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A Defiant Macron Finds Himself Perfectly Alone

World Politics Review logo: MainLogo World Politics Review 3/25/2023 Judah Grunstein
After his reelection in April 2022, French President Emmanuel Macron promised to pursue consensus to advance his agenda. Less than a year later, however, millions of protesters have paralyzed the country, after Macron forced through a pension reform over widespread popular opposition and a lack of votes in parliament. © Judah Grunstein After his reelection in April 2022, French President Emmanuel Macron promised to pursue consensus to advance his agenda. Less than a year later, however, millions of protesters have paralyzed the country, after Macron forced through a pension reform over widespread popular opposition and a lack of votes in parliament.

In April 2022, French President Emmanuel Macron celebrated his reelection to a second term at an election-night rally in Paris’ Trocadero Square. But although Macron was victorious that night, he was far from triumphant. To the contrary, he gave every indication of being a chastened president, tacitly acknowledging what many observers—including among his own supporters—had come to see as an arrogant and uncompromising approach to governing in his first term.

Though Macron’s reelection had never been seriously in doubt, the campaign had brought to the surface a widespread antipathy toward him, both understandable due to his governing style, but also surprising for its virulence. Moreover, if Macron won the election with almost 60 percent of the vote, that was in large part because voters rejected his opponent, the far-right Marine Le Pen, not because they were endorsing Macron’s center-right program of structural reforms to France’s bloated social welfare system.

The public disaffection with Macron was further underscored two months later in parliamentary elections that left him without an absolute majority, a rarity in France’s mixed presidential-parliamentary system. That meant Macron would be forced to assemble ad hoc majorities on a case-by-case basis to pass legislation, yet another reason to believe he would pursue consensus through negotiation and compromise to advance his agenda.

Less than a year later, however, the streets of Paris are ablaze, and millions of protesters have paralyzed the country, the result of a reform to France’s pension system that Macron forced through last week over widespread popular opposition and a lack of votes in parliament. He did so using a constitutional clause—the by-now infamous 49-3—that allows the government to tie consideration of a law to a vote of no confidence; parliament can still defeat the law, but to do so it must also remove the government. Macron’s prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, survived two such votes Monday, one of them by the narrow margin of nine votes.

Since then, scattered demonstrations erupted throughout the country, and yesterday, massive union-organized protests paralyzed France entirely for the ninth time since Macron first proposed his reform plan. These days of protest began as largely peaceful demonstrations. Since last week, however, they have grown increasingly violent on both sides. Protesters in Paris had already begun to set fire to the accumulated garbage left behind by striking trash collectors. On Thursday, they did the same to the city hall of Bordeaux, while also vandalizing businesses and showering riot police with bottles and paving stones. Security forces have responded with a disturbing level of violence, with videos circulating of them charging and clubbing demonstrators whose backs were turned and who posed no visible threat. This is not unprecedented for the French riot police, who were highly criticized—including by then-United Nations human rights chief Michelle Bachelet—for their use of excessive force against Yellow Vest protesters in 2018 and 2019.

The current protests have drawn many comparisons to the Yellow Vest movement, which lasted for a year and upended Macron’s first-term agenda for months. But the Yellow Vest protests were the product of a leaderless and heteroclite movement, one that was unattached to any institutional structure, whether political parties or labor unions. It expressed a wide range of grievances but made no coherent demands. And most alarmingly, it seemed to emerge from nowhere, taking everyone by surprise.

In contrast, today’s protests have been organized and chaperoned by unions, and appropriated by political parties of the left. They are broadly representative of popular opposition both to Macron’s proposed reform and to the way he forced it through. They express a single, coherent demand: for Macron to retract the law. Above all, they were eminently predictable, the result of a frustration with Macron’s imperious style that he himself seemed to have acknowledged last April, but has since forgotten—or worse, chosen to ignore.

But if the origins of these protests are very different and clearer than the Yellow Vest movement, where they go from here remains uncertain. Up until Macron’s parliamentary maneuver last week, most observers expected the pension reform to pass with the help of the center-right Les Republicains parliamentary delegation, after which the protest movement would slowly dissipate and Macron would move ahead with his agenda, weakened for having expended political capital on an unpopular measure, but not mortally damaged.

But sensing the popular mood, many LR parliamentarians opportunistically abandoned the reform before a final vote, despite it being close to what they themselves had proposed. To add insult to injury, a sizable number of them subsequently voted for the vote of no confidence Monday. That will make any future ad hoc deals with them unpalatable for Macron’s party, even as support is unlikely to come from the far-left France Unbowed and unwanted from Le Pen’s far-right National Rally. A parliamentary path ahead for Macron’s agenda now seems even narrower than before.

More immediately, Macron could find it more difficult to calm tempers in the streets compared to five years ago, when the Yellow Vests peaked relatively quickly and ultimately fizzled out, albeit over a period of months. Retracting the pension reform would almost certainly doom Macron to lame-duck status, at least on the domestic front, for the four remaining years of his term. Calling for new parliamentary elections would likely weaken his position even more and perhaps even land the far-left or far-right in Matignon, where the prime minister’s office is located. But counting on these protests to simply fade away, when both the unions and the political opposition sense a moment of vulnerability, seems like wishful thinking.

Perhaps most difficult to explain is how a man who twice won election as president with overwhelming majorities, and whose program represents a sizable swath of France’s political spectrum from the center-left to the center-right, now finds himself so perfectly alone. Roughly 2,500 years ago, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus is believed to have said, “Character is destiny.” He might have had Macron in mind.

Here are some recent and not-so-recent WPR articles for more context on Macron’s reform agenda and France’s protest movements:

This Week’s Highlights

The World’s Conflicts Didn’t Take a Pandemic Break. In a column Tuesday, Richard Gowan looked at how, despite expectations that the coronavirus pandemic would disrupt the world’s armed conflicts, it barely affected them.

  • In March 2020, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for an “immediate global ceasefire” in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although always understood to be highly aspirational, the call created a rare glimmer of hope during the first months of the pandemic, as governments and armed groups in Colombia, the Philippines and elsewhere pledged to pause hostilities. It seemed possible that COVID-19 would hit conflict-affected regions especially hard. It was also conceivable that it would shock some combatants into slowing or suspending hostilities.
  • What seemed harder to believe back then was that the pandemic would not have much impact on conflict trends at all. Yet, the past three years have been marked by a series of bloody conflicts. Most of the armed groups that initially expressed enthusiasm for Guterres’ idea in March and April 2020 returned to hostilities within months. Moreover, studies of violence over the ensuing three years have found little correlation between the spread of COVID-19 and patterns in conflict. In places where major outbreaks occurred, such as Afghanistan, Yemen and Myanmar, violence continued, and in some cases worsened, alongside the spread of the disease.
  • This does not mean that the pandemic had no impact on troubled states and communities. Public discontent over governments’ handling of the pandemic fueled protests, and lockdowns were regularly associated with upticks of “repression events” by authorities, such as acts of police violence against protesters. The pandemic also complicated international efforts to manage conflicts. But in cases of intense conflict—such as Yemen and Ethiopia—the warring parties largely ignored the disease, in part because COVID-19 did not kill or disable enough of its victims to stop armies and rebel groups from fighting.
  • Even where the disease has had a greater impact, political actors have put their security interests before public health. And if the COVID-19 cease-fire idea only had a brief impact on ongoing conflicts, it ironically acted as a lightning rod for friction among the major powers at the United Nations. It is hard to deny that the world has emerged from the first three years of the pandemic more divided and more dangerous than it was in March 2020. Yet three years on, despite its limited impact, it is also hard not to feel a little nostalgia for the brief moment of optimism Guterres’ global cease-fire proposal created.

Israel’s Protests Are a Battle Over the Meaning of a Jewish State. And in a briefing Wednesday, Avner Inbar explained what’s behind the massive protests across Israel against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial reform.

  • The protests by a liberal public that had been considered politically moribund for years likely took Netanyahu by surprise. But the question of what, exactly, being a Jewish state means looms large, now that Israelis are realizing what Netanyahu’s promised “fully right-wing” version of it entails. Since the electoral collapse of the anti-Netanyahu right in November, the Israeli right is now divided into two camps: the personality cult empty of ideology that surrounds Netanyahu, and the highly ideological, national-religious Zionist movement.
  • Netanyahu’s camp remains the most dominant camp in terms of political representation. But religious Zionism has become the most dynamic and, in ideologically terms, the dominant political force in Israel, shaping and steering the right as a whole, including Netanyahu himself. While the judicial reform has been portrayed in part as a way for Netanyahu to neuter the judiciary at a time when he faces multiple criminal proceedings for corruption, it is spearheaded by the religious Zionists, who see an independent judiciary as an obstacle to their goals.  
  • Religious Zionism is at odds with mainstream Zionism, which has always been committed to self-determination through democratic institutions, relying on the belief that Judaism is first and foremost a nationality. To be a Jewish state, therefore, Israel need not have any necessary relationship to the Jewish faith. Religious Zionism rejects this belief, instead seeing the Jewish state as a vehicle for the Jewish people’s divine calling. This is a profoundly undemocratic vision, in which the Jewish citizens of Israel—let alone its non-Jewish citizens—are not free to conduct their affairs as they please.
  • The irreconcilable difference between these two conceptions of the Jewish state is the source of the social strife currently unfolding in Israel. The protests are focused on the right’s attack on the independence of the judiciary. But if they lead to a real reckoning with the underlying theological-political doctrine of religious Zionism and its connection to Israel’s occupation of Palestine, they may bring an end to the rise of the religious right. Beyond the crucial battle over democratic values and checks and balances lies a fundamental disagreement about the very meaning of a Jewish state.

This Week’s Most-Read Story

The ICC Arrest Warrant for Putin Could Do More Harm Than Good. And in this week’s top story by pageviews, Paul Poast explained why the arrest warrant issued for Russian President Vladimir Putin by the International Criminal Court is irrelevant at best and counterproductive at worst:

The international jurist George Robertson once wrote, “Indictment by an international criminal court is the Achilles heel of traveling dictators, because it deprives them of the immunity they continue to have against prosecution in the courts of other countries.” But attaching an ICC stigma to a leader is also an Achilles heel for negotiators. In the case of Putin, it is now harder for Western states to bargain with him, whether over an eventual offramp in Ukraine or anything else. It could also make Putin feel like he has no recourse but to hold onto power. The idea of bargaining with Putin was already highly controversial, but now it is virtually impossible, given the stigma attached to negotiating with a war criminal.

What’s On Tap

And coming up next week, we’ve got:

  • A briefing by Borzou Daragahi on the early jockeying ahead of Turkey’s upcoming presidential election.
  • A briefing by Kelsey Davenport on the recent deal between the IAEA and Iran to restore oversight of Tehran’s nuclear program.
  • A briefing by Elizabeth Dickinson on the hidden violence that continues to plague Colombia despite President Gustavo Petro’s “Total Peace” plan.
  • And an in-depth article by Matthew Gordon on the forces shaping Somaliland’s ongoing quest for international recognition as a state.

Judah Grunstein is the editor-in-chief of World Politics Review. You can follow him on Twitter at @Judah_Grunstein.

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