‘Master of clocks’: can Macron wait out a crisis of his own making?

Faced with a political crisis largely of his own making, French president Emmanuel Macron has resorted to a trademark tactic to salvage his second term: playing for time.

In his first public statement since ramming through his unpopular pensions reform without a parliamentary vote, Macron defended both the policy and the method and tried to calm public anger that has sparked spontaneous nightly protests from Paris to Rennes.

“We must move forward,” he said in a televised interview on Wednesday. “We have to restore calm and rebuild a parliamentary and reform agenda by re-engaging with labour unions and any political parties who are ready to do so.” 

But in what was perceived as an inflammatory comment, he also appeared to compare protesters who threatened MPs and defaced their offices with those who stormed the US Capitol in 2021: “When the US experienced what it went through on Capitol Hill, when Brazil experienced what it experienced, when you had the extreme violence in Germany, in the Netherlands or sometimes here, we must say: we respect, we listen . . . but we cannot accept rebels and factions.”

Union chief Laurent Berger said that Macron’s interview amounted to a provocation and called on “workers to turn out en masse” at Thursday’s protest to show their discontent.

The president has decided not to make any big political moves for now: he will not replace the prime minister or call for early elections, nor will he give in to opponents’ demands to put pensions reform up for a public referendum.

Instead, Macron — who sometimes calls himself “master of the clocks” for how he sets the tempo of France’s political agenda — and his allies will take a few weeks to figure out their next steps. One MP from a party allied with Macron’s Renaissance grouping said the country faced “a quite grave moment” and Macron had only “difficult options”. 

Haunted by the sometimes violent gilets jaunes movement of 2018 that forced him to U-turn on a fuel tax, Macron and his allies also want to see how the protest movement evolves. In recent days, demonstrators burnt Macron effigies, cut off electricity to banks, defaced politicians’ offices, and tossed Molotov cocktails at town halls. Separately some labour unions are also increasing the pressure, such as dockers who blocked the port of Marseille on Wednesday.

Up until now, demonstrations organised by labour unions have been largely calm, but Macron and his allies are on watch for any signs that they could give way to something more radical. They also have to wait for the law to be reviewed by the constitutional court before it can be enacted.

Protesting dock workers face riot police in Marseille on Wednesday as demonstrations continued around France © Daniel Cole/AP

The pensions debacle has severely compromised Macron’s ability to deliver on the reform agenda he promised when re-elected 11 months ago, with goals such as reaching full employment and fighting climate change, say some of his allies.

His hand was weakened when his party lost its majority in the National Assembly in June, leaving its centrist alliance about 40 votes short of a majority and facing an emboldened far-right and a hardline far-left.

The government’s strategy until now has been to form ad hoc coalitions with opposition lawmakers on each draft law, but the approach failed on pensions. Prime minister Élisabeth Borne spent months trying to secure a deal with the conservative Les Republicans (LR), only for them to prove too divided to deliver the votes.

Macron then decided to trigger clause 49.3 of the constitution, which allows the government to pass laws without a vote unless opposition parties bring it down with a no-confidence vote. Borne’s government narrowly survived the no-confidence votes on Monday.

But using the 49.3 clause has deepened the crisis, with the opposition accusing the government of running roughshod over parliament. It also revived recurrent criticisms of Macron by his detractors — that he was out of touch, arrogant and governed in a top-down manner.

The sentiment was mirrored in public opinion polls, with roughly two-thirds of the public opposed to raising the retirement age, and more than three-quarters against using clause 49.3 on the pensions bill.

It was not supposed to be this way. Reforming France’s costly and complex pension system was unfinished business from Macron’s first term when he attempted a much more ambitious overhaul, only to abandon it because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

During his 2022 campaign, Macron said that if re-elected he would simply raise the retirement age to 65 or 64, and not seek to construct a new system that would treat workers more fairly, as he had before.

That scaled-back ambition symbolised how much Macron has changed since he first taking office in 2017 on a promise to modernise France and practise politics differently.

“The old pensions reform was Macron 1.0: an innovative and bold policy fix for a perennial problem in France,” said one longtime ally now in government. “This one is Macron 2.0: just get something done even if it’s not ideal.”

Many workers, including garbage collectors, have gone on strike over pension reform © Christophe Ena/AP

Looming in the background is France’s heavy public debt and pressure from Brussels to bring deficits back within EU guidelines. Macron acknowledged that his pivot to a simpler, quicker pensions reform was partly motivated by such considerations: “We had Covid-19, the war in Ukraine and inflation, and we spent heavily to protect people, so our public finances are degraded,” he said.

Another person close to the president said that, once the pensions reform was through, Macron’s agenda could really get off the ground by improving public schools and tackling a healthcare crisis. In his interview, Macron also cast the pensions overhaul as a painful necessity needed before going back to the “battle to achieve full employment and reindustrialise France”.

It remains unclear whether such changes will be possible given the parliamentary complications and the volatile mood in the country. Macron’s approval ratings have fallen 4 percentage points in the past month to 28 per cent, according to an IFOP poll, their lowest since the gilets jaunes crisis.

Some members of Macron’s government have called for a governing pact with Les Républicains, which would include naming a new prime minister from the right, such as interior minister Gérald Darmanin or finance minister Bruno Le Maire. But others argue the divisions in the ranks of LR make such a bet unwise. LR party leaders have also ruled it out.

“Macron cannot get out of this mess by changing the prime minister and going on as before,” said one former adviser. “He has to negotiate for real now, and this runs against not only how French institutions work but also against his own nature. It’s not at all obvious to me that he is capable of changing.”

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