Wednesday May 22, 2024

Macron pursues fresh beginning after bruising pensions fight

French president spoke to ministers, advisors and other political heavyweights about way forward

March 22, 2023
Protesters hold a banner and placards at Place de la Republique during a demonstration in Paris on March 21, 2023. — AFP
Protesters hold a banner and placards at Place de la Republique during a demonstration in Paris on March 21, 2023. — AFP

PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron will go live on television Wednesday, hoping to heal deep divisions across France caused by a brutal fight over his pensions reform that has dented his popularity.

With four years to go in his second mandate, Macron will also be looking to give his government fresh momentum as it reels from the political fallout of his decision to ram the reform plan through the National Assembly without a vote.

The interview comes against a backdrop of smouldering tensions in the streets, with hundreds of demonstrators arrested and police officers accused of stifling legitimate protest.

Before breaking his silence in a live television interview scheduled for 1:00 pm (1200 GMT) on Wednesday, Macron spent most of Tuesday talking to ministers, advisors and other political heavyweights about the way forward.

People involved in the discussions told AFP that Macron has already ruled out any radical break with the political status quo.

There will be no new prime minister to replace the incumbent Elisabeth Borne, no dissolution of the National Assembly and no referendum on the pensions reform which raised the retirement age to 64 years from 62.

'A new chapter?'

But Macron also called on his troops to provide ideas in the "next two to three weeks," aimed at "a change in method and a new reform agenda", one participant said, requesting anonymity.

Transport Minister Clement Beaune told broadcaster France Inter on Tuesday that the government could open a "new chapter" with initiatives to improve the lot of ordinary French people, including their work lives and wages.

But while Macron will try to turn the page on the arduous political and institutional process that got his reform through, he cannot do the same for social unrest that continues to shake France.

Police arrested around 300 people within hours of the government surviving two no-confidence votes in the National Assembly over the pensions bill Monday.

Some protesters burned trash bins, bikes and other objects, while others blocked traffic in parts of the country.

Spontaneous protests by young people have seen nightly clashes with police since last week.

There have been 1,200 unauthorised demonstrations since last Thursday, "some of them violent", said Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin.

Lawyers, magistrates and some politicians accused police officers of having made what they called arbitrary arrests in an attempt to stifle anti-government protests.

They cited as proof the fact that the vast majority of detained demonstrators were released after a few hours, without any charges.

"Criminal law is being used by the government to deter demonstrators from exercising their right to demonstrate," said Raphael Kempf, a lawyer specialising in human rights and freedoms.

Paris police chief Laurent Nunez rejected the allegations, telling the BFMTV broadcaster: "There are no unjustified arrests."

'Resentment and hatred'

A survey on Sunday showed Macron's personal approval rating at just 28 percent, its lowest level since the height of the anti-government "Yellow Vest" protest movement in 2019.

Observers say street anger directed against Macron personally is worse than against any president since Charles de Gaulle, bordering on hatred with some demonstrators burning his effigy and calling for his execution.

"Since the Yellow Vests, Emmanuel Macron has been the focus of huge amounts of resentment and hatred," said Anne Muxel, director of research at Sciences Po, an elite political science school.

Even his allies acknowledge that Macron can come across as arrogant.

"He's an excellent president," said one government advisor. "But he's a useless communicator."

An official close to the presidency added: "He's a divisive president, he's loved or hated. But that's probably why he became president in the first place."

Macron, who has vowed new approaches before, told his allies Tuesday that he was aware that "this is a difficult time" and that he wanted to "pacify" angry protesters, but "will not be rushed into anything".

Meanwhile strikes and blockades at oil refineries continue, potentially creating severe fuel shortages.

The streets of Paris also remain strewn with uncollected rubbish after a two-week strike by garbage workers.

Another round of strikes and protests organised by trade unions for Thursday could again bring public transport to a standstill.