The Anti-Reform Mobilization: Impressive, but to What Effect?

19 January 2023

Today’s mobilization against the government pension reform proposal was massive: 1.2 to 2 million people in the streets, public transport disrupted, schools and factories closed, etc. But the demonstrations remained orderly. There were few reports of violence or destruction. The organizers can be pleased. They made their point that the reform is unpopular. They plan to make it again on January 31. And no doubt again and again after that.

To those who have witnessed previous exercises in expressing the putative “will of the people” directly, this time seems different, at least at first sight. In the first place, that equation of numbers of demonstrators with popular mandate seems more tenuous, just as Macron’s claim to represent the will of the people because he won the presidency (despite a record-low turnout and an unimpressive and first-round vote) fails to carry conviction. But that’s not all: one senses a resignation even among the reform’s most outspoken opponents. It will go through, many assume, thanks to a deal between LR and Macron (but see the final paragraph below), it will begin slowly to phase in, and then, even before many people have been affected by the changes, other deficiencies will appear, a new reform will be proposed, very likely along entirely different lines, perhaps closer to Macron’s original retirement-by-points notion, and the cycle will begin anew. Hence the opposition, while strong, lacks urgency. This is not un baroud d’honneur. Future battles lie ahead. No reason to go all in now.

Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen is using the occasion to portray herself as a responsible leader. The RN’s unexpected and unprecedented success in the legislative elections has given her and her party a role in government, and she is determined to erase the image of the far right as a band of streetfighting thugs. The RN has expressed strong opposition to the reform–as strong as that of the unions or the left–but at the same time has declined to join the demonstrators in the street.

But perhaps there are deeper reasons for the sense that these demonstrations, as impressive as they are, are not going to change anything. A Parisian friend notes that rising green consciousness has many more people riding bicycles to work, diminishing the effect to transport strikes. In any case, transport unions no longer exercise the same degree of control as they once did. And since Covid, many people have been telecommuting, which not only reduces the impact of transit strikes but also allows people to cross picket lines unobserved, diminishing the disruption of the economy.

Of course, all this may change as the protests continue. The steady barrage of criticisms of the reform by respected figures may force the government out of its defensive crouch. This critique from Jean-Pisan Ferry is only the latest of many. The government may turn out not to have the votes, as even some Renaissance deputies have begun to express doubts. With this level of opposition, it would be unwise to resort yet again to Article 49-3, but Macron, having seemingly staked his entire term on getting this done, may feel he has no other choice. Today’s relative calm could dissolve rather quickly. Time will tell.

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