Monday, June 24, 2024

Macron, Sunak and an appetite for risk-taking

French President Emmanuel Macron and Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at a French-British summit, in Paris in March 2023

French President Emmanuel Macron and Britain’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at a French-British summit, in Paris in March 2023
| Photo Credit: AFP

French President Emmanuel Macron was re-elected last year with a campaign pledge to make the French work longer by raising the official retirement age from 62, the lowest in the European Union, to 65, later reduced to 64. France’s unions and the political opposition organised nationwide strikes almost every week, with over a million protestors. As a result, Mr. Macron became the first French President to fall short of a parliamentary majority since presidential and parliamentary elections were aligned.

Macron’s defiance and the Article 49.3 route

From the outset of mass mobilisation against the pension proposal, Article 49.3 of the French Constitution, granting the President executive privilege to pass a Bill without a vote, was viewed as a risky option. But lacking a majority in the National Assembly, Mr. Macron chose this route, leading to tumultuous scenes in Parliament, on March 16, that echoed the country’s revolutionary past.

The combined Opposition moved two no-confidence motions, one of which was defeated by merely nine votes when Mr. Macron was bailed out by the conservative Republican Party. He argued that raising the retirement age was essential to make France competitive when people are living longer and security benefits threaten to plunge budgets into deficit. But he is being attacked as a neo-liberal, dismantling social welfare in order to benefit global capital, whose ‘top-down’ approach is ill-suited to a hung parliament where compromise and coalition-building are needed. The French media are also hugely critical.

The unions contend that the proposal primarily affects low-skilled workers who do exhausting jobs and women with discontinuous careers, and have called for street protests against the regime’s bypassing of Parliament. France is now convulsed by massive outrage, millions are protesting across the country, and polls show 80% support for the strikes.

Article 49.3 has been invoked 100 times since 1959, but never for an issue so adamantly opposed by the public. Over the years, governments have overcome protests, such as in 2010 when the retirement age was raised from 60 to 62 years. But at other times, as in 1995 and 2006, strikes have forced the President to withdraw his planned legislation. Rioters and the President rarely seek compromise and Mr. Macron will struggle to pass laws in his remaining four years. Displaying intransigence, he is disinclined to negotiate with even the moderate unions. The leader of Mr. Macron’s parliamentary party declared pithily: “is the pension reform indispensable, or unbearable for the French public?”

Amid looting and urban violence, thousands of tonnes of rubbish lying uncollected, and hundreds of arrests and injured policemen, the only alternatives might be to cut the value of pensions or increase contributions from those in work, but both would make Mr. Macron even more unpopular since people believe finances are not as bad as portrayed. There are even calls to lower the retirement age to 60, where it was before 2010; faith in conventional politics and the parliamentary system is at rock bottom.

Apart from street protests, the Opposition has recourse to two avenues; the constitutional court and a referendum. The court is due to pass judgment on April 14, but has a history of supporting the government. Mr. Macron’s popularity is slipping; even before Article 49.3, his rating was only 28%. He also has two options; to hold fast or dissolve Parliament for fresh elections — though in the latter, a Harris Interactive Survey predicts that all parties would lose ground to the far right. There is a crisis of authority undermining Mr. Macron’s unpopular minority government. “When a government chooses force,” says Paris Deputy Mayor Ian Brossat, “it is always because its authority is weakened.”

Sunak’s gamble

Due to smartphones, the Internet and television, the poor, the destitute and those caught in wars and natural disasters, now know of a desirable richer world, and developed nations have to determine what is practical, political, logistical and moral when it comes to immigration.

More than 45,000 people entered Britain illegally by sea in 2022, compared to 300 in 2018. They resist deportation by filing successive appeals, and cost the taxpayer £6 million a day. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, in search of an emotive issue for his Conservative Party’s Brexiteers, and buoyed by securing a Northern Ireland trade deal with the European Union despite opposition from his predecessor Boris Johnson and the loyalist Irish Unionists, has staked his political capital into ending illegal immigration, notwithstanding doubts expressed by fellow Conservatives who claim the scheme is unworkable.

The new law to deport illegal migrants “within weeks”, applies retrospectively as well, and Indian-origin Home Minister Suella Braverman has persuaded Rwanda to accept the expelled migrants. Mr. Sunak, whose popularity exceeds that of his party, is confident the legislation would prevail over the Labour Party opposition (who claim the plans risk “making the chaos worse”), the Lords upper house, the European Court of Human Rights, the UN Refugee Agency and Amnesty International, who have all strongly opposed Mr. Sunak’s scheme.

Internal party challenges to Mr. Sunak have faded, but his party still trails Labour by 22 percentage points. Nevertheless, it is certain that the refugee problem is so massive that succeeding governments, of whatever political party, will inherit the same issues that all wealthy countries confront.

Krishnan Srinivasan is a former Foreign Secretary

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