The favorite phrase of Emmanuel Macron, the French president, is that in life “you have to take risks”. He did, and rose from nowhere to lead France at the age of 39. Now, six years later, he has decided to stake his political future on reshaping France at its most resistant to change.
Macron's battle with the streets of France over his plan to raise the official retirement age to 64 from 62 is expected to culminate this week in a decisive vote in both houses of Parliament on Thursday. A day earlier, if the past few weeks are any guide, the president can expect more than one million French citizens to protest across the country, hoping to fight change.
With his efforts to overhaul France's pension system, Macron has faced fierce French resistance to a world of runaway capitalism, the nation's deep attachment to social solidarity, and the widespread view that long and painful labor sentences are only offset by the liberating rewards of retirement life. This is a very big gamble.
“Every country has a soul and the soul of France is equality,” François Hollande, Macron's predecessor as president, famously said. Profits remain suspicious to many French people who see them as a machination of the rich. The 1.28 million protesters on French streets last week – 3.5 million according to unions – had a clear message for Mr Macron: “Work less to live more,” as one slogan says.
Mr Macron, 45, appeared unmoved, firm in his belief that the changes are important for the health of France's economy as today's workers pay the pensions of a growing number of, longer-living pensioners. If France is to invest in a transition to a green economy and in wartime defense in Europe, in Mr. Macron's view, it cannot pile up the deficit financing the retirement age that reflects the shorter life spans of the past.
“It's simple,” Macron said last year. “If we don't solve the problems of our pensioners, we can't invest in the rest. It is nothing but the choice of society that we want.”
That may be logical, but the reservoir of sympathy Macron once relied on has evaporated. The pivot point of his second term, still less than a year old and with a sense of drift until now, appears to be imminent.
He won re-election last year more as a bulwark against Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate, than anything else. European prodigy injured. To some degree, he is vulnerable. But he is adamant, in his often quixotic fashion, about the most difficult changes at a time when 40 percent of French families say they struggle to make ends meet.
“It's a question about his DNA,” said Clément Beaune, a government minister who knows Macron well. “As a former economy minister, he wants a solid France and is growing at the core of Europe. When asked about the most important legacy of his first term, he always said cutting unemployment.”
The unemployment rate has fallen to just over 7 percent, the lowest for France, from 9.5 percent when Macron took office in 2017, a reflection of sweeping changes to free up the labor market, which have helped lure increased foreign investment.
Expanding the workforce, however, did not make France's heart beat any faster. They have missed six days of strikes and demonstrations over the past two months. The protests were accompanied by an outpouring of sympathy. Opinion polls show that at least two-thirds of French people don't want the retirement age to be raised.
The solidarity fund supports strikers who have lost their paychecks. Unions from the far left to the center acted in unison. They have attacked Macron's relative silence as “a serious democratic problem leading to an explosive situation,” as they wrote in a letter to Macron last week.
How explosive it will be revealed in the next few days.
Macron's hodgepodge centrist political party Renaissance – formerly known as La République en Marche – with the backing of center-right Republicans, should win, but support appears to be faltering and the outcome is unclear. The Renaissance holds 260 seats and the Republicans 61, with 289 votes required for a majority.
“The reform will not pass,” said Alain Duhamel, a writer and political commentator. “A month ago, I would say 80 percent work; now I would say 60 percent. Macron has taken a risk. The logic is clear, but not the urgency.”
For Mr Macron, who tends to sweep ideas aside, the urgency seems to lie precisely in logic. France is a foreigner to extremes. The retirement age in Europe has generally increased to over 65 years. In Germany it is 65 years 7 months. In Italy it is 67. In the Netherlands it will increase to 67 next year, and in Spain it will reach 67 in 2027. But as France sees itself as a separate model, it is likely to be unimpressed by this comparison.
For Mr Macron, France has to compete; it cannot, in his opinion, be hobbled by outdated regulations. “His core value, or belief, is work,” said Mr. Duhamel. “Work more to grow more.”
But Mr Macron's message, or narrative, on pension reform is hard for many French to follow. At different times, it has been about justice, about treacherous public finance, even about fulfilling left-wing programs.
“The pension reform is a reform of the left,” Olivier Dussopt, France's minister of labour, employment and economic inclusion, told Le Parisien, a French daily newspaper. “It could have been pushed by a Social Democratic government.”
This happened in Germany two decades ago, under Social Democrat chancellor Gerhard Schröder. That didn't happen in France.
Mr. Macron emerged from the Socialist Party only to destroy it. He is shown to have had the economic notions more commonly associated in France with rights, the source of some of the anger often directed at him.
However, what exactly “Macronism” is, other than the right to change minds and movements to occupy the entire political middle ground, remains a mystery. But on pension reform, as a commitment to the European Union, he is unwavering.
Without parliamentary approval, the government can use Article 49.3 of the French Constitution, which has been used to pass laws without a vote. But on such a big and controversial issue, this would almost certainly insult the democratic process and could strengthen accusations against Macron of aloof top-down rule.
“Today what happened was massive,” Marylise Léon, co-leader of the French Confederation of Democratic Labor, France's largest and most moderate trade union, told daily Le Monde. “Mr Macron can't act like the movement doesn't exist. That would be crazy.”
Mr Macron has refused to meet with union leaders, saying the government is open to dialogue.
He appears to have adopted an unusual position among presidents under the Fifth Republic—setting broad policy lines while leaving it to Élisabeth Borne, the prime minister, to lead the hard work of getting the legislation passed.
However, if anything, these policies made the president look even more isolated. His inner circle is tight, dominated by his fiercely protective wife, Brigitte, and by Alexis Kohler, general secretary of the Élysée Palace and a staunch supporter of the reshuffle, who has been by the president's side since Macron became president. Minister of the Economy in 2014.
Inevitably, with Mr Macron limited to two terms in office, his legacy is starting to loom large.
His commitment to a strong Europe with greater “strategic autonomy” remains important, and he clearly believes that only a modern France with a balanced budget can invest deeply in education, technological innovation, industrial independence, renewable energy, the armed forces, and nuclear power. can lead the push.
In this sense, the pension changes are part of Macron's broader European ambitions.
If he can push through the reforms, Macron is sure to follow through with offset social measures, including efforts to improve working conditions and expand on-the-job training. Mr Beaune, ministerial delegate for transport, described the core idea as “work more but work better.”
Whether this will be enough, if law is passed, to heal the rifts that have opened in France over pension reform is unclear. Many will depend on such a cure, as a France at war with itself is likely to benefit the political extremes of the left and right.
“Macron's obsession is for Ms. Le Pen is not replacing him,” said Mr. Beaune. “Because if he did, that's what people will remember.”