Macron's leadership at risk amid tensions over pension plan

PARIS (AP) — A parody photo appearing on protest signs and online in France shows President Emmanuel Macron sitting on piles of garbage. It's both a reference to the trash going uncollected with Paris sanitation workers on strike — and to what many French people think about their leader.

Macron had hoped his push to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 would cement his legacy as the president who transformed France's economy for the 21st century. Instead, he finds his leadership contested, both in parliament and on the streets of major cities.

His brazen move to force a pension reform bill through without a vote has infuriated the political opposition and could hamper his government's ability to pass legislation for the remaining four years of his term.

Demonstrators hoisted the parody photo at protests after Macron chose at the last minute Thursday to invoke the government’s constitutional power to pass the bill without a vote at the National Assembly.

In his first public comment on the issue since then, the 45-year-old leader expressed his wish for the bill to “reach the end of its democratic path in an atmosphere of respect for everyone,'' according to a statement Sunday from his office provided to The Associated Press.

Since becoming president in 2017, Macron often has been accused of arrogance and being out of touch. Perceived as “the president of the rich,'' he stirred resentment for telling a jobless man he only needed to “cross the street” to find work and by suggesting some French workers were “lazy.”

Now, Macron’s government has alienated citizens “for a long time” to come by using the special authority it has under Article 49.3 of the French Constitution to impose a widely unpopular change, said Brice Teinturier, deputy director general of the Ipsos poll institute.

He said the situation's only winners are far-right leader Marine Le Pen and her National Rally party, “which continues its strategy of both ‘getting respectable’ and opposing Macron,” and France's labor unions. Le Pen was runner-up to Macron in the country's last two presidential elections.

As the garbage piles get bigger and the smell from them worse, many people in Paris blame Macron, not the striking workers.

Macron repeatedly said he was convinced the French retirement system needed modifying to keep it financed. He says other proposed options, like increasing the already heavy tax burden, would push investors away, and that decreasing the pensions of current retirees was not a realistic alternative.

The public displays of displeasure may weigh heavily on his future decisions. The spontaneous, sometimes violent protests that erupted in Paris and across the country in recent days have contrasted with the largely peaceful demonstrations and strikes previously organized by France’s major unions.

Macron's reelection to a second term last April bolstered his standing as a senior player in Europe. He campaigned on a pro-business agenda, pledging to address the pension issue and saying the French must “work longer.”

In June, Macron’s centrist alliance lost its majority in the lower house of parliament, though it still holds more seats than other political parties. He said at the time that his government wanted to “legislate in a different way,” based on compromises with a range of political groups.

Since then, conservative lawmakers have agreed to support some bills that fit with their own policies. But tensions over the pension plan, and widespread lack of trust among ideologically diverse parties, may end attempts at seeking compromise.

Macron's political opponents in the National Assembly filed two no-confidence motions Friday against the government of Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne. Government officials are hoping to survive a vote on the motions set for Monday because the opposition is divided, with many Republicans expected not to support it.

If a motion passes, however, it would be a big blow for Macron: the pension bill would be rejected and his Cabinet would have to resign. In that case, the president would need to appoint a new Cabinet and find his ability to get legislation passed weakened.

Macron notably hopes to propose new measures designed to bring France’s unemployment rate down to 5%, from 7.2% now, by the end of his second and final term.

If the no-confidence motions fail, Macron could enact the higher retirement age but try to appease his critics with a government reshuffle.

Either way, Macron would keep his job until his term runs out in 2027, and retain substantial powers over foreign policy, European affairs and defense. As commander-in-chief of the armed forces, he can make decisions about France's support for Ukraine and other global issues without parliamentary approval.

France’s strong presidential powers are a legacy from Gen. Charles de Gaulle’s desire to have a stable political system for the Fifth Republic he established in 1958.

Another option in the hands of the president is to dissolve the National Assembly and call for an early parliamentary election.

That scenario appears unlikely for now, since the unpopularity of the pension plan means Macron's alliance would be unlikely to secure a majority of seats. And if another party won, he would have to appoint a prime minister from the majority faction, empowering the government to implement policies that diverge from the president's priorities.

Le Pen said she would welcome a dissolution.

And Mathilde Panot, a lawmaker from the leftist Nupes coalition, said with sarcasm Thursday that it was a “very good” idea for Macron to disband the Assembly and trigger an election.

“I believe it would be a good occasion for the country to reaffirm that yes, they want the retirement age down at 60," Panot said. "The Nupes is always available to govern.”

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Sylvie Corbet (), The Associated Press