is likely to be decisive in determining whether Macron succeeds with a reform he called off in 2020 in the face of protests and Covid-19.

An opinion poll last week from the Odoxa group found that 55 percent of respondents did not want the reform and 67 percent said they were ready to support protests against it.

But a separate survey from the Elabe group gave a more nuanced picture. It also found that only a minority, 21 percent, wanted the retirement age increased, but a total of 56 percent thought the current system no longer worked and 60 percent thought it was financially unsustainable.

“I don’t know anyone who wants to work for longer, but I don’t know anyone who thinks they are not going to work for longer,” a minister close to Macron told AFP last week on condition of anonymity.

“Maybe I’m mistaken but I’m not sure that the turnout will be as large as the unions and LFI are hoping for,” he said, referring to the hard-left France Unbowed (LFI) political party that has backed the strikes.

The second decisive factor will be how the government introduces the reform in parliament where Macron’s allies are around 40 seats short of a majority.

Some favour slipping it into a social security budget bill that will be voted on in October — a stealthy move that will be denounced as under-handed by critics.

Others think more time should be taken for consultations with trade unions and opposition parties, even though they have all ruled out working with the government.

Macron prefers the quicker option, one senior MP told AFP on condition of anonymity.

In both scenarios, observers expect the government to resort to a controversial constitutional mechanism called “article 49.3” that allows the executive to ram legislation through the national assembly without a vote.

If opposition parties unite against the measure or call a no-confidence motion in the government, they could trigger new elections.

The reform was “ballsy but dangerous,” one ally told French media last week.

Macron II

Success with the pension reform and separate changes to the unemployment benefits system will help the president re-launch his image as a reformer, experts say.

Since winning a historic second term in April, he has been caught up in the Ukraine war crisis amid reports the parliamentary election setback in June left him disoriented and even depressed.

“We’ve slightly lost the narrative of Macronism,” political scientist Bruno Cautres, a researcher at Sciences Po university in Paris, told AFP recently.

The challenge was giving the second term a “direction” and showing “how it builds on the results of the first”, he said.

“The essence of Macronism, which does not have a long history, is the leader and the programme,” added Benjamin Morel from Paris II university.

Since being elected as France’s youngest-ever president in 2017, Macron has made overhauling social security and workplace regulation part of his political DNA.

“Emmanuel Macron can’t easily back away from a reform because burying a reform, it’s like disavowing himself,” Morel said.

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POLITICS

Biden hosts Macron for banquet as French president blasts ‘aggressive’ US subsidies

France's Emmanuel Macron was set to be hosted by President Joe Biden at the White House Thursday for a state visit mixing sumptuous ceremonies with hard-edged talks on transatlantic trade and how to manage a rising China.

Biden hosts Macron for banquet as French president blasts 'aggressive' US subsidies

A military honor guard was due to be standing ready at the White House to welcome the French leader, accompanied by his wife, Brigitte, before the two presidents meet in the Oval Office for what are expected to be substantial discussions as they seek to defuse tensions over what Macron has described as “aggressive” subsidies for US manufacturers.

They were to give a joint press conference ahead of winding up the day with a lavish dinner featuring French favorites of wine and cheese — but in both cases American-made.

The two governments have emphasized their historic links — France is the United States’ oldest ally — as well as their close partnership in the Western alliance confronting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

However, Macron made clear, in unusually blunt language, that he is not just in Washington to discuss the easy parts of the relationship.

At a lunch with lawmakers and business leaders Wednesday, he lashed out at Biden’s signature policy called the Inflation Reduction Act, which is set to pour billions of dollars into environmentally friendly industries, with strong backing for US-based manufacturers.

The White House touts the IRA legislation as a groundbreaking effort to reignite US manufacturing and promote renewable technologies. European Union governments are crying foul, threatening to launch a trade war by subsidizing their own green economy sector.

“This is super aggressive for our business people,” Macron said, warning that what he sees as unfair US practices will “kill” European jobs.

“The consequence of the IRA is that you will perhaps fix your issue but you will increase my problem. I’m sorry to be so straightforward,” Macron said.

The White House responded by insisting that the state visit is about the two presidents’ “warm relationship.”

US advances in the clean energy economy will help Europeans too, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said. The IRA “presents significant opportunities for European firms as well as benefits to EU energy security. This is not a zero-sum game.”

In a speech later at the French embassy, Macron said the subsidies could become a real sticking point in US relations with Europe.

While voicing support for the environmental goals of the IRA, Macron said “these are choices that will split the West,” even as he agreed that ties remained solid for now.

On Wednesday evening, he and his wife joined Biden and First Lady Jill Biden for dinner in an Italian restaurant in Washington for a moment that was both private and “political,” according to an adviser to the Elysee, ahead of Thursday’s official events.

Also on Wednesday, Macron joined Vice President Kamala Harris at NASA headquarters in Washington to discuss cooperation in space — and to propose putting the first Frenchman on the Moon.

Menu and music

Macron’s two busy days in Washington will culminate Thursday with the first formal state dinner of Biden’s presidency — the grand tradition having been shelved due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Grammy-award-winning American musician Jon Batiste will perform at the banquet, which the White House said will kick off with butter-poached Maine lobster, paired with caviar, delicata squash raviolo and tarragon sauce.

The main course features beef and triple-cooked butter potatoes, before leading to the cheese course of award-winning US brands, and finally orange chiffon cake, roasted pears with citrus sauce and creme fraiche ice cream.

Washing all that down will be three different wines — all from US vineyards.

China high on agenda

Trade tensions, however, are only part of the uncomfortable flip side to the red carpet occasion.

Another gripe in Europe is the high cost of US liquid natural gas exports — which have surged to help compensate for canceled Russian deliveries.

There is also divergence on how to deal with the rise of superpower China. The question — with Washington pursuing a more hawkish tone and EU powers trying to find a middle ground — is unlikely to see much progress.

“Europe has since 2018 its own, unique strategy for relations with China,” tweeted French embassy spokesman Pascal Confavreux in Washington.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said China will be “very high on the agenda” this week but stressed that both countries share a broad approach.

“We believe that not only France, but every other member of the G7 — frankly, our NATO allies too — see the threats and challenges posed by China in the same way.”

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