Reforms and protests: where is France heading?

In France, the strikes and protests against the controversial pension reform continue. In a TV interview French President Emmanuel Macron justified his decision to bypass parliament and push the reform through saying it was "a necessity for the country" for which he was prepared to make himself unpopular. Europe's press analyses the reasons for the protests and potential consequences.

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The Spectator (GB) /

Markets could bring Macron to his knees

The Spectator says Macron may have to cede after all in view of the economic impact of the protests:

“It is Macron himself who raised the spectre of financial turmoil, while inverting it, to warn the French that if his pensions bill did not pass then the markets would be spooked. The chief economist at Allianz, consulted by Le Monde, accused the president of waving a red rag at a bull. ... Unrest across France, oil refineries and ports blocked, widespread public transport disruption. ... It would be ironic that the former whizz kid investment banker Macron should be forced to take orders from the financial markets and back down.”

El Periódico de Catalunya (ES) /

Political system needs overhauling

The only alternative to Macron is the street, writes El Periódico de Catalunya:

“The protests will continue because behind them is the general discontent of a population that has just been through a health crisis with many repercussiona and is now in a new crisis, while the prices of the basic necessities are rising and inflation is causing wages to shrink. In France, moreover, the social gap is growing between the city centres controlled by the children of the bourgeoisie and the suburbs. The question now is whether a single person, the president, can make all the decisions or whether the model of the republic needs to be changed. With parliament practically annulled, French democracy today leaves all the power in the hands of the president, so that the only alternative power is the street.”

Libération (FR) /

Voters' mandate misunderstood

The president is destroying French democracy, says Jean Quatremer, a Libération columnist:

“For the most part Macron justifies his stubborn attitude by saying that the French elected him for what he proposed to do, but this is completely false. ... His legitimacy is based on the rejection of extremes, which should have forced him to seek a compromise acceptable to society. By rejecting compromise and remaining firm in his conviction that he is right and everyone else is wrong he is weakening French democracy, which already suffered because of the Covid crisis. Nothing, however, was learned from the pandemic. Emmanuel Macron pretended to be reviving democracy, but he could turn out to be its gravedigger.”

Interia (PL) /

High time Brussels criticised the system

The EU may be applying double standards in evaluating political systems, Interia speculates:

“The French system is structured in such a way that the government can do almost anything and the parliament almost nothing. ... The EU authorities constantly denounce the model being shaped - rather timidly - by the Polish right. ... We are urged to make the deliberations on proposed legislation more transparent. But is the French system transparent? ... Of course, the EU applies the standard adopted by the Venice Commission in 2016. But the systems of the old EU countries seem to be considered above suspicion while those of the new members are seen as inherently suspect, and even more so when they are governed by formations that disagree with the Eurocrats in terms of ideology.”

Gazeta Wyborcza (PL) /

Ageing cannot be demonstrated away

Gazeta Wyborcza finds the fierce reaction of the French surprising:

“The scale of the protests is massive even for France, where demonstrations in the millions are normal. But what is most surprising is the disproportion between the scale and fierceness of the protests and the scope of the changes to the pension system, which do not look dramatic. ... The problem of an ageing population and the corresponding tensions in the pension system affect all countries, not just France. Poland too. The pension reform introduced by the Donald Tusk government was reversed by the PiS government, but the problem has not disappeared and will have to be tackled again sooner or later.”

Adevărul (RO) /

Signal warning of deep division in Europe

Commenting in Adevărul, political analyst Cristian Unteanu puts the massive protests in France in a larger context:

“In my opinion what is happening in France right now is a very serious alarm signal highlighting the general discontent among the populations of several European countries (and not only there) regarding governance in times of crisis and the inability of the political class to find real answers . ... It is becoming more and more difficult for the population to cope with the process of impoverishment and, above all, with the emergence of social rifts the likes of which we haven't seen since the times when poor societies were brutally divided between the class of the super-rich and the rest, the category of the 'masses'.”

Le Monde (FR) /

Crisis solvable with a little courage

The Constitutional Council, to which the pension reform has now been submitted for examination under pressure from the left, could offer a solution, sociologist Michel Offerlé writes in Le Monde:

“The first and obvious one is to dismantle the law paragraph by paragraph by deleting all the measures that have no place in such a text. The second option, more complex and courageous, would be to reject the entire text. Good legal reasons have been put forward, in particular numerous cases of abuse of procedure due to a supplementary budget law having been used to introduce fundamental changes to the pension system, with dire consequences for the lives of millions of citizens.”

Documento (GR) /

Up to the left to make a move now

Documento calls for constructive alternatives:

“The political centre, currently represented by Macron, is losing strength, while the political left is filling part of the resulting vacuum. Now it's up to the left and its leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon to present a political proposal with an alternative to Macron's neoliberal model. This proposal, however, must be viable not only nationally but also internationally and take into account the interests of Brussels as well as Washington. Otherwise there is a danger of creating space for a far-right political movement that could try to dominate the political landscape, as we saw with the recent success of Giorgia Meloni in Italy.”

L'Opinion (FR) /

Secure the support of the silent

The embattled president must now rely on the backing of those who have had enough of the protests, says L'Opinion:

“Reacting in the storm of battle is not his forte, and all governments dread having their actions dictated by events. But since the communication society demanded that he take a stance without delay, he had to run the risk in order to at least defend his positions, validate his reform and gain the support of French people who are alarmed by the violence on the streets and the blockades of the strikers. These silent and worried people are now his best allies.”

Corriere della Sera (IT) /

Everyone against the president

Stefano Montefiori, Paris correspondent for Corriere della Sera, sees Macron was true to form in his address:

“He showed statesmanlike courage and a sense of responsibility for those who appreciate him. Stubbornness and ivory tower syndrome for his increasingly numerous opponents. Only for a moment did the former investment banker attempt to address popular sentiment, when he mentioned the 'cynicism of certain big companies'. The phrase seems to be a response to the basic accusation of recent months, namely that the burden of reforms always falls on the same, less well-off citizens, without touching the record profits of the big corporations and the millionaire salaries of their managers. ... Macron simply played Macron on TV, and that makes his opponents furious.”

Expresso (PT) /

Political centre has collapsed

The conflict over pension reform reveals a dilemma, writes political consultant Henrique Burnay in Expresso:

“The vandalism in the streets of France and the unwillingness of the French to wait until they're 64 to retire are the least of Macron's and France's problems. The big problem, for which there is no obvious solution, is the political vacuum in the centre. ... Fortunately there won't be any elections in France tomorrow. But if there were, the result could be catastrophic. No matter who won, the country would fall out of the European consensus and out of the big centre. Until that happens, these protests can and should be a lesson for the other member states of the EU.”

Der Tagesspiegel (DE) /

Government facing a blockade

Macron's TV appearance wasn't exactly productive, the Tagesspiegel concludes:

“We saw a calm, energised president who has a clear programme and is determined not to let anything stop him - not even unwilling parliaments or angry social partners. ... Not a word of contrition or a signal that could make it psychologically easier for the opposing sides to come down from the barricades they have erected. ... It doesn't seem to matter to him that he has fuelled the dissatisfaction with representative democracy that has been growing for years. The fact that this could lead to a prolonged blockade of his government should not be a matter of indifference to him.”

Le Temps (CH) /

The real danger is the next election

Paul Ackermann, France correspondent for Le Temps, warns:

“The real danger is not the protests over the next few days, but [election year] 2027. The polarisation and extreme dramatisation of the debate by those who rely on violence and the isolation of the government are atrophying the camp of reason and leading to a disastrous presidential duel between Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the embodiment of insurrectionary anger, and an increasingly presentable Marine Le Pen, who outwardly promises security. ... Or a confrontation between their heirs, if they themselves do not run. If you focus too much on the burning piles of rubbish, you run the risk of forgetting the real fire. You may even be fanning the flames.”

Népszava (HU) /

The great reformer squandering his popularity

Népszava comments:

“President Macron was brave enough to carry out this reform in his second term. Several of his predecessors had tried, but in the end none of them dared to make such extensive changes. Although Macron wants to go down in history as a great reformer, he could end up as one of the most unpopular presidents in history by cutting the pension years that are 'sacred' to the French.”

Evrensel (TR) /

Police causing a storm which could turn into a hurricane

The rift between the people and those in power in France has grown too large, Evrensel argues:

“The authoritarian tendencies show a government that in its arrogance has distanced itself from the people, disregards their opinions and has forgotten that it is the representative of the voters. The violence used by the police undoubtedly reinforces this appearance. The police are sowing not wind but a storm, and they may reap a hurricane in return. Whether arrogance, repression and violence on the one side or the determination of the demonstrators on the other will prevail remains to be seen. ... In the meantime, it is not unlikely that Macron will sacrifice Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne to save himself.”

Politiken (DK) /

Deaf ears and widespread anger

For Politiken, everything points to a confrontation:

“Macron was elected in 2017 on the promise of uniting the French people. Instead, under his presidency the French nation is more divided than it has been in decades - and the protests rolling through France these days are largely driven by anger over not being heard. France deserved better, but for now the way forward is hard to see. 'How can you govern a country that has 262 types of cheese?' a frustrated Charles de Gaulle asked many years ago. Emmanuel Macron's brutal methods in recent days have only made this more difficult.”

The Economist (GB) /

A bitter triumph

Now is not the time for Macron to celebrate:

“The outcome, however, is likely to feel like an empty victory for Mr Macron. It is unfortunate, to say the least, that the reform was not approved through normal parliamentary procedure. The episode will exacerbate his reputation for having an imperious governing style. As it is, his popularity rating has fallen to just 28% from a high of 41% after his re-election, according to Ifop, a pollster. This is its lowest point since early 2019, during the gilets jaunes (yellow jackets) rebellion. A comparable popular rebellion, on top of ongoing political disorder, cannot be ruled out.”

Libération (FR) /

Disastrous bungling

Macron and Prime Minister Borne have made a real mess of this, Libération criticises:

“They've been proving their amateurish bungling for two months by poorly defending a botched project. They've weakened parliament in an almost unprecedented manner. ... Its image needed to be restored, but they have done the opposite. The president and his prime minister have also contributed significantly to widening the gap between the people and politics. And along the way they have paved the way for the [radical right-wing] Rassemblement National and the far-right conspiracy movement that rejoices in every political crisis.”

Diário de Notícias (PT) /

Reform makes sense, revolt doesn't

Diário de Notícias can't understand the fierce protests against the pension reform:

“Raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 should be a matter of common sense, given the longer life expectancy of all of us. But it doesn't pass muster socially. The French go into revolt over everything. Even if the social obligation to ensure that the young of today can still enjoy social benefits in old age suffers as a result. ... Not least because the governments' response to appease society is always based on the same unsustainable solution: more public debt in an ageing, ever less competitive Europe that is in danger of breaking up.”

L'Opinion (FR) /

New type of cohabitation needed

The conservative Les Républicains need to change their strategy, L'Opinion concludes:

“France is right-wing, it votes right-wing and is sliding further and further to the right. Education, health, the green transformation, immigration, security, combating debt: on all these issues Emmanuel Macron takes a right-wing position with every word he speaks. ... The situation of the conservatives has now changed: deeply fractured, they are no longer united and their future is in jeopardy. They must now save themselves. But they still have one chance to make an impact: negotiate a government programme. A new kind of cohabitation, based more on co-construction than on confrontation.”

Magyar Hang (HU) /

Paris is not Budapest

Contrary to what the pro-government Hungarian press claims, France is still far more democratic than Hungary, stresses journalist Szabolcs Szerető in Magyar Hang:

“Macron's bypassing of the legislature is reminiscent of Orbán's illiberal exercise of power. But while Macron's move is undoubtedly anti-democratic, it does not abolish the French tradition of public law. Moreover, pension reform was a central theme in Macron's election manifesto. I don't know whether the president or the protesting masses will emerge victorious from this conflict, but what is certain is that French society is in a position to articulate its interests to those in power.”

The Times (GB) /

The only right path

The Times praises Macron's resolve:

“It is a nettle that must be grasped. France can no longer afford its luxurious retirement arrangements. If nothing is done the state pension system could be £790 billion [roughly 900 billion euros] in deficit by 2050. Longer lives mean a liberal regime that has endured since the days of François Mitterrand is unsustainable. ... Mr Macron is justified in seeing the reform as essential, and not only to save the pension system. Like Britain, France needs its older workforce to keep contributing. Just 56 per cent of those aged 55 to 64 are in a job, while the figure in Germany is 72 per cent.”

Libération (FR) /

Macron is destabilising France

The president's actions are damaging the country, criticises Libération's editor-in-chief Dov Alfon:

“Emmanuel Macron has broken all the eggs he had in his basket, but he has not managed to make an omelette. The list is dizzying: the brazen lies from the moment the reform was presented, the secret negotiations to get it passed through parliament, the hundreds of amendments that were rejected arbitrarily, the arrogant refusal to meet with the unions, the contempt for one of the biggest protest movements in the history of the Fifth Republic. ... What now lies ahead: intensification of the protests, rejection of the institutions of the republic and the opening of a populist breach through which the far right could rush in.”

Der Tagesspiegel (DE) /

Good news for Le Pen

Der Tagesspiegel says Macron's approach is a political disaster:

“The reform is rejected by the bulk of the population as anti-social and there have been mass demonstrations and strikes for weeks. The trade unions are showing a rare degree of unity. And now this controversial and hated law is to be passed without being presented to parliament because there is no secure majority there? This can only massively shake the confidence of the French in democracy and the institutions. The only ones who will be happy about this are Marine le Pen and her far-right party.”

La Stampa (IT) /

A big gamble

Macron's course of action is risky for several reasons, La Stampa warns:

“Firstly, it's clear that France is not going through a financial crisis comparable to the one that hit Italy in 2011 when the Monti government passed the pension reform by decree. ... Invoking a financial crisis when you're not really living through one will hardly make an unpopular measure acceptable. Secondly, Macron is seriously jeopardising his own credibility, because the use of special powers requires the political strength and consistency not to back down afterwards.”

Le Figaro (FR) /

Doomed to stand still

France's fierce opposition to reform gives Le Figaro pause for thought:

“Can it still be reformed? Is it doomed to stand still in a world that is constantly on the move? This pension reform, which has become essential because of demographic trends, is not asking the impossible! Compared to those implemented by our neighbours it is actually very moderate. And yet it is turning society upside down, spurred on by trade unionists, some of whom dream of 'bringing the economy to its knees'. On Thursday, the government resorted to the hard way to pass its reform. Yet it still smacks of failure.”