PARIS — One after another, the speakers in Parliament have denounced President Emmanuel Macron and his revolutionary plans, calling them “cynicism” and a “flagrant crime.” Outside, hundreds of protesters shout their fury. Other demonstrators, invoking a long French tradition, have called for his head.
But it’s all theater, for now. The weeks of strikes that began in December and stretched into the New Year against Mr. Macron’s plans to overhaul the French pension system have fizzled, even if the anger has not.
Mr. Macron, the youthful investment banker turned politician, now nearly three years into his presidency, is poised to win his latest battle. His government is hoping that his plan to eliminate France’s 42 different pension schemes and merge them into one will pass the lower house of Parliament, where his party has a lock, by mid-March, and that it will be enshrined in law by the summer. It would change France deeply, like his other programs.
The real question now for the president and his country is: At what cost or benefit to France, now and in the future?
In the living memory of most French — and perhaps even beyond — no president has had a greater effect on his country’s economy, society and politics, analysts and Mr. Macron’s haters and backers all agree.
But Mr. Macron’s turbulent reign is setting records in another area, too: social upheaval. He has governed against a backdrop of continuous turmoil.
The antipathy Mr. Macron inspires is no doubt a measure of the depth of the change he is introducing in France — a country comfortable yet complacent to its critics — where any tinkering with tradition comes with complaint and at great risk.
Mr. Macron has upset the French, and he is deeply unpopular for it. So it has become the defining paradox of his rule that he remains much despised, even as his changes begin to bear fruit.
The intractable unemployment rate, slayer of his predecessors, appears finally to be bending to a French president’s touch, recently reaching its lowest rate in 12 years at 8.1 percent.
Working-age employment rates are up, worker-training programs are showing big gains, quality long-term job contracts are outpacing precarious, short-term ones.
All of those are advances plausibly attributed to Mr. Macron’s landmark loosening of the rigid French labor market.
At the same time, Mr. Macron has remade French politics in his own image, eliminating the major political parties, killing the left and neutering the right, so much so that he is still the odds-on favorite to succeed himself in 2022.
“Emmanuel Macron is a bigger reformer than many of his predecessors,” said Olivier Galland of the CNRS research institute, who has written a recent paper about the president’s policies.
“He’s got a more coherent vision. He thinks that French society is blocked, that a lot of these institutions have been in place for a long time, since the Liberation, for instance, and they are not adapted to today’s society,” Mr. Galland said.
“The pensions reform is emblematic, and it’s very important,” Mr. Galland added. “The intensity of the critics shows how important it is.”
He noted that Mr. Macron’s task was in many ways even more difficult than that of the great shaper of the postwar era, Charles de Gaulle: The general had the advantage of starting out with a “blank slate” at the end of the German occupation.
De Gaulle also had the stature that came with having led France during World War II. Mr. Macron is no de Gaulle, the French would agree, having come from a far different place — the world of global finance — that inspires equal parts disgust and distrust in much of the population.
But his changes to France’s politics and society may be as lasting, though they have come at a sharp cost.
His pension changes provoked the longest transportation strike in French history — no small feat in a country where labor strikes are so readily weaponized.
The strike came on the heels of the shock of the Yellow Vest uprising, which brought violent protest against economic inequality to Paris streets on a scale not seen in at least 50 years.
Only a huge cash infusion — $19 billion in income boosts to low-earners — and nonstop palaver by Mr. Macron himself in a marathon series of town halls all over the country, tamed it.
Discontent still boils in broad sectors — lawyers, nurses, teachers, doctors — making up French society’s backbone.
Politically, the resistance has been no less fierce, if mostly ineffective. The protesters, furious at Mr. Macron’s transformation of one of the world’s most generous pension systems, have won some concessions. The government, for instance, scaled back its plans to raise the full-benefit retirement age.
In Parliament, Mr. Macron’s opponents have loaded his pension bill with a record-setting 41,000 amendments in an avowed attempt to slow it down or kill it. Furious at the obstruction, members of Mr. Macron’s government are now talking of forcing the bill through without a vote, which is allowed in the French Constitution. The tactic exposes the government to a confidence vote, but Mr. Macron’s party would undoubtedly win.
His opponents are no less determined.
“We’re going to be in the trenches as long as necessary, because the people will always be in the right in the face of your reactionary goals,” the leftist leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon said in Parliament the other day, addressing the president from a distance.
But the procedural tactics — likely to be quashed — seem destined to founder on the number of Macronists who were swept into the Parliament with his En Marche party, as opponents collapsed around them.
And predictions from leftist economists that Mr. Macron’s loosening of the labor market — his reductions to the costs of firing, for instance — would lead to widespread layoffs, have hardly panned out.
“Employment rates are going up,” said Philippe Martin, an economist at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, commonly referred to as Sciences Po, who once worked in Mr. Macron’s Finance Ministry under the previous president, François Hollande. “There is something going on.’’
Yet there are scars left behind by Mr. Macron’s relentless reformism, in a country which, if not content, had achieved an egalitarianism solid enough to shield it from the crude populism and demagogy that has overtaken its Western allies.
Mr. Macron is unpopular enough that some analysts are finding new vigor in the poll numbers of politicians on the center right like Xavier Bertrand, and even the far-right leader Marine Le Pen.
“There’s a rejection of Macron which is enormous, and which is absolutely incomprehensible,” said Gérard Grunberg, a political scientist at Sciences Po.
Some of it is stylistic. “There’s a great resistance to the way he exercises power in this country,” Mr. Grunberg said. “The result is that the French don’t want to have anything to do with Macron anymore, and meanwhile the right is regrouping.”
“It is absolutely true that he’s failed to create any kind of link with the French,” he added.
On the streets the hostility is palpable. “He’s got contempt for ordinary people, the working class,” said Anne Marchand, a cashier wearing a yellow vest, demonstrating outside Parliament this week. “He’s just a banker. He doesn’t understand a thing about politics.”
“We’re really sick of being in the soup by the 15th of the month,” said Christian Porta, another demonstrator, who works in a bread factory. “It’s gotten really terrible.”
That disconnect is creating unease among Mr. Macron’s allies, conscious of the country’s agitated state and worried that he may have pushed a step too far with the pensions effort.
Some 13 members of Parliament from his party have either left — citing disillusionment with the president — or have been kicked out since the beginning of Mr. Macron’s presidency.
“It’s all very fragile. I’m afraid the law is going to pass against the whole world — against the unions, against the opposition,” said a Macronist deputy from southern France, Jean-François Cesarini.
“This idea of forcing something through makes people say, ‘Sure, you passed your law, but you didn’t listen to us.’”
Others maintain that the damage in the country is already done.
“When have we seen so many teachers go out into the streets?” asked Fabien Roussel, a Communist, in Parliament this week. “Everybody is upset.’’
“Why are so many of our fellow citizens asking that this reform be withdrawn?” he added. “You’ve taken a big risk, of a really deep fracture among our fellow citizens.”
Eva Mbengue contributed reporting.
— to www.nytimes.com