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Pension reform or revolution! Crisis for Fifth French Republic?

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Picture: Nicolas Tucat/AFP – Protesters and labour union members face French gendarmes during a demonstration against the visit of French President in Savines-le-Lac, French Alps, to present the “water plan”, on Thursday, amid a nationwide protest over pension reforms.

By Muhammed Shabeer

Major trade unions in France estimate that two million people hit the streets across France on Tuesday, this week, denouncing the controversial pension reforms pushed by Emmanuel Macron’s government.

The reforms were forcibly passed in the National Assembly on March 16, using Article 49.3 to bypass the parliamentary vote. The move further weakened the legitimacy of the reforms, detested by most of the French working class.

While the government, headed by President Macron and Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, narrowly survived a no-confidence vote on March 20, the approval rating of the president has plummeted along with political goodwill for his neo-liberal Renaissance party, as anger against the antiworker pension reforms rages across the country.

The pension reforms, proposed by the government on January 10, increase the retirement age from 62 to 64 and stipulates a mandatory 43 years of service for entitlement to full pension and benefits.

The ground-breaking mobilisations and work stoppages on Tuesday marked the 10th major action since January 19, and trade unions reiterated their demand for the withdrawal of the reforms. Left-wing opposition groups are also gearing up toward a national referendum on the issue.

The coalition of trade unions has called for larger mobilisation and strikes this coming Thursday as well. The government has shown no leniency towards the protesters and unleashed security forces to quell the protests.

Trade unions, including the General Confederation of Labour, have condemned the government’s insensitivity towards mediation with the unions, as well as Macron’s outright refusal to roll back the reforms.

The French Communist Party’s (PCF) Ian Brossat expressed confidence that the government would eventually be forced to roll back the reforms, succumbing to protests. Legislators from the leftist coalition New Ecologic and Social Peoples Union (Nupes) are waiting for the Constitutional Council’s decision on their request for a Referendum of Shared Initiative on the implementation of the pension reforms.

The Nupes coalition, comprising the socialists from La France Insoumise, communists from the PCF, social democrats from the Socialist Party, and the Greens, has the parliamentary strength required to initiate a referendum, and it is also confident of collecting the required number of signatures – a tenth of the voters, or 4.87 million – within nine months to conduct the referendum.

Addressing the media on Monday, Nupes leader Jean-Luc Melenchon said: “The French and foreign press, as well as a number of international institutions, are well aware of what is happening in France,” claiming that “this is more reminiscent of the workings of an authoritarian regime than that of a democracy with authority”.

The legacy and popularity of the 64-year-old French Fifth Republic is dipping to historic lows day by day, as the Macron government continues to remain insensitive towards the workers’ demands and unleashes the state security forces to crack down on protests. Macron’s Renaissance party lacks a majority in parliament and his re-election last year was helped by the fact that his opponent was far-right candidate Marine Le Pen.

The threat of a far-right victory in France helped consolidate Macron’s votes. In his first tenure as president, Macron’s supporters had an outright majority in the National Assembly. However, even then, he was forced to roll back a hike in fuel taxes, arbitrarily imposed in November 2018 to combat climate change after the massive Yellow Vests protests.

An earlier avatar of the pension reforms, on the same lines of the current one, had been proposed by Macron in December 2019 during his first tenure, but was dropped midway due to massive protests from the working class and the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis.

The motion of no-confidence against the government, supported by leftists and voted upon on March 20, fell short of nine votes in the National Assembly. According to reports, the motion was also supported by more than a dozen MPs from the conservative The Republicans LR (Les Républicains). However, most of the MPs from the pro-government bloc, including LR, voted against the motion.

Borne had invoked Article 49.3 in the National Assembly on March 16 and bypassed voting on the pension reforms. The government had rightly sensed that if a vote took place, especially on the clause for “amending financing of Social Security for 2023” that calls to raise the retirement age, more MPs from the pro-government bloc would have voted against it, thwarting Macron’s goal of bringing the budget deficit below 3 percent by the end of his second term in 2027, by capping and slashing social spending.

Invoking Article 49.3 and unleashing the police at protests has dealt a blow to Macron’s standing. He has been criticised for pushing the notorious Global Security Bill in 2021, granting more autonomy to riot police in their actions. The bypassing of the parliamentary vote on the pension reforms also exposes the disproportionate and undemocratic power relations between the president and the parliament, and marks the deterioration of the semi-presidential or dual-executive system envisaged by the Fifth Republic in France since 1958.

If Macron heeds the voices of workers and rolls back the reforms, the protests might stop. Macron might not be right in thinking that the protests will gradually wither away like the Yellow Vest protests, which were largely organised with participation primarily from middle-class sections.

If Macron remains adamant in implementing the reforms, the trade unions and the united French Left in the Nupes coalition have shown their will and resolve to fight the reform on the streets. There is massive popular support for initiating and conducting a referendum on the retirement age.

This article was first published on Peoples Dispatch